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The only girl in the league

As a child our writer dreamed of being a professional footballer, but she always wanted to play not with women but men.

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For the past 18 months or so – until lockdown intervened – I’ve played in a five-a-side league with a squad of old school friends. Except for me, it’s an all-male team and an all-male league. No one seems to object to my presence, though the league is not officially mixed; if it were, there would probably be an exasperating gender quota system as an equalising measure.

Everyone’s casual silence on the matter has made me wonder if the other players even notice me – that is, register my presence as female. But I can usually sense a kind of bodily acknowledgement of my gender on the pitch, a wariness of approach, the source of which is conveniently obscure: a subtle reticence borne of the gallant expectation that I’m physically fragile and bad at football, or of fear that I might be good?

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Five-a-side football is widely played at amateur level, but not, in my experience, universally loved. A pared-down, simplified version of 11-a-side – the dominant professional game – five-a-side is often considered a practical but restrictive alternative, á défaut de mieux: you can’t play long balls, set pieces like corners and free kicks are unsatisfyingly abridged, there are few tactics and only a handful of possible formations.

But five-a-side is quintessential football in my view, not a reductive proxy for the fuller game, but a distillation of it, the Thing Itself. I like it best for all sorts of reasons. With only four outfield players, you are free, indeed obliged, to play all over the pitch. You are not confined to a single position and its associated set of skills; everyone attacks and everyone defends.

The smaller pitch means five-a-side is also cramped, and so quick and intense. You don’t have long on the ball; no time to pause and look up and consider your options. This places a premium on spatial awareness: catching flashes of movement out of the corner of your eye, sensing bodily presences behind you and feeding this information to your constantly updating mental map of where your teammates and opponents are. One is in a state of extreme concentration yet you find yourself doing things faster than, or slightly ahead of, your ability to think them, suspended between decision-making and instinct.

Five-a-side is also less physical than 11-a-side. This is partly due to the lack of space: there isn’t room for strength and height and fitness to assert themselves. Athleticism is not irrelevant, but it is not indispensable, and generally much less highly rewarded. There are no aerial battles, slide tackles or studs, since it’s usually played on Astroturf – though there are still plenty of ways to hurt and get hurt (twisted ankles, stamped-on feet, grazed knees). The more intellectual and technical elements of football – touch, composure, vision, imaginative movement – come into their own in five-a-side.

The other reason I like it – and this directly follows from the fact it is less physical – is that I can play with men. Slower and slighter than the average adult man, I would be a conspicuous weak link on an all-male 11-a-side team. But on a five-a-side team, I am less likely to be outpaced down the wing or barged off the ball.

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I have occasionally considered the disagreeable possibility that another girl might one day show up in our league. The thought of it is probably worse than the reality. If it came to pass, I suspect I’d feel initially threatened, make absolutely sure to hide it, eventually get over it and then maybe enjoy forming a female alliance. I’ve wondered if my unsisterly attachment to my special status as the only girl in the league derives from a childhood spent playing football with boys because most girls didn’t play, and few of those who did were good enough. I was, as the disparaging compliment goes, “good for a girl”, which meant I was as good as the boys and quite often better.

Until the age of 12 or 13, like boys, and increasingly now girls all over the world, I wanted to be a professional footballer, and played – relentlessly, obsessively, hyper-seriously – as if I were working towards that goal; I was. I was often told I was good enough to “go all the way”. I’m not sure it was true – most people had little notion of the calibre of the professional women’s game – though it certainly felt plausible as a girl in the mid-2000s, when you likely didn’t know any other girls who were as good. True or not, what it meant was that I was as good as a boy, meaning the unexceptional, ordinarily capable boy who was not remotely talented enough by the standards of his gender to have a chance of making it professionally himself.

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Anyone who was good at football as a girl will remember well the awe she could elicit with a ball at her feet. I don’t recall ever not enjoying this. It was difficult not to show off. Boys were especially impressed – though also always potentially threatened. I’m still aware of this now, playing with men: they feel I can embarrass them – by skilfully eluding their tackle, for example – which can make them want to embarrass me, to take me on, show me up.

Being good at football was a way of being both special and acceptable – the paradoxical hankering that looms so large in childhood (and no doubt endures through adulthood too). I had a talent that both set me apart (from girls) and allowed me to fit in (with boys). Naturally, playing football – as opposed to certified female sports such as netball or tennis – marked you out as a tomboy, which obviously meant you were unattractive to boys because you weren’t a proper, “girly” girl, and everyone knew that boys only fancy girly girls.

Then I came to the dreaded point when girls were no longer allowed to play with boys, when their bodies were deemed too different, or about to be too different, for mixed teams to be fair or safe. After that I played for some dreadful local girls’ teams and then, following a series of trials, for a very good one, for which I played seriously for a little while longer, but then gave it all up.

