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20 July 2022updated 01 Aug 2022 5:02pm

The more beautiful game: how I fell for women’s football

It was banned by the FA for 50 years, but the football my team plays has opened up a more inclusive future.

By May Robson

Football is not in my DNA. I wasn’t kicking a ball before I could walk. I don’t have memories of blue-skied Sundays on the pitch, or of heading down to the pub on match day. The language spoken in offices around the world was not my mother tongue, and I often wondered if I was immune to the fanatical devotion the game seems to incite.

Instead, I discovered football at the ripe old age of 23. My best friend started a team in east London, and I was reluctantly dragged along. A handful of us met in the park for that first kickabout, shivering in cobbled-together kits, our short breaths cutting shapes in the November air. Having grown up in the era of Bend it Like Beckham, my hopes of being the next Jess or Jules were quickly dashed. The ball shot off my feet at awkward angles and I was sweating more from fear than physical exertion.

But the following weekend we went straight down to Sports Direct. Don’t go with the big names, the sales assistant told us: these boots are football’s best-kept secret. We left proudly clutching our shiny black and white Sondicos, dipping into the box to smooth the stitching and inhale their chemical scent. Not exactly the best in the business, it turned out, but it didn’t matter. We were one step closer to being footballers.

My Sondico boots served me well in those early days. Hours were spent shuffling around cones, agonising over kick-ups and toe-punting shots. Volunteer coaches and training drills saw our motley team, many of whom had never kicked a ball before, take shape. A group of 20-somethings in post-graduation limbo, we were finding our feet on the pitch. Goal Diggers FC was born. We wore shirts of bright gold.

We found a home: a community five-a-side pitch wedged behind King’s Cross station in north London, 30 x 40 yards of poorly lit concrete in a stadium of steel and glass. After work, we played under dark skies flecked with the red glow of cranes, their stooping forms like attentive linesmen as the area’s 20-year regeneration project sped towards completion. Ten players became 30. We spilled over into the neighbouring car park, games often halted to retrieve the ball from the mid-pitch puddle or from under a nearby car.

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[See also: The success of women’s football is feminist revolution by stealth]

Our first proper match was at a five-a-side league in Southwark in the pouring rain. All 30 of us turned up, much to the bemusement of the other team. Every time one of the five of us on the pitch touched the ball our teammates exploded, the sidelines ablaze with gold. It didn’t matter that we lost 20-0, we were victorious. And there was one brilliant moment, one perfect touch, when my foot met the ball with a harmonious hum that sang in my chest all the way home.

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The feeling that the game didn’t quite belong to us is a product of its painful history. On 5 December 1921, the Football Association (FA) banned women’s football in England. The decision, which was binding for 50 years, was born of fear – a backlash to the runaway success of women’s football during and after the First World War. With men away fighting and women working in factories, lunch-break kickabouts had gradually evolved into organised teams and fixtures.

By 1921 there were 150 women’s clubs in England – from Bath City Ladies and Stoke United, to munition sides such as the Lincolnshire-based Ruston Aircraft Girls and Foster Tank Girls. A Munitionettes Cup was established in 1918, England’s first-ever women’s football competition; more than 30 teams played and 22,000 spectators watched the final.

Scottish XI play Dick, Kerr Ladies in 1921. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the most popular teams was Dick, Kerr Ladies FC, based at the Dick, Kerr & Co munitions factory in Preston. On Boxing Day 1920, 53,000 people watched them beat St Helens Ladies 4-0 at Everton’s Goodison Park; another 10,000 had been turned away at the gates. It was the biggest turnout ever recorded for a women’s football match in England, raising a record-breaking £3,000 for charity.

It was a step too far for the FA. The governing body banned women from playing on its affiliated grounds a year later, stating that the game was “quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”. This view was backed by medical professionals who agreed that football posed a serious physical risk to women. Dr Mary Scharlieb, a Harley Street physician, called it the “most unsuitable game, too much for a women’s physical frame”, while a Mr Eustace Miles was quoted as saying: “The kicking is too jerky a movement for women… and the strain is likely to be severe.”

