Playing football gives you a chance to switch off from the pressures of daily life. Instead, you can concentrate on a good first touch, spotting that visionary pass, and scoring the perfect goal. Of course, the development of these skills, however small and seemingly insignificant, do much for someone’s confidence. There are also important social benefits, the comradery, fun, and trials and tribulations of contributing to a team. These kind of benefits cannot be underestimated. So, this experience of football should be available to everyone right? But unfortunately, this is not always the case. Look around any football ground in the country and how many women do you see in the crowd? How many professional women’s fixtures appear as regular slots on the TV, and Radio 5 live? How often do you see a group of girls playing in the park or having a kick around in the street? How many Women’s World Cup shirts have you seen hanging in the windows on the high street? World Cup fever is upon us - so where are all the nation’s shirts?
Of course, there are those that will argue that there isn’t the appetite for women’s football. Women don’t want to spend a cold wet Saturday afternoon in the stands. Girls would rather be indoors with friends. No one wants to watch women playing football on the TV when we could be watching The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. Perhaps though the last few weeks have shown those naysayers that women’s football really is well alive and kicking. The crowds gathering to watch the World Cup, the 6.1 million tuning into the England versus Scotland game, Marta’s impassioned post-game interview after Brazil’s loss against France, and the relentless commitment of the USA in their 13-0 win against Thailand. These incidents have all featured in the media – TV, radio, twitter, to be avariciously consumed by a diverse and demanding audience.
The take home message from this World Cup? Change is happening - as women refuse to be confined to narrowly defined gender roles it’s OK to play, watch, and support women’s football regardless of your gender. In fact support is essential from all corners of society if France 2019 is to be capitalised upon. Making everyone feel included in this endeavour is key to enabling the women’s game to continue to grow and develop.
Somewhat closer to home, inclusivity is at the forefront of a small football initiative that runs at Leeds Beckett University. ‘Monday Night footy’ is a collaborative venture between academic staff, students, the community and the Athletic’s Union. Running for over 20 years the session offers an opportunity for women to play and train in a relaxed informal environment run by women coaches. The group meets every Monday evening from 6.00pm on the small astro and a wide variety of women of differing abilities are regular attendees. The session can be as competitive or as non-competitive, as energetic or as laid back, as you like but the emphasis is on fun and enjoyment and making sure everyone feels welcome.
More recently, myself and colleagues Annette Stride and Scarlett Drury undertook some research with these women to explore why they joined and continue to return week in week out at the mercy of the British weather. Interestingly, the initiative attracted a range of women in terms of ages, some learning how to play football for the first time, and others re-engaging in football after a period of no longer playing. The inclusive nature of the sessions was key to their attendance. Sam describes her enjoyment being “in a community that accepts me for the standard that I am”. Others expressed their appreciation of the different approach towards competition. Jess notes that “There’s no pressure … it’s different because any other teams, you are normally working towards playing a game on a weekend, or a competition, or whatever, but with this we are just having a kick about and having a laugh and that’s it”. Indeed, the de-centring of competition ensures that the women feel less pressure to perform skilfully and feel more included and valued as a consequence. Josie, who had taken up football for the first time later in life claimed the sessions had been “quite a revelation really … I wish I had done it a long time ago…..I like the people that are there … it’s not really competitive in the sense that if you make a bit of a mess up you’ve not lost a cup or something”.
So, whilst Monday Night footy might not quite be on the grand scale of the World Cup, it is part of the movement for change - a movement that must be committed to the inclusion of everyone.
- Stride, A., Drury, S. and Fitzgerald, H. (2018), 'Last goal wins': re/engaging women of a 'forgotten' age through football? Sport, Education and Society. doi.org/10.1080/13573322.2018.1428548