The Women’s World Cup is now over. What a tournament that was. Myself and Jay Baker tried to watch pretty much every game and thoroughly enjoyed the experience (despite the tiring days following!). The England women’s team managed to have a run that will inspire a new generation of girls and women to get involved in the sport and the way they went out, through an unlucky own goal, should also be something young girls and women should grow and learn from – mistakes happen in football and the best thing to do is not fear it, embrace it as sometimes those risks pay off but if they don’t you are human, you’re not a robot, and team morale and community spirit should be high enough to see you through it. After all, it’s just a game. But that’s the problem, at the top it’s a business now, not just a game.
This links to my own involvement with AFC Unity, an alternative women’s football club based in Sheffield. Myself and Jay set the club up in 2014 as we married our passion for the sport, especially women’s football, with our passion for social justice, feminism and community activism. Key to this vision is also the idea of taking fear and pessimism out of the game. There’s so much money involved in the sport now people involved are losing a sense of what the game is supposed to be about: having fun, enjoying the game and bringing people together. However, reflective of our culture and economic inequality, money has seen an ethos spread into the game where how many cars someone can afford is becoming more important than the unifying potential and purpose of sport.
For me, grassroots football epitomises what the game is about. People pay to play football because they love the game. Look at the women involved in the World Cup, many women involved in the competition either had jobs to go back to, jobs they had sacrificed to take part in the competition, whilst women that are professional earn considerably less than the men. This isn’t necessary a bad thing though, as the tournament lacked the cheating, melodramatic hysterics of the men’s game and you had more pride and respect for the women who you could tell were so honoured to be playing in such a prestigious competition. They weren’t being told by their clubs to forget about playing for their country because they have too many important games coming up.
It was great to see female role models in the sport being promoted as people such as Lucy Bronze captured the imagination of so many girls and women. It was uncomfortable though to hear comparisons being made to male footballers in such a way that the men wouldn’t experience. For instance, Brazil’s Marta has won more best player in the world trophies than Messi but you wouldn’t hear the latter being compared to the former, especially with the word “mini”. Thus, whilst it made the headlines the use of “mini Messi” to describe Fran Kirby I think was a disservice to the women’s sport. There’s two things here that really concern me. For one, what “mini” means here is “female” and it thus can be equated to “lesser” in the sense that because she’s a woman she couldn’t possibly be too much like Messi. Secondly, why compare her to a man? Why not to a woman such as Marta? But then, why not make Fran Kirby her own role model and icon without the use of male or female comparisons. This is where the women’s game needs improving, as girls and women need to know that they don’t need to be like male players to be considered a good footballer. They can be themselves. Too often girls and women are told to be like someone else or something else, empowering women and girls is so important – it’s central to what we do at AFC Unity – and thus comparisons to men is not helpful.
If we are going to get theoretical about it the theory of a heterosexual matrix is useful as it relates to the idea that sexuality, gender and sex are all ‘naturally’ related. So for instance, women (sex) are feminine (gender) and are straight (sexuality) – when this is broken, so women playing football (wrongly considered masculine) then this breaks this so-called ‘natural’ connection. In fact such a connection is key to so many problems and divisions in society and it is totally socially constructed, it does not exist as a fact. In football you can face such divisions from other women yourself. For instance, last season I experienced a couple of digs about my make-up – one player told me to get rid of it in response to me asking them why they were attacking their own team mate, as I didn’t understand why you would want to tear strips from your own team mates (feminism after all). This can be seen as an example of me going against the expectations that women that play football need to be masculine as it’s a ‘male sport’ when really, as many women during the tournament have shown – wearing make-up, false nails, nail varnish, having awesome hair cuts – women can play football and have whatever style they feel comfortable with. The idea there is a certain style or look women that take part in football need to have is a social construction and relates to the dominance of male culture in the sport.
There has still been discrimination and stereotypical views from men through mediums such as Twitter during the World Cup but I have seen a noticeable switch to this being less prominent. I grew up facing abuse for playing football, including being called a “man beast” for simply wanting to kick a ball around. Many women in our team will have stories to tell you about their own experiences growing up facing such expectations. I do think with national campaigns such as This Girl Can and We Can Play the FA and country is starting to encourage more women to get involved in the sport. But I do think we have to learn from the male game and how money, fear and individualism has affected a game that is based on community spirit, solidarity and unity. The World Cup with its largely fair play, respectful and passion based football shows you how different women’s football is and how it’s been nurtured in opposition to the restrictive culture of the men’s game. However, with many women’s teams being simply add ons to male dominated clubs there is a long way to go until we break down barriers and assumptions within the game itself and make it a non fear based and freeing, fun experience for all involved.
Are you a woman over 16 years old based in Sheffield or near it and want to get involved in football? AFC Unity have something for women of all backgrounds, levels and experiences so please get in touch for more!