Dear West Country Voices,
Even if we aren’t remotely interested in sport, I think we can all rejoice unequivocally at the success of the England women’s football team in the European championships; it’s an achievement to be celebrated.
I’m sure I’m not alone in being delighted at their win if only because they have done what the men’s teams – despite all the resources poured into the men’s game – have failed to do for such a very long time. The Lionesses’ triumph must feel very sweet indeed and I grudge them not a single iota of their enjoyment of it.
However: I don’t want to sound churlish but there are aspects of their victory which have received too little attention, despite pages and pages of photos and paeans in the newspapers and hours of coverage on television. For those of us who want to see a fairer society, there are troubling issues surfacing which need to be acknowledged before they can be resolved.
Much has been made of the so-called ‘legacy’ which might result from the women’s success. The hopes for this legacy appear to encompass everything from more opportunities for girls and women actually to play organised team football, to their being recognised and paid as professional sportswomen, which has not been the case in the past.
There has long been an attitude that women’s football is somehow less exciting, less demanding on players and therefore less deserving of investment or support. I think the enthusiastic following which the England women’s team gathered as they progressed through the championship proves that such chauvinistic thinking is not only based on false assumptions but is behind the times. It was touching seeing so many young girls saying in interviews that they want to learn how to play football well, and to emulate their new heroines.
It won’t be easy for them, unless there is a sea-change in attitudes, much more investment and an equal approach to both sexes’ football. Long before their careers were underway, most of the England women’s team will have had to deal with the knowledge that because they were girls, they were unlikely to receive the same chances in football as their male peers.
I was shocked to discover that only around 44 per cent of secondary schools are able and/or willing to offer football lessons to girl students – whereas many schools have several boys’ teams. I was also shocked, but not really surprised, to hear that around half the girls who start off playing football at primary school have dropped out by their early teens. There are myriad reasons for this but if that ‘legacy’ is to come good, girls and young women are going to need much more sensitive training and support. Soccer coaches will have to be trained how to foster young female players’ confidence – not to treat them the same as the boys and then, for example, ask intrusive questions about why some girls regularly miss practice sessions.
Hardly any of the women in England’s winning team have been able to concentrate entirely on honing their soccer skills, as most male professional footballers can; they have usually had to hold down a job (sometimes more than one job) to make ends meet: not something most well-known male footballers need to worry about! The women have had to juggle work and sometimes childcare with practice times, buy their own strip, persuade employers to allow them a little time off here and there for important games … the determination they have shown throughout is remarkable and the sacrifices they have made for the sport they love are beyond most of us.
Not only do individual women footballers face practical difficulties but their teams have also encountered resistance, not to say antipathy. I can barely believe it, but women’s teams have had applications refused to play at stadiums better-known for hosting men’s games. The former England footballer and now pundit and presenter Alex Scott referred to this on live tv in the minutes following the women’s win, but presumably the editor deemed this too controversial, because Scott was quickly ‘shut down’. I think it was courageous of her even to mention it on that occasion, because she has endured appalling misogynistic and racist abuse on social media since becoming a football analyst on tv.
Which brings me to another aspect of the England women’s success which troubles me. Look at a photo of the team: nearly all white women. Given that people of colour form a substantial proportion of the men’s teams, why are there not more women with, for example, Afro-Caribbean heritage in the women’s teams? I strongly suspect the answer is another unpalatable truth: that it may be difficult enough for white women who are serious about playing football, but women of colour face even greater obstacles.
So much for the legacy. Taken altogether, the background to this England women’s team win looks much less attractive than at first sight, doesn’t it?