What the scandal of the Doncaster Belles tells us about modern football

FA makes an error.

Central to the popularity of sport is the notion that those taking part are judged ultimately on their sporting ability. But not, it seems, if you are the Football Association. The organisation set up to safeguard the English game seems increasingly often to be engaged on a mission to remove all elements of sporting chance from the modern business equation it eagerly promotes. Take the case of the Doncaster Belles.

The Belles are one of the most famous names in English women’s football. Originally formed as Belle Vue Belles by lottery ticket sellers at Doncaster Rovers FC in 1969, the team dominated the Nottinghamshire League between 1978 and 1993 they lost just one league match. Journalist Pete Davies wrote a book, I Lost My Heart to the Belles, about them, and Kay Mellor’s TV series Playing the Field drew its inspiration from them. They’ve won the Women’s FA Cup six times and were founder members of the Women’s Premier League in 1991.

This season, after playing just one game in the FA Women’s Super League 1, the Belles were told they would be relegated to the newly-formed FA WSL 2 next season. The announcement was made in a brief story on the FA’s website. Requests for clarification of the selection criteria were responded to by the FA’s Customer Relations department, which said that “the adjudication process will remain confidential”, but which outlined “four main criteria”. They are;

  1. Financial and business management
  2. Commercial sustainability and marketing
  3. Facilities
  4. Players, support staff and youth development.

No mention there of achievement on the filed of play. And the feeling that the FA views money, “commercial sustainability” and the like as more important than what the players do with a ball is heightened when the name of the club taking the Belles’ place in the top division is unveiled. Manchester City.

This is the first season in which City have fielded a women’s team in national women’s competition, and the team is set to finish mid-table in the second tier. It is a decision that seems explainable only by the fact that City are owned by one of the world’s richest men, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, while the Belles are not. The FA might have a very good alternative reason, but it won’t say. It has taken the stance that it can make no further comment while the Belles are appealing against the decision.

Belles fans wanted to bring this scandalous decision out of the shadows, and as part of their campaign turned up at the Women’s FA Cup final last weekend, which just happened to be staged at Doncaster Rovers’ Keepmoat Stadium. Inside the ground, they handed out flyers about the team’s ‘relegation’, passed around a petition and spread the word for the crowd to stage a minute’s applause 22 minutes into the match to publicise the campaign. The fans were approached by stewards who said they were acting on behalf of the FA. The stewards confiscated the flyers and petitions, and also took the bells the fans ring to support their team, a set of replica shirts and a banner which said ““Doncaster Belles. 22 years in the top division ended by the FA’s gr££d”. The full story is told on the Popular Stand website. The fans were then told to hand over their match tickets. By this time, a small crowd had gathered and the stewards were persuaded not to take the tickets. But they made off with everything else.

A reporter from the Doncaster Free Press, Hayley Patterson, was told by the FA that “one bell was confiscated and one banner that DRFC security deemed unsuitable”. No reason was given for the confiscation of the bells, more than one, and the explanation that it was the host club’s security directly contradicted what the stewards had said about being instructed by the FA. After the game, the items were given back to the fans, with the exception of the banner, which was being kept “as evidence”. There was no explanation of who was keeping it, or what it was evidence of.

Vic Akers, the manager of the Arsenal women’s team that won the final that day, and which currently stands as the dominant club in the English women’s game, says the FA’s decision to relegate the Belles is “morally scandalous” and “unjust”. In the Doncaster Free Press, sports writer Paul Goodwin wrote: “Decisions like this set a dangerous precedent. Bang go the concepts of competition, fair play and a level playing field to do it all on.”

The Belles are not only an iconic team, they are a community club. As the Popular Stand website says: “While the town’s other football stars, like Kevin Keegan and Graham Rix, went beyond the borough to achieve success, the Belles have done it right here.” Karen Walker, capped 83 times for England and a Belle through and through, says” “There’s a feeling here that we are representing the North”. In 2009, the Belles launched Belles for the Community, Britain’s first social enterprise that delivers social, health and educational services with women’s sport as its focal point.

You’d think the FA would be rushing to make the Belles its poster material. But instead of holding the club up as evidence of all the things the game likes to tell you it stands for, the FA has opted for another approach. It has swept aside one of the basic principles of sporting success, sentenced a club to a season of playing matches in a campaign it has already lost, refused to provide more than a cursory explanation of its decision, and attempted to marginalise and silence voices of protest.

This is the modern football business.

UPDATE: Doncaster Rovers have now told the Popular Stand website that the decision to ban the banner was theirs.

Doncaster Belles. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad