“Whatever happens in the final now, if girls are not allowed to play football in their PE – just like the boys can – what are we doing? We have got to make sure they are able to play and get the opportunity to do so. If there’s no legacy to this – like with the Olympics – then what are we doing?”
Hearing Ian Wright say those words after the Lionesses won the semi-final of the Euros made me quite emotional.
I’ve been a football fan my whole life, going to my first Aston Villa game when I was five and having a season ticket since I was 12. I’ve played since I was five, reffed, and coached too. Of course, I’ve been subject to the usual “you’re a Villa fan? Name the starting 11 then,” but I don’t think it was until I heard Ian Wright speaking that I fully realised the structural inequalities that had constrained my love for the sport. It hit me in a confusing mess of anger and hope for the future.
I first played for a boys’ team because no girls’ team yet existed in my home town. The first girls’ team was established in Derby in 2007 (when I was seven) but it was a combination of age groups, so I was playing with girls two years my senior. We had to travel quite long distances to games as there wasn’t a league in Derby (for quite a few years) so we had joined the Nottinghamshire FA.
When I was eleven we got banned from the playground at Primary School, so “the boys can play football”, apparently they were worried about us being hit by flying balls, rather than wanting to actively engage with the games. I was furious, we’d recently performed very well at a local schools 5-a-side tournament but weren’t allowed to play at lunchtime? And the boys themselves were happy to play with us.
Ever the campaigner, I started a petition entitled: ‘We want our playground back’. When it was presented to the teachers (with the majority of pupils having signed) it was ripped up in front of our faces – although we were allowed back on the playground!
At Secondary School the inequality continued. Twenty of my classmates were playing for the same girls team as me, which was actually named after the school and we trained on the school grounds. Consequently, that meant the school’s girls team was very good, winning a national competition, playing the final at Wembley. The school were very proud of this achievement, showing the video of the tournament at every open evening and assembly for years. But we were still only allowed to play football in PE on ‘gender swap week’; the boys played hockey.
In Sixth Form, football was finally open to all. I persuaded two of my friends to play with me, but in the first week the PE teacher suggested two of us go in goal at once because we’d be too short to save the ball otherwise.
I’m now 22, a year younger than Russo who scored the iconic backheel in the semi-final. This England team will have grown up in similar circumstances to me. But still very little has changed, only 63% of schools offer girls the chance to play football as much as the boys in PE. At secondary school that number drops to 44%.
Even in the Women’s Super League (WSL) conditions are disgraceful. A 2020 Sportsmail investigation revealed Tottenham Hotspur, at the time 7th in the WSL, were having to eat jam sandwiches for lunch because their training facility didn’t even have a fridge, let alone the nutritionists we’ve come to expect of men’s football. ‘Spurs didn’t even have a goalkeeping coach until 2017. The average salary was just £32,000 a year in 2020 for professionally contracted players.
But the inequalities go beyond pay and facilities provided by the teams, football boots specifically designed for women’s feet are rare (Nike claim theirs are “dual gender”), leading to an increase in ACL injuries in the WSL.
Unfortunately for England, their success is needed beyond the football pitch, the way many perceive women’s sport unfairly hinges on how they do in this tournament.
A number of my friends told me they hadn’t been watching the Euros because they didn’t ‘connect’ with the players, not seeing them week, in week out in the Premier League. After England’s incredible semi-final performance they admitted the real reason they hadn’t been watching was because they presumed it would be worse quality. They were all pleasantly surprised by England’s performance and will be watching the final, but I’m frustrated that a 4-0 win and wonder goals were needed to get people to support their national team.
Whilst the support for England has been incredible, it feels nothing like last summer. We should be extremely proud of the viewing figures, 9.3 million watched the semi-final and the competition has been the most attended in Women’s Euros history. But we are one day off England potentially winning their first ever Euros (for both the Mens and Womens teams) and I’ve not seen a single flag flying. Normally unable to escape chants of ‘It’s coming home’, I haven’t heard it once.
This tournament may not have captured the hearts of a nation as much as I would like, but it has captured the hearts of a generation. We’ve all seen the girl passionately dancing to ‘Sweet Caroline’, but she was certainly not alone. I went to see Germany vs France in the other semi-final and it was a sea of young girls at their first football game. A girl sat behind me, who can’t have been older than eight, was insightfully breaking down England’s chances. Rather than being told ‘shut up love and watch the game’, which I have heard far too many times in the Holte end, people were turning round to actively engage with her.
Someone asked, “who’s your favourite England player?” and I was still expecting to hear Harry Kane or Jack Grealish, but the response came: “Beth Mead”.
Change takes time, but it starts in the classroom, it starts in PE and with kids answering “Beth Mead” when asked about their favourite England player – without being shocked at the reply. I’m hopeful that Ian Wright’s words come true and this tournament has a legacy far beyond Sunday.