Why did I stop? The story I’ve learnt to tell about myself is that I didn’t really want it. I was reaching the stage of seriousness in sport when you start having to make sacrifices: all the time and travelling and energy involved in training multiple times a week in outer London and playing away matches on weekends. I was – am – also a wimp. I don’t have the requisite fearless aggression – the aggression, or will to win, that trumps fear of pain: I was scared of getting hurt. I still remember hearing about a teammate dislocating her wrist in a match and being terrified. Even now I’m haunted by the leg-breaks and ligament-ruptures replayed in gory slow motion on TV.

I also suspected – or suspected that my parents believed – that I had more conventional interests and talents (ie, school) that would ultimately serve me better. I evidently didn’t have the desperate hunger necessary – or so I tell myself now – for coveted vocations, such as sport and acting, that professionalise a kind of play. When I looked around at my female teammates I saw a total commitment that I wasn’t sure I had.

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Over a decade later I still feel some sadness about that path not taken. Feeling aggrieved at my own arrested development makes it hard to enjoy the ascent of women’s football, to cheer on its belated rise. I don’t watch or follow it, and part of me doesn’t even wish it well.

Yet I’ve come to realise that I don’t envy female footballers, I don’t wish I were one – indeed, I don’t think I ever did. I suspect my abiding sense of injury comes not from the fact I couldn’t play professionally, but that I couldn’t do so with the men. Bend It Like Beckham (2002) – a film that, naturally, I watched on DVD near-daily for a number of years – opens with its heroine, Jess Bhamra, dreaming about playing alongside David Beckham for the Manchester United men’s team.

My dreams were gendered that way, too – or rather de-gendered that way: for in my young mind, playing in the men’s Premier League, whose matches I watched devotedly on Match of the Day every weekend, was simply what playing professional football was. I didn’t want to be a female footballer, I wanted to be a footballer. Bend It Like Beckham closes with Jess about to leave to play “soccer” in the US; footballing utopia for women at that time was elsewhere and off-screen. It’s a happy ending, but it’s not, technically speaking, a realisation of the dream that opens the film.

I’ve wondered: did the game lose its lustre for me once I could no longer play with boys? In the mid to late 2000s, when, barely a teenager, I – and who knows how many other football-loving girls – were reaching this particular fork in the road, there was little to aim for in women’s football. The UK didn’t have the US’s Title IX legislation (introduced in 1972) to override the underinvestment in the women’s game. It was difficult to project one’s fantasies on to Meadow Park – the dreary home stadium of Arsenal Women, shared with fifth-tier men’s team Boreham Wood, and which looked pathetic next to Highbury, then the Arsenal men’s ground – or to set one’s heart on being a maths teacher on the side. Incompletely professionalised and barely televised, women’s football held no appeal for me and occupied none of my footballing dreams.

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Perhaps I would have stuck at it if I hadn’t been dreaming of Highbury and presented with Meadow Park – the difference between the stadiums a dispiriting synecdoche for the gulf separating men’s from women’s football, and my dreams from the limits of their realisation. Even if all I was denied was the opportunity to discover I wasn’t good enough after all, that is still a deprivation (if leavened by escaping the dull certainty, presumably possessed by most adult men, that they simply weren’t good enough). I tell myself I didn’t really want it, but there is a relationship between what we allow ourselves to want and what the world visibly offers us.

What was unarguably sad for me, and possibly for many other girls who were good but not proto-professionals, was that stopping playing seriously, in the pursuit of a career, meant stopping playing altogether. At my first secondary school, a girls’ school, I can’t recall a single other interested and capable footballer. At the much sportier mixed school I joined for sixth form, sports were distributed between the genders in traditional and intransigent ways: boys played football, cricket and rugby; girls played tennis, hockey and netball. My efforts to start a girls’ football team weren’t supported by the PE teachers, who worried it would drain personnel away from the hockey team.

All of this meant I didn’t play football in any regular way through my teenage years – often the sportiest of an amateur’s life – and so my technical progress stalled. The knowledge that I am no better than I was aged 12 or 13 is still painfully reawakened every time I play for fun now. What proved elusive growing up was a girls’ team that was both good and casual. I’m sure I could have looked harder, but girls shouldn’t have had to look so hard.

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But perhaps the mild sense of personal loss occasioned by the rise of women’s football is more abstract and pathological. Deformed by my early experience of being an oddity for liking football, the growing popularity of the women’s game makes me, or the girl I was, less special. Though, in the Bend It Like Beckham era, excelling at football as a girl couldn’t guarantee a glamorous future – not in this country, anyway – it did make you distinctive, distinctive enough to be, like Jess Bhamra, a heroine.

Then again, where there is a heroine like Jess, there is usually a cultural need for a heroine like Jess, which means there were, even at that time, probably scores of other burgeoning female footballers identifying with, and inspired by, Bend It like Beckham’s protagonist. This suggests my youthful passion – which in the contracted world of childhood seemed so unusual – wasn’t so unusual after all, which is cause for optimism. The future when being good at football will be as unremarkable in girls as it in boys may be closer than it seems. 

Lola Seaton is an assistant editor at New Left Review

Lola Seaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman

This article appears in the 24 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special