[See also: At last I have discovered what many knew all along, the joys of football]

Overnight, the burgeoning women’s game came to an end in England. Star players such as the Dick, Kerr forward Lily Parr, a chain-smoker who was openly gay and found the back of the net almost a 1,000 times in her career, were suddenly without an audience or a home.

The Dick, Kerr Ladies played abroad instead, travelling to Canada and the US because, as their captain Alice Kell said at the time: “We play for the love of the game and are determined to go on.” At home, the ban had a lasting impact, as David Goldblatt writes in his 2007 history of English football, The Game of Our Lives: “For 50 years, women’s football was reduced to a tiny and stigmatised subculture subsisting in the marginal spaces of municipal recreation grounds.”

I was born in 1991, at a time when women’s football was starting to find its feet once more. Under pressure at home and abroad, the FA had lifted its ban in 1971, starting the long journey back to equality. Twenty years later, the first official Women’s World Cup took place in Guangdong province, China.

Of course, the tournament wasn’t called that, and was instead lumbered with the title: “Fifa World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&Ms Cup”. If it failed, at least it wouldn’t affect the prestige of the men’s competition. Games were capped at 80 minutes. As April Heinrichs, the US captain in 1991, remarked years later: “They were afraid our ovaries were going to fall out if we played 90.” But the M&Ms Cup was not a failure: the final saw the US defeat Norway 2-1 in front of a crowd of 63,000.

The England women’s team failed to qualify in 1991, but has since had an inspiring run across five World Cup tournaments, reaching the quarter-finals three times and the semi-finals twice. That spectacular success has forced the country to pay attention, with a record 28.1 million people watching the BBC’s coverage of the most recent World Cup in 2019. This summer England is hosting the Euros, and the 31 July final will be played in front of an 87,200 sell-out crowd at Wembley Stadium. At the time of writing, England were among the favourites to win, through to the quarter-final after a stunning 8-0 win against Norway in the group stage.

In the middle of match fever, it is easy to forget that England has only had a fully professional women’s league since 2018. The former England captain Casey Stoney recalled in a 2013 interview with the Guardian what it had cost her to play for her first club, Chelsea: “£3 on a training night, £5 on a match day. And you had to pay for your kit up front.” At her second club, Arsenal, she took a part-time job in the stadium launderette, “washing the men’s kit, washing their underwear”.

Olympique Lyonnais celebrate winning this year’s Uefa Women’s Champions League. Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Nearly ten years later, this imbalance persists. A recent investigation by the Telegraph found that some players in the Women’s Super League (WSL) – the equivalent of the Premier League – earn as little as £20,000 a year. Even the players reported to be on £250,000 annual salaries are still making 50 times less than their male equivalents: the highest-paid men’s player, Cristiano Ronaldo, is on an annual salary of £26.5m.

Like most of the England squad, the Euro 2022 captain Leah Williamson can’t afford not to have a plan B; she spends her spare time studying accountancy, aware that a football career is as much a risk as an opportunity. It was only in February this year that the 24 teams across the WSL and Championship were guaranteed maternity leave and long-term sickness cover by the FA, a right that was previously at the discretion of clubs.

Meanwhile, women’s football continues to be undermined in ways both subtle and overt. The game lacks structural support from the top, from training grounds and funding to media exposure. After winning bronze at the 2015 World Cup in Canada – the best performance by any England team, male or female, since 1966 – the FA welcomed the women’s team home with the tweet: “Our #Lionesses go back to being mothers, partners and daughters today, but they have taken on another title – heroes.” Amid the ensuing outrage, the tweet was swiftly deleted.

