My relationship with sport has always been a bit complicated. I enjoyed playing football as a kid but found, as a severely flat-footed dyspraxic, I was not good at it.
Nor was I good at any other sport I tried. Come secondary school, when being athletic suddenly became a status symbol, PE went from something I half-heartedly enjoyed to something I more than once tried to deliberately sprain my ankle to avoid. But I still liked watching football, and would occasionally go to Nottingham Forest matches with my dad.
By about 13, I realised that my lack of athleticism and appreciation of music with screaming in it had placed me, by default, firmly within whatever the early 2000s answer to the counter culture was. Mostly wearing jeans that trailed along the ground picking up dysentery, I think. And underage drinking in scabby parks. Whatever it was we were doing, sport was “fascist”, and if I was going to be true to my clique, I needed to disown it.
Back then, if women’s football had been a bigger deal, I’m convinced that my group of queer-y, dysentery-ridden outsiders would’ve been into it. That is to say; into football without the macho bullshit and with butch lesbians proudly doing their thing, on telly of all places.
In 2019, I’m late to women’s football. The first Women’s World Cup was in 1991, but it’s the current one that’s gone mega-mainstream, with all matches broadcast by the BBC, and viewing figures in the millions (to be precise, 6.9 million for the recent England-Cameroon match).
On a basic level, I’m enjoying finally being able to fancy footballers. This is something I missed out on in the 90s, when girls my age started developing crushes on David Beckham and Michael Owen.
On a more profound level, seeing women, many of whom are visibly queer, playing beautifully and brutally in packed French stadiums has been an absolute revelation. In a matter of weeks, the likes of England’s Lucy Bronze, France’s Kadidiatou Diani and the US’s Megan Rapinoe – not just because she’s one of those visible queers I was talking about – have become The Footballers. The default. The best.
But while I, and many like me, marvel at the skill of players we hadn’t even heard of last month, every one of their actions, sporting and otherwise, are falling under the scrutiny of the wider public. Take the now infamous USA-Thailand match. Before this, women’s football had been criticised for its lack of goals. Then the behemoth that is the US team come along and score 13 of them in one match.
After which, the women were slated for “humiliating” Thailand. Because… why? Because women’s emotional intelligence and innate sweetness should prevent female athletes from doing their absolute best, lest feelings should be hurt along the way?
Then, in a world where women’s looks are still – apparently – a thing to be discussed at great length, there’s the issue of makeup. If we go without it we get told we look tired or ill. If we wear a lot of it – especially if we’re footballers, it seems – we’re told it’s inappropriate. A double standard that’s lost on Cristiano Ronaldo, but very much found on – say – Brazil’s Marta, who wore blood red lipstick in the match against France, looked incredible, and was interrogated for it.
Then there was the England-Cameroon match, in which – yes – the Cameroonian players nearly went on strike over a couple of the referee’s decisions. Instead of an odd one-off exacerbated by the relatively new and seemingly constant use of VAR, this was seen by many as an indictment of women’s football as a whole. Although nothing similar had happened in any of the Women’s World Cup matches up until this point, this was the “women are too emotional for sports” moment that, according to a lot of people on the internet, was somehow more poignant than many, many decades of male players sometimes being twats on and off the pitch.
Whenever women are new to something – or at least perceived to be, as is the case with this World Cup – they’re no longer allowed to act as individuals. They know that everything they do will be seen as representative of the few other women in their field.
Similarly, when thinking about having a kid, I’m very aware that, were I to fuck up my child, some would see it as a reason to criticise same-sex parents as a whole, rather than the inevitable product of my many, many failings and insecurities as an individual.
On the one hand, we can’t win. Those taking it upon themselves to write the “how women should behave on the pitch” rulebook very clearly just don’t want to see us there in the first place.
On the other hand, we have won. And we continue to win. At football. Deal with it.