In the past I have too easily associated football with pubs packed with noisy men drinking pints, men dominating streets on football nights, and when I was younger warnings not to go out after the end of a match. Alcohol, men’s voices and violence…not an altogether positive picture! Although it was central to the lives of boys and men around me, and indeed the nation, I looked at it and felt it had absolutely nothing to do with me. Looking back again now I think I felt excluded.
I have been watching some of the Women’s World Cup and find myself smiling, shouting them on and just enjoying watching women play football at this level. I can see a sport requiring skill and team work that excites spectators. I have also been thinking about some of my own more affirming football memories. And there are some.
As a child playing football was just out of the question. It was a boy’s game. Even though I was quite a tomboy I never played. At school I played hockey, on the left wing and enjoyed it. My introduction to football was, like for many women, through my son and his father who both loved it. So it was frequently on the TV in our house and I learned the rules and enjoyed watching when I knew the players! On our annual holidays in the UK a big group of us always had a game of football on the beach, kids and parents and when I played I loved it! I thought then what a shame I hadn’t had an opportunity to play when I was growing up. I think I may have been quite good.
My kids went to a very progressive primary school which at the time believed that boys and girls should play sport together if they could, until secondary age. Not all parents agreed. But under eleven, there is little physical difference between the sexes and if anything girls are stronger. Similarly, there were a few girls who played on Saturday mornings in the park with the boys. My daughter played there. She had two brothers and was sporty and didn’t think anything of it. This must be the same story perhaps of the many talented players we are now watching on our television screens.
As a nine year old my daughter had a painting accepted into a big children’s art exhibition and a cartoonist, Andy, was there on the opening night drawing many of the children. The cartoonist asked my daughter what she wanted to be drawn as. ‘As a footballer’ she said. I truly had hope at that time that within a few years I would see as many girls as boys playing football in the public parks. But it just didn’t happen. The push behind it didn’t seem strong enough. Gender stereotyping increased and parents seemed happy to reinforce these … boys do football and girls do ballet.
One of the delights of having women’s football on the TV is of course that the footballers are offering fantastic role models to young girls today. I was dismayed when I learned only relatively recently that women actually women played more football a hundred years ago than they do today. It was extremely popular during the First World War, when women in munitions factories were encouraged to play for their health and fitness. This developed in factory teams and their games started to draw big crowds. A Boxing Day match at Goodison Park in 1920 attracted a crowd of 53,000. Then in a similar vein to pushing women out of the workplace and back into the home after the war, the FA banned women’s football in 1921, not to lift the ban until 1971. If I had known this legacy perhaps I might have had the courage to say as a child, I want to play. Many of us may have. Perhaps my daughter and the other girls in our local area would have felt it was just as much their right to play rather than being treated as mascots or token boys.
However I am so pleased that the hard work of men and women promoting girls’ and women’s football did keep going and has resulted in where we are now. But I would still like to see girls playing football in the parks and schools offering football as a sport to girls.
Blog on www.womenworldfootball.com a project collecting voices on women’s football over a sixty day period in, over and around the World Cup.