[See also: The only girl in the league]

Some players and coaches have detected a disregard for women’s football in the choice of smaller stadiums for this summer’s Euros. These include Leigh Sports Village and Rotherham’s New York Stadium, with capacities of 8,100 and 11,000 respectively, and Manchester City Academy Stadium, which holds just 7,000. In April the Iceland captain and Juventus midfielder, Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir, told women’s football podcast Their Pitch: “You’re playing in England, you have so many stadiums, and we have a training ground from City. It’s just embarrassing. Women’s football today, they’re filling out stadiums. If you see Barcelona against Real Madrid, we have 95,000 watching the game.”

Women’s teams have had to work harder, play better and – crucially – win. Playing for “the love of the game”, like it or not, they are looked to as a corrective for the rampant capitalism and moral failings of the men’s game. Hope Powell has said that this expectation weighed heavily on her when she became England’s first female, black and openly gay coach in 1998, as well as its youngest ever. “When I took the job,” she told the Guardian, “the first thing I thought was: ‘I cannot foul this up. I cannot. No. I have to do this well. For myself. For women. For Black people. I have to be the best I can be.’ And I worked really, really hard.” Over the next 15 years, Powell led England to six major tournaments including two World Cup quarter-finals in 2007 and 2011, and the 2009 Euros finals.

When Powell was replaced by Mark Sampson in 2013, the FA gave him two new senior figures to help him. “In other words, she had spent years working too hard and being paid too little, doing the job of three people,” writes the journalist Jude Wanga in an essay from the book A New Formation: How Black Footballers Shaped the Modern Game (2022). “This predicament is one with which Black women are painfully familiar.” Powell was a role model for many, including the former England player Anita Asante, who recently highlighted the whiteness of England’s Euro 2022 squad; the lack of black and brown coaching staff in Powell’s wake, she wrote, as well as a lack of funding and other structural barriers, have deterred other young black girls.

Growing up in the Nineties and early Noughties, I couldn’t name one female football player. The lack of coverage rendered the women’s game all but invisible. My first proper women’s match, Arsenal vs Fulham at Selhurst Park in the 2001 Women’s FA Cup final, saw me waving my red and white scarf and wondering where all the fans were.

By contrast, so intense was the Tottenham-Arsenal rivalry at my London school that football shirts were banned to prevent us being carved in two. This was played out regardless by boys who fiercely controlled the playground pitches, allowing only a handful of girls to take part. That fine line between active child and disengaged teen was easily crossed when the only route into playing a team sport was to brave a local club without my friends.

It’s a story that resonates with many of my fellow Goal Diggers. Fleur Cousens, my friend who founded the club in 2015, started playing for a local boys’ team when she was at primary school. At nine, she was kicked out. “Even though I was one of the best, the coaches said I wouldn’t be strong enough. At such a young age, being told a sport isn’t for you really shaped how I viewed it. It was the highlight of my week, but I stopped playing.”

Goal Digger teammates May Robson, left, and Izzy Holton. Photo by Lily Wakeley 

Recent research by Women in Sport has estimated that more than a million girls across the UK lose interest in sport as teenagers, which “presents a significant psychological barrier throughout life”. Returning to football in our twenties, Cousens and I briefly joined an 11-a-side ability-based team. While we were accepted, in the words of our male coach, “we weren’t quite the calibre of the first team”. Our Sundays were spent sitting on the bench, one eye on the game, one eye on any newcomers who might usurp our 15 minutes on the pitch.

Without grassroots football, I and thousands of others wouldn’t be playing. Seven years since our first session on that concrete pitch in King’s Cross, Goal Diggers is one of the biggest non-profit football clubs for women and non-binary players in London. It has gained almost celebrity status, with more than 200 members aged between 22 and 64, and a long waiting list to join. A wave of other teams have boldly risen with us, converging at league games, brimming with pride.

It is this shared ethos – a commitment to fostering a sense of belonging rather than competition – that is key to the grassroots game’s success. At Goal Diggers, players are chosen for their “availability” not their “ability”, membership costs are kept low, names and pronouns are shared before games, and priority spots are given to players of colour, non-binary people, trans women and players over 40.

