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13th September 2023

Let’s talk about Mary Earps’ World Cup final penalty save: Controversy, backlash, and one big “f*** off”

A World Cup final penalty save and celebration that should have been a joyous moment for a nation. Why the backlash?
Let’s talk about Mary Earps’ World Cup final penalty save: Controversy, backlash, and one big “f*** off”
Mary Earps by Jacob Ainsworth

Nottingham-born goalkeeper Mary Earps has had quite the tumultuous career journey. From national outcast to national treasure, from the United Counties League’s West-Bridgeford Colts to the Barclays’ Women’s Super League’s Manchester United. Her latest feat, becoming only one of two goalkeepers ever to save a normal-time penalty kick in a World Cup final, certainly set tongues wagging.

As the premier shot-stopper for Sarina Wiegman’s Lionesses, Earps has been turning heads on an international scale. A player known for her sense of humour off the pitch, as well as being ferociously theatrical on it (living up to the team’s rapidly-trending moniker), Earps personified everything empowering and exciting about the Lionesses, earning herself the Golden Glove award in the process – an award she also won prior to the World Cup at club-level with Manchester United.

Although England ultimately lost against Spain 1-0 in the final, a glorious, yet unlikely, moment for Wiegman’s Lionesses was to be found in the Spanish forward Jennifer Hermoso’s penalty-kick. With a momentous dive to the left-hand-side of her goal, Earps saved the penalty in the 69th minute of the match. It was a sensational lunge – to call it frenetic would be to suggest it lacked control, and yet that seems the only suitable description… a controlled freneticism made manifest, a career-defining moment for a new National Treasure. But this is Mary Earps we’re talking about – it’s never quite as simple or as easy as that. With all the highs that the goalkeeper has seen, she’s also been victim of frequent criticism, doubt and scandal.

Now, let’s talk about that penalty save, and the varying controversy that followed.

Let’s be frank: saving a penalty kick in normal-time of a World Cup final should be a career-defining, nation-uniting moment. And, for the majority, it was. Earps leapt into action with lizard-like reflexes, denying Spain a 2-0 lead. The cameras cut to the ecstatic Earps, her facial expressions, rapt with adrenaline, torn chaotically between jubilance and fury. England’s keeper, ball tucked in arm as if to parade its unsuccessful trajectory from striker to net, brimmed with electricity – a palpable force of character that was felt by her immediate teammates, the Spanish opponents, Wiegman on the sidelines and viewers across the world. This moment was, of course, topped off by Earps’ inaudible, but obvious, screaming of the words ‘f*ck off’… and a lot of tongue-flailing to boot. An undeniably English way of celebrating, tinged with self-deprecation and childlike shamelessness, the remark felt equally a defiant a show of strength in the face of stacked odds as it did a barked order to her fellow Lionesses to convert the electricity of the moment into material momentum.

It was one of those rare, precious sporting moments when a sportsperson, riddled with on-and-off-the-pitch strategy, discipline and restrictions, becomes a liberated character – becomes larger-than-life, human features distorted into some kind of transcendent, long-lasting caricature. So, how has this should-be-historic sporting moment become plagued with criticism?

As soon as the penalty was saved, hundreds of thousands of sports-enthusiasts took to their phones and laptops to discuss the moment, a large majority sceptical of the validity of Earps’ lighting-fast save. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – every platform became flooded with claims that the Lioness unfairly moved off of her line as Hermoso struck the ball. This was not exclusive to Spanish fans by any means, either. Many of the most scathing comments were voiced by England supporters, seemingly unconvinced that the display of athleticism that had just sprang across their TV screens had been within the game’s rules. Whilst it is true that, in moments such as these, passions flare and lofty, impulsive speculation is made, FIFA quickly posted an official statement to close down such discussion:

As with all penalties, the Video Assistant Referee checked Spain’s penalty for encroachment by the goalkeeper and determined that Mary Earps’ back foot was in line with the goal line.” – Official statement from FIFA

