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19 April 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 5:44am

Why talking about football is a feminist issue

Football is not enjoyed or played equally by men and women but it is still discussed as a gender-neutral interest. 

By Ailbhe Rea

It took me a long time to realise that the way football makes me feel is political. For as long as I can remember, it has been a totally normal part of my life that when football comes up in conversation, at family gatherings, in the office, while having a meeting with a politician, that I sit it out. I smile and nod away, making the occasional joke if required to show I don’t mind being left out. It’s no big deal, I have always felt. It’s just not something I’m interested in, but I accept that plenty of people are. 

Even when I started a new job, and the boss invited my entire team except me (I was the only woman) to a football match, I told the colleague who embarrassedly informed me of their lads’ trip to the football that I wasn’t fussed. I already had a good relationship with that boss, I didn’t mind not being invited, it would have been a waste of a ticket. There’s an awkward, entirely unintended sexism to the whole thing, the embarrassed colleague and I agreed, but what could we do about it? Only months later, when I realised I was still thinking about it, did I start to realise that maybe I did mind more than I had admitted to myself. 

Football is treated as a subject of universal interest, and the patterns of exclusion it creates in social and professional settings are accepted as a simple fact of life: some people are football fans, some people aren’t, it isn’t a big deal. But, even though it feels old-fashioned and embarrassing to state it, the patterns of those who play, watch and follow it are highly gendered. The people most often left out of these conversations are women. 

[See also: In trying to end uncertainty, the Premier League’s Big Six show they know nothing of their sport]

I already know that football fans reading this piece are screaming at their screens to point out that women watch football, play football and compete internationally in the sport. That is completely true. It is also true that many men don’t take any interest in football at all, and are similarly excluded from football banter in the office. Neither of these, however, take away from the fact that football is male-dominated, both in terms of its fan base and the people who play it.

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In one UK poll, 61 per cent of female respondents said that they never watch English Premier League matches, while the majority of the men polled did. That’s before you confront the reality that, despite the women’s teams breaking the mould, the vast majority of money that flows into football flows into a man’s world, and being a football fan still mainly means cheering on men’s teams, male players and managers. (“Football is mass worship of men”, texts a friend who is similarly not a fan of the beautiful game.) Football is not enjoyed or played equally by men and women, but we talk about it and cover it with no sense of the sport as a gendered interest.

In 2015, women made up only 24 per cent of the persons heard, read about or seen in newspaper, television and radio news. Our public conversation is skewed away from women and women’s interests in a way we don’t even see. That’s how patriarchy works (yes, sorry I went there). These structures and attitudes are so normalised that whether you’re a man or a woman they don’t feel out of place until confronted with a data breakdown that shows that the magazine you love, that you always thought had a gender balance, averages around a 30:70 gender ratio, or that panel show you watched where the woman went on a lot actually didn’t speak as much as the man beside her. 

This is a very basic type of feminism, a feminism that as a student I would have found dated and a bit embarrassing. We should be so far beyond seeking gender balance in public life, in decision making, in culture and news, or seeking parity of esteem for things that interest men and women differently. It doesn’t cover the scope of the challenges feminism needs to tackle, and, frankly, it should have been fixed already. It also taps into a basic tension of feminism: to both assert women’s right to be freed from gendered expectations, such as loving and playing football, and simultaneously to assert that some things are gendered and recognise the way that impacts women, such as the way football is mostly played, supported and talked about by men to exclusion of women in professional settings. 

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But it still galls me that we treat men’s interests (yes, not all men) as universal and women’s interests as niche. It galls me that we don’t even see football as still predominantly the interest of men, with women predominantly the ones who sit out the conversation or feel left out of the boys’ club. This means we’re ill-equipped to analyse or challenge the way that a very normal, mild topic of conversation excludes people along gender lines at work. 

In professional spheres that depend on human relationships, such as journalism and politics, football is the social lubricant that bonds junior reporters and senior editors, and young political journalists with senior MPs, mostly to the disadvantage of women and anyone who doesn’t conform to normative masculinity. It also means that some of the most interesting things about football in contemporary British life – its role in contemporary understandings of masculinity, the way it unites men in an increasingly polarised society across class lines, the rare route into wealth that it offers for boys from working-class backgrounds, the role models it creates – go unanalysed too. 

The subject is in the news today amid fury at plans to form something called the European Super League and at the sacking of José Mourinho who was, I believe, until this week the manager of a club called Tottenham. I tweeted about the vague, weird feeling that football gives me and it ignited a huge amount of rage on parts of the internet. 

I don’t hate football. But I do hate the boys’ club that football creates in workplaces, I hate the continued gender disparity in terms of who profits from that industry, and frankly I do hate the fact that it is accorded a prominence, a respect and seriousness of coverage that we don’t accord to something like fashion, make up, or any other obviously gendered interests (yes, those interests are shallow and frivolous and capitalistic – so is football!). I found that my tweet was met with two broad schools of response, mostly by those annoyed by the comparison with fashion: those insisting that fashion is taken seriously, and those denigrating it, which did, I think, rather prove the point. Sure, fashion is a multi-billion pound industry and receives news coverage as another part of business journalism. But we don’t see a regular, serious, gender-neutral analysis of clothes, shoes and handbags in regular news in the way we do for goals and transfers, and we don’t pretend it is of universal interest. 

That’s just the one example. There are things we assume everyone is interested in, and there are the other, similarly popular, things we apologise for. That happens along gendered lines all the time. I don’t think this is feminism’s great battle, nor do I spend all that much time thinking about it. I don’t think my own feelings or the things I encounter on a day-to-day level in the hallowed halls of Westminster are top of the feminist agenda. But I know that when I accommodate another football conversation and smile politely, that the feeling of exclusion I’m ignoring is, in a small way, political, and I think the annoyance I provoked when I said it is a little bit political too. 

[See also: The big problem with the European Super League]