The boom in grassroots teams has seen a national increase in the number of women and girls playing football. The FA has made much of the fact that the total reached 3.4 million in 2020; and that, from 2017 until that year, there has been a 54 per cent increase in FA-affiliated teams, rising to 9,251. Yet part of Sussex FA’s strategy to grow the game in 2016 included giving out nice-smelling bibs and pink whistles – widely criticised at the time – which suggests the appeal can be misunderstood.

Ahead of the Euros, the grassroots game caught the attention of brands and sponsorship. In east London alone, you will currently find: Romance FC, creatives in pink and blue geometric designs by Pharrell for Adidas; Hackney Laces, with sister clubs in Limehouse, south London and Manchester, dancing across the pitch in dark blue and orange Nomad kits; Victoria Park Vixens feeling lucky in green and gold retro-striped Indivisa shirts with popped collars; and Wonderkid FC, with bleached buzz cuts and rainbow lettering from Adidas. These kits are symbols of belonging – but they also sell, becoming important sources of club income.

While this growing sisterhood is ultra-local, these teams have also made international connections. Goal Diggers take inspiration from teams such as “Dyke Soccer” in the US, which provides “safe physical fitness spaces [that] are rare for queer folks and advocate for an inclusive culture wherever [they] play”. And in turn, Goal Diggers have inspired others, sending merchandise to a team in Slovenia and giving advice over WhatsApp to a newly established “Malta FC” in Lisbon, who visited London during the Euros.

There are international tournaments, too. Goal Diggers played in the International Women Football Experience in Milan in 2019, and came out on top against 15 other teams at the Amateur World Cup in Lisbon in the same year. They organised a “Festival of Football” during the last Women’s World Cup, with panel discussions, photography exhibitions, tournaments, taster days and comedy nights running alongside the big games. One night, my team watched Naziha Arebi’s 2018 documentary Freedom Fields on the big screen, in which a Libyan women’s football team play lit by the headlights of their parked cars. The players Arebi followed over five years were denied the right to play internationally, a reminder of how new and precious our own freedoms are.

While the women’s game is often defined in opposition to the men’s game, the football we play does not aspire to emulate it. It is telling that this year Jake Daniels, aged 17, became only the second male professional footballer ever to come out publicly as gay in the UK. The first was Justin Fashanu in 1990, who committed suicide in 1998, aged 37. While Daniels has received praise and support from key figures in men’s football, that he is the only one is a stark reminder of how rife homophobia remains.

In 2017 a Culture, Media and Sport Committee report concluded that “despite the significant change in society’s attitudes to homosexuality in the last 30 years, there is little reflection of this progress being seen in football”. But the more inclusive game fostered by women’s football sees openly gay players at the highest levels. The 2019 Women’s World Cup had more than 40 openly gay players, coaches and managers, and there are at least seven out players on the England women’s team for the Euros.

Tired of being told that football is a man’s game, Cousens set up her club “to show that football doesn’t need to be gendered. Goal Diggers has made me proud of who I am. I knew for a long time I was a lesbian but I was scared to come out, as I thought that meant being alone. This space has done the opposite – it has given me a community that not only normalises but celebrates queerness.” Players have created a thriving queer scene, hosting a regular club night, Murder on Zidane’s Floor, attending trans and gay Pride marches, and falling in love.

The very act of having women and non-binary people of all ages play together is radical. For my teammate Paula Griffin, joining Goal Diggers was a major milestone in her transition. “I still felt so masculine in the way I presented and, despite all I’d read about the club and wonderful welcoming emails, I found myself almost trying to hide as the other players gathered,” she tells me. “Then, that ‘wow’ moment. To be part of a community that welcomes and accepts me, makes no judgements, makes no assumptions, is genuinely life-affirming. It may seem small, but at training sessions and matches players are presented with a Goal Diggers sticker, its colours reflecting the Pride Progress flag. To get one of those is a very special feeling.”

