This weekend I went to a football match without any fear. It was great | Women’s football
JThe first time I was groped in a Premier League game I was 13. I was there with my dad, we had season tickets and we squeezed past a line of men in the 88th minute to beat the crowd to the tube. I didn’t say anything and it wasn’t the last time it happened that season either. The season before, I won a competition and was lucky enough to be a ballboy at Wembley in a Charity Shield match. Every time I ran to get the ball to throw it back into the field, I was whistled and called by some of the supporters. I was 12 years old.
In these and many other experiences, I knew I was an intruder and in my mind I had no choice but to accept the rewards of this along with everything else. The rewards were the atmosphere and seeing my team play, all the rest being the groping, the lingering stares, the cat calling; as well as being exposed to unchecked and extreme racism, occasional homophobia, and relentless aggressive abuse from players on both sides.
I was never athletic, had no interest in playing football and like a lot of girls at the time, I didn’t see many examples of women playing football to look up to, even if it was the case. My football exposure was what I saw on TV and the excitement I saw sparked in my brother and father. Where was I going to find this excitement? When I went to football, I was lucky to be there, to feel this unified feeling of love for your team and hate for the other team. I felt like I had been inducted into a secret society that few girls had the opportunity to discover. I wasn’t going to ruin everything by complaining.
Just over 20 years later, last summer, I visited the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for the first time. On a balmy July day, I had that familiar walk to the ground you get when you go to any major football stadium in the country. See it in the distance and move forward with confidence and swagger. Except it was different. I wasn’t wearing my club colors, I wasn’t surrounded by men chanting, trying to intimidate locals and police horses. In fact, there were no police horses at all.
I was going to see Lady Gaga – after trying to get tickets for months, I had a stroke of luck when a colleague had one available. The show was excellent. I clapped, I danced, I cried, I sang; I did everything I could do in an amazing football game. But I was not groped. I haven’t heard of racism. I have seen homosexuals kissing. I have seen little girls being carried on their father’s shoulders. Last summer I saw similar scenes in the crowd watching Euro 2022 on TV.
On Sunday I made the trip to the King Power Stadium to see Leicester take on Tottenham in the Women’s Super League opening weekend. I was surrounded by families in a crowd where the majority were women and girls. Even though they didn’t insult fans or opposing players, they cared as deeply as any other football fan. It goes without saying, but when you grew up watching men’s football in this country, you start to believe that you can’t have passion without aggression.
At the stadium, Marcus Baines and his daughter Phoebe (seven, almost eight) were playing their first WSL game since buying a season ticket. “It’s also serious for the fans [as with the men’s games] but I don’t think there’s that much tension,” he said. “Some of the men’s fans are going to cause trouble, but in the women’s game we think they don’t and it’s more of a mixed atmosphere.”
It’s a sentiment shared by the Gibsons, a footballing family, frequent visitors to the WSL and season ticket holders for the Spurs men’s team. The differences between male and female crowds come down to inclusivity and enjoyment of football versus rivalries. “You’ll find that with women’s football, you just enjoy the game and enjoy the football more,” Kim said.
Like me, Kim was introduced to football when she was younger by her father. “I think when we went to matches back then that was exactly what it was, that’s what we expected,” she said. “I personally feel really comfortable coming to a women’s game, I could bring the girls on my own and feel safe.”
This innate sense of security was felt a lot. Emily Williams, who came with her daughter Elly, also talked about it. “I worry more about the men’s games with the kids,” she said. “I take my son and they can feel a bit intimidating, especially since I’m a woman, I feel like I can’t protect him if something goes wrong, but women’s matches are much safer. “
Many WSL fans at the King Power Stadium try hard to remind me that women’s and men’s football are very different, so it’s difficult and perhaps foolish to draw comparisons. It’s true, it’s difficult and probably unnecessary for women’s football from a footballing point of view – the game is played differently and the rivalries are not the same. However, from a fan’s perspective, a lot of things looked a lot alike: the surge of crowd energy after a good pass; the applause for a well-timed tackle; exaltation with a purpose.
The audible frustrations of a bad touch or a wasted pass were there too, but with a noticeable difference. The little frustrations were just that, they didn’t evolve into outright hostility, they didn’t escalate into abuse. Tottenham’s Ashleigh Neville was booed like a pantomime villain for much of the second half as she fell a bit too easily while Leicester were on the break. It was good? Probably not. But it never got personal, they didn’t insult her, they didn’t sing a song about her personal life and hopefully she wasn’t harassed on social media after the game.
Watching a competitive WSL match, watching a huge stadium show, watching the Lionesses sell Wembley, it makes me rethink what it means to occupy those spaces. Those spaces that dominate the skyline of our towns and cities, that generate some of the best moments of our lives. Those of us who watch men’s football hear a lot about the atmosphere these spaces generate. It’s coveted, every fan wants to feel it and it’s something that can’t be artificially created with a Mexican wave and a vuvuzela. Atmosphere, as far as we were raised in this country, means aggression, it means intimidation. The fact that it comes with sexual abuse, racism and homophobia? Well, those are just a few bad apples.
But we are wrong, we have always been wrong.
I can say now that I am deeply ashamed of having always equated the perfect atmosphere in the stadiums with masculinity. With the growing popularity of women’s football and the use of Premier League stadiums for more than sport, we are showing that these spaces are for everyone. Toxic masculinity shouldn’t dictate what it means to create an atmosphere – because when we let it, we let all that it encompasses flourish.
Football fans like to convince themselves that racism exists in football because racism exists everywhere. And that’s true. But why were there no reports of homophobic abuse on the pitch at Euro 2022 this year? Why were there no reports of violence from the two nights Lady Gaga sold the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium? Why would a father happily take his young daughter to a WSL Leicester match but think again before taking her to a Premier League game?
The reason is that men’s football has become a safe space for violence, racism, homophobia and misogyny over decades of reinforcement. By making football pitches a safe space for all, we can truly rid the game of the aspects that tarnish the enjoyment of the game for the vast majority of us. If putting rainbows in stadiums makes people uncomfortable, do more. If some men feel it’s not “their club” anymore because they can’t sing the anti-Semitic chant they used to sing in the 1970s, then let them stay home. We don’t need it. Football doesn’t need it.
Making women, ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ+ community uncomfortable on and off the pitch at football games has been the tactic used by toxic masculinity for decades, and governing bodies and clubs have been complicit in not doing enough to solve the problems. But, if their inaction is steeped in fears of loss of atmosphere or – even more reprehensible – loss of income, they need not worry. Because it turns out 70,000 people shed a tear as Lady Gaga sat at her piano in the middle of a football pitch in July and 87,000 people sang Sweet Caroline when the Lionesses won the European Championship .
We don’t need aggression and hatred to create an atmosphere. In fact, it’s better if we don’t have it. In fact, it’s much better.