Bizarrely, a large camp of both England and Spain supporters were somehow still unhappy with this penalty save, refusing to celebrate Earps’ exceptional feat. Unsurprisingly, many of these voices of doubt were coming from a male audience – it seems, in this case, fair to suggest that a large portion of scepticism granted to this impressive save stemmed from a legion of men, insecure and alienated, feeling somehow emasculated by what they had just witnessed. Everything about the save was valid, above-board and officially confirmed as such, and yet there was still something nagging these unimpressed sceptics – something not quite right, as if something just had to be askew for a woman to make that save. If anything, it’s this reactionary mindset against the women’s game that, in a strange way, validates its growing strength and influence. There are male football fans out there that are genuinely afraid of the women’s game, more inclined to opt for blind criticism (because everything becomes less frightening when discredited or ignored) than to even entertain the idea of sharing joy at a phenomenal moment in international football. This moment was just one solitary display of Earps’ athleticism, dedication and character – and it was enough to rattle egos.

Earps’ celebration also spawned backlash, with people labelling her ‘foul-mouthed’, ‘potty-mouthed’, ‘unsportsmanlike’ and ‘a poor role model’ to list a few. Again, the influence of blatant sexism can’t go unnoticed when discussing the response of the penalty save’s explosive celebration. Earps’ reaction was brash, yes, but why can’t sportspeople be brash? And, more specifically, why can’t sportswomen be brash? With backlash like this (for a successful penalty save, may I add), it becomes clearer than ever that the Lionesses not only have millions intensely watching their movements, but that they also have intrinsic, deep-rooted expectations aimed towards how they should present themselves as women – how they should behave, look and, in this scenario, celebrate.

It’s a unique pressure that simply is not present in the mens’ game. To paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir, being a footballer and being a woman are performative roles, defined by certain expectations. The women’s game has, in effect, a doubly critical gaze facing it. Not only was Earp’s successful save as a footballer treated with scepticism, but her much-deserved celebration has been policed according to how she should have acted as a woman. One can’t help but point out what an unnerving thought it is to imagine how people would be commenting on Earps had she failed to save the penalty.

Earps’ swear-heavy celebration was not what society would like to call ‘feminine’. It could perhaps even be argued that it was decisively, and purposefully, ‘unfeminine’: roguish, unfiltered and raw. In her transcendent moment as sportsperson-turned-caricature, Earps failed to reside in the conservative comforts of the established feminine. Cue the backlash. We cannot ignore Earps’ gender here, for the backlash simply would not be the same if a male player had made the same sort of foul-mouthed outburst.  

To illustrate my point, there’s no issue whatsoever when the Manchester City striker Erling Haaland, after having just won the treble, tells his teammate Jack Grealish, “I f*cking love you”, audibly on live primetime television. This is labelled a characterful moment. A human moment. An instance in which the towering, indestructible Haaland and the stylish, hedonistic Grealish are able to put aside their roles as premier league pop stars and treat each other as genuine friends. The swearing, through a masculine output, is interpreted as a subversive show of affection as there’s no deep-rooted stigma around men swearing, drunkenly slurring affections to each other. But Earps inaudibly shouting “f*ck off” in an adrenaline-fuelled celebration of a career-defining, let alone tournament-defining, penalty save? That’s simply egregious. We can’t inspire the next generation of women in sport to be brash, loud and unapologetically ‘unfeminine’, can we? Well, Earps can – and will keep on doing so.

After a fifty year ban from professional football, women currently enjoying a fruitful career in the sport have every conceivable right to say ‘f*ck off’. Without an established script to go off of in the sport per say, their on-pitch ‘femininity’ is theirs to mediate and to construct – an ongoing sculpt that is bound to draw criticism, stir up controversy and test gender roles on a national and international scale. I believe this to be one of the many life-affirming qualities of not just Earps, but Wiegman’s England squad as a collective. The Lionesses are a truly modern ongoing project – a group of women of all different backgrounds, race, class and sexuality working as a unit to deconstruct gender norms, inspire girls who now have visible, tangible role-models in the sport and, of course, play football. Mary Earps, a bubbling, effervescent character, is at the forefront of this project.

You can watch Mary Earps play live, alongside with fellow Lionesses Katie Zelem and Ella Toone, in the Barclays’ Women’s Super League for Manchester United here.

Jacob Ainsworth

Jacob Ainsworth

20, he/him, UoM, Film Studies & English Literature. deputy music editor, writer, musician, illustrator and full-time Jarvis Cocker enthusiast

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