Paula Griffin, far left, with teammates, from left to right, Hannah-May, Rachel and Cara. Photo by Jess Keating

I asked Griffin about recent attempts by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Nadine Dorries, to exclude trans women from competitive sports because they have an “inherently unfair” advantage. “My own thoughts are that politicians and administrators are so far removed that they know little and care less for the real inequities in women’s sport,” she says. “There is so much that is ‘unfair’ in women’s sport but not one iota of that will be fixed by banning trans women from competing, whether at international or recreational level.”

Trans inclusion is gradually becoming embedded across the grassroots women’s game and is called out when it is not. In February this year, Camden Bells FC led a boycott of the Super 5 five-a-side league in Hackney, east London, after an official allegedly told them that one of their players, a trans non-binary person, should not be allowed to play. The FA-affiliated league bills itself as “LGBTQIA+ and non-binary friendly”, the club claimed, but the official said he was following FA rules.

Under the 2014 FA “Policy on Trans People in Football”, the rules are that trans players must apply to the FA for approval to play in their “affirmed gender”, submitting medical records to show hormone levels are “within range”, subject to yearly review. It states that “gender identity should not preclude a person’s participation in football”, with each application considered on a “case-by-case basis”.

But critics feel the FA’s support for trans inclusion is conditional, and the requirement for hormone readings demeaning. This has deterred some clubs from joining FA-affiliated competitions elsewhere in the country; last year Manchester Laces launched a campaign asking the FA to remove what they call “outdated, sexist and transphobic policies”. The FA has since confirmed that it is reviewing the policy.

What women’s football urgently needs is more pitch space. Since 2010, cuts to local government funding have forced the sale of more than 700 community football pitches across the UK. Competition for what remains is fierce and with booking systems on a first come, first serve basis, it is invariably the newer teams that lose out.

Despite Gold Diggers’ 200-strong membership, it took Cousens five years to secure a permanent two-hour, prime-time 11-a-side slot for training, at a pitch in Haggerston Park in east London. Before then, despite lobbying local councils and leisure centres, we drifted between parks, overpriced sports halls, school playgrounds and seven-a-side pitches. At that first training session on the Haggerston pitch, many feet carved a home into its expanse of green.

Other teams haven’t been so lucky, losing out to richer or more established teams. “The FA’s 50-year ban has put women’s teams at the bottom of the wait list because we are more likely to be new,” says Cousens. “We are playing catch up on a space that has historically been given to men and as a result, fewer women’s teams are able to exist.” She has campaigned for years to review this out-dated booking system, which a 2019 article in the Guardian found was a significant barrier to the growth of women’s football across the country. This spring the government announced a wide-ranging review of measures to grow both the elite and domestic women’s game. Cousens believes that quotas to ensure that pitch space is allocated according to gender, numbers and the level of community interest would be a start.

What happens in professional football and at the grassroots level are two sides of the same coin. The erasure of the women’s game by its own governing body is not forgotten. Today, when I play for Goal Diggers, not winning every game but not losing 20-0 either, I see 1921 stitched on to the back of my teammates’ shirts and Alice Kell’s words – “We play for the love of the game and are determined to go on” – woven into my sleeve. We are the legacy of the battle fought by many women to play football.

This summer, affordable Euros tickets have allowed stadiums to be filled with young children and families, and the beautiful game feels in reach: football is no longer a man’s game. It has also been a reminder that football holds the power to shift the way a society sees itself. A more open and inclusive future lies at our feet, and it feels like something worth investing in.

We recently welcomed a new cohort of Goal Diggers. It was a Wednesday night, and their first training kicked off at Haggerston Park. As I stepped on to the pitch, I stopped to chat to a new player and asked her why she had joined. “I was just passing by and saw you playing,” she told me, “and I feel so lucky.”

[See also: Does the FA Cup need saving?]


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