“Can you really play?”, “Can you kick a ball properly though?” – Grating comments like these are all too frequently heard by female footballers around the country. Most of us have learnt to brush it off over time and carry on due to our love of the game, but it can often prove difficult not to succumb to the judgment of others. As women football, in and outside London, edges further into the mainstream, this is gradually starting to diminish.
I’ve played football ever since I can remember and was lucky enough to have parents who made me feel like it was nothing out of the ordinary – growing up in an Arab family, I realise this was a rarity. I initially developed my love for the game naturally, playing with the boys on my estate or with my cousins and my dad at weekends. At primary school during playtimes I used to play football while the other girls used to do skipping. In a way this was the golden age – in each of these scenarios I was the only girl but I never remember this being an issue or a barrier. At this stage, all that mattered was how good you were at football.
Things changed in secondary school. I went to an all-girls school in London where football wasn’t offered as an option. For eight years I barely played, until I finally got to university where I took it up again. This was my first taste of gender- segregated sports, and it brought with it a set of new challenges that I hadn’t encountered before. Looking back, the rules were set up to make women feel inferior – I struggled to see the reason why women’s games were shorter than the mens’, somehow implying that we were not capable of running for as long?!
Gender prejudice within football has historically been more pronounced than in most other sports in Britain. The women’s game was banned by TheFA between 1921 and 1971, after officials were irked by its popularity. Naturally, a 50 year ban set the game back somewhat and will take time to rectify. Years of under-funding and a lack of investment haven’t helped. Only now is money finally starting to flow into the women’s game and beginning to level the playing field. And it’s about time.
The rising standard of women’s football is obvious to long-time players and spectators. Until fairly recently, female players received far less coaching than male ones did. But this is no longer the case. This is being reflected in the grassroots, where an increase in local initiatives is helping to propel players’ development trajectories. New coaching programmes have popped up in various boroughs across London, offering women’s sessions at subsidised prices. But even these have started to become overbooked, with coaches struggling to cater to varying skills levels as numbers rise. Clearly, supply is struggling to keep up with the ever-increasing demand.
Impact of the World cup 2019
The unprecedented popularity of the 2019 World Cup, which drew 1BN viewers, has been a game-changer and given many a new-found respect for the women’s game. The Lionesses’ semi-final against the US was the most watched television programme in Britain last year when it aired. The heightened coverage and media attention has encouraged thousands of new female players to join leagues and teams across the country. This season there were 605 new girls’ youth teams and 260 new women’s clubs registered to play.
This in itself brings up a whole new set of problems, in a male-dominated sport which for years has solely catered to one gender. The support available for women doesn’t yet reflect the growing interest, and the same breadth of opportunity is still lacking. For starters, it has highlighted the difficulty of even finding a team to play for, let alone the space to do so.
Back in London
When I came back to London after university, I played with an 11 a side team in east London, with mid-week trainings and matches every weekend. Due to a demanding job and other time pressures, I now look to just play 5-a-side whenever I can. Many of the new coaching initiatives cater to complete beginners, leaving a gap for experienced players who are looking to play casually. This is exactly the situation I have found myself in this year. Footy Addicts is on the right track to filling this, but games can still vary wildly when it comes to the level of play. As the number of women’s games rises (it is still only a small fraction of the number of men’s games), hopefully this will become less evident.
A year ago, after getting frustrated at the lack of options for women, I decided to set up a women’s team at work. Though interest exceeded expectations, this highlighted some new difficulties. Pitches in the capital are notoriously hard to book, and empty slots are harder to come by than toilet paper during lockdown. Long-established (usually male) teams have long block-booked the most popular times in the most affordable centrally-located pitches, making it harder for women’s teams to break in. Amateur female teams are often forced out into the suburbs chasing a free hour-long slot, often at extortionate prices (some 5-a-side pitches cost more than £100 for an hour). The alternative is to settle for playing either in the park or on make-shift pitches in school playgrounds. This obviously isn’t a sustainable model and doesn’t provide the necessary footing for newly-formed teams to thrive.
These male-dominated spaces can come across as unwelcoming to women. Further efforts are needed to make the system more inclusive – growing interest in the sport should be encouraged and nurtured, not pushed away. This includes training up more female coaches to be at the forefront of the change. At a recent conference aimed at professional coaches, I made up half of the female contingent.
Certain leisure centres are now running ladies-only days which include use of their 5-a-side pitches. Footy Addicts subsidises women’s games, making them more accessible, as do some borough-run initiatives. TheFA claims that it is aware of these ongoing issues and is working with the Football Foundation to deliver approximately 400 new pitches over the next three years. This is a good start.
Playing in a city like London is made all the more difficult by the lack of green space. The expansion of facilities will be a challenge and will rely on people sharing space considerately. This also relies on male football players actively welcoming women into the fold.
by Maggie Shiltagh @MaggieShiltagh