I can’t remember when I started playing football – one of my first school reports notes that, by aged four, l already enjoyed kicking a ball around at break times. There were no girls’ teams in my local area, so I played in the boys’ squad at primary school until an all-female club was set up near me when I was about 11.
A few years later, I got scouted to play for the now-closed Cumbria Girls’ Centre of Excellence – it was surreal to compete against youth sides at Everton, Liverpool and Newcastle United. Still, the whole time, playing professionally never seemed possible to me. I wasn’t good enough; however, I also believed that I couldn’t make a living from it.
The Women’s World Cup kicks off today in France, and it’s a pivotal moment for women’s football in the UK. Finally, the sport is breaking into the mainstream – the BBC has committed to broadcasting every game and recent warm-up matches have drawn crowds of more than 20,000 (the FA Cup Final in March, meanwhile, got more than 40,000 spectators for the second year in a row). The England squad, ranked third in the world, is packed with class players, including the likes of Lucy Bronze, Fran Kirby, Toni Duggan and Steph Houghton.
My argument is this: if you are a football fan, and you believe in gender equality, then you should get behind this World Cup in the same way that you backed the men’s tournament last year. Recent years have seen big progress for the women’s game in the UK. In the 2017-2018 season, the Women’s Super League (WSL) became the first fully professional women’s league in Europe. And, in March, Barclays became the WSL’s first title sponsor in a three-year deal, believed to be worth more than £10m.
But, throughout my adult life, I’ve been repeatedly fed the same line – mostly from men, sometimes from women – as to why people don’t watch or treat women’s football on an equal footing with the men’s: “It’s not as good,” they say.
I’ve been handed a multitude of insulting excuses, from the women being slower or less skillful than the men, to it not being shown enough on primetime television (which, to be fair, has been a problem over the years). One friend was recently met with my outrage when he suggested that the goal posts should be smaller for women.
This negativity only highlights the colossal gulf between men’s and women’s sport generally; it showcases one of the many ways that gender inequality pervades in modern society. Financially, this gender gap in sport is huge. Last year, Forbes released its report on the top paid athletes in the world – and not one woman featured in the 100-strong list.
While top Premier League footballers like Kevin De Bruyne rake in a sickening £328,000 per week, top female players in the UK get about £30,000 a year for being in the England team and up to a further £35,000 annually in the WSL (although, some players reportedly still have to juggle part-time jobs). It goes beyond pay, too. “I don’t want to just start with money – we need pitches, facilities,” as Duggan said in a recent interview.
The media certainly has a lot to answer for, with the sports coverage overwhelmingly made up of male achievements. There is also a failure to acknowledge, in England at least, the lasting impact of the FA banning women’s football in 1921 for 50 years – before that it had been drawing crowds of more than 50,000 to matches.
Outside the UK, some women’s clubs are fighting back. Australia’s national side is currently campaigning for Fifa to close the £292m difference in prize money between the men’s and women’s World Cups. Over in the US, the women’s national team – currently ranked number one in the world (the men are a measly 24th) – have filed a lawsuit against their own governing body, claiming years of “institutionalized gender discrimination” and demanding equal pay with their male counterparts.
I now play for east London club Tower Hamlets WFC, and a group of us are heading over to France this weekend for England’s opening match against Scotland. I’m so excited about this year, but I want to see every football fan getting involved. Turn on the telly or head to the pub (if it isn’t showing, ask the manager to put it on) – and let’s give women’s football the support it deserves.
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