When Richard Keys and Andy Gray faced disciplinary action over their comments about female referee’s assistant Sian Massey earlier this year, fans of football were sent the clear message that sexism still exists in football in the U.K. Unquestionably this affects the quality and success of the female game.
The United States women’s national soccer team won the first ever Women’s World Cup in 1991 and has dominated in women’s international soccer ever since. The team is currently number one in the world according to the FIFA Women’s World Rankings and has won three Olympic Women’s Gold Medals. A trip to the U.S.A. to accompany my husband coaching in soccer camps was an eye opener for me in terms of the attitudes of girls there in comparison to in the U.K. On all four of the camps he directed and coached the majority of the kids attending were girls between the ages of 13 and 17.
I would never have thought that so many girls were interested in or played football. Once I saw the girls play I was surprised because they played enthusiastically and passionately. When I spoke to the girls they told me that women’s football has a huge following in the U.S. and that girls love to watch football and play it at a range of levels. No doubt the success of their national team has a lot to do with this. The team is an inspiration to many girls across the country.
In addition to this, due to the positive attitudes in education and amongst parents in relation to the equal rights of girls to participate in a range of sports, girls can succeed in football and other sports. The combination of support and investment allows American girls to see football as a sport that is equally as open to them to pursue as a hobby and as a serious career as it is to boys. In contrast, in the U.K. there is a lack of interest in football amongst girls, sexist attitudes and unsurprisingly as a result, limited talent being produced.
Having worked in a primary school here in the U.K. and seeing a small number of girls develop an enthusiasm and begin to play football in the playground I know this is beginning to change slowly. I also know that it was changes in the attitudes of staff within the school and the parents in relation to girl’s football that led to more girls playing the game. It was necessary to make it clear to the boys in the school that football was not their game and that girls were certainly allowed to play despite what the prevailing culture has to say about it. My husband was employed as a learning mentor at the school and as a youth football coach and scout was interested in encouraging more sports and particularly football amongst the girls. He started a girl’s football team and it was an education to see the range of girls who wanted to try the game out and take up playing regularly. If this situation was replicated in schools all over the country it would be a short time before more female football talent began to surface.
Despite the increased interest in female football internationally, there are sexist attitudes in the U.K. that contribute to a limited number of girls who pursue football as a hobby and as a career. Obviously the fewer girls there are playing the game the less talent there will be developing in the women’s game. Whilst this situation continues in the U.K. finding the type of talent required to compete with the likes of the U.S is going to be a challenge to say the least. Women’s football had a blaze of glory in the U.K. in early 1920s when some matches achieved over 50,000 spectators.
However, this was soon stopped when England’s Football Association voted to ban the game from grounds used by its member clubs in December 1921. The ban was cancelled in July 1971 but not before enough time had passed to send home the message that girls playing football would not to be taken seriously by the British. Certainly the girls growing up during this period would have been given a loud and clear message about football as would the boys. Many of those boys will have gone on to have an influence in the game later in life as officials, coaches and players. People growing up in that era have become parents and spread their ideas about football to subsequent generations.
In the U. S. women’s football is taken seriously. It has a huge following and is growing with more and more money being invested at collegiate and pro levels. This has led to the development and progression needed to produce a quality team. Whilst having some talented players and qualifying for three World Cups so far the England women’s side’s most impressive achievement to date was reaching the European Championships final and losing 6–2 to Germany. Whilst not down playing the achievements of the women who play football in the U.K., it has to be said that they pale into insignificance in comparison to the U.S. ladies. This is certainly connected to the sexist attitudes that permeate the culture where women’s football in concerned. As we know in order to nurture any kind of talent support, belief and investment are needed. The existence of sexist attitudes in football in the U.K. demonstrate a lack of belief, affect the support and the money invested in women’s football at all levels. This is having an impact on the success of women’s football and the ability of the country to produce considerable amounts of talent on a consistent enough basis to compete on the international field.