I’ve been playing football since I was 8-years-old, and in that time, I’ve thought about throwing in the towel more times than I can count. Being a girl or woman that plays a ‘manly’ sport can be a battle, but it’s definitely one that is worth the fight. I’m now 23, and have played for a load of teams, in different countries and at different levels. It’s never been adapting to new teams, or the language barrier or not making the starting 11 which has been what nearly put me off, but instead it’s been attitudes and opinions. Attitudes and opinions, not just of small-minded beer-belly blokes that like to make their voices heard at every opportunity, but also of those closest to me who didn’t understand why I’d chosen to play a sport traditionally played by men.
In this piece, I’m going to talk through a few of the moments that made me want to stop playing football, and why, all these years later they still stick with me. The positive thing is that I’m still here, still playing, and I’m now a voice trying to change the narrative, so whatever people say to you, keep your head up and prove them wrong. I knew before I sat down to write this that there were too many specific occasions to go into detail on every single one, partly because if I did, I would fill a book, not just a blog post, and secondly because I knew that dragging up some of these experiences would just make me angry all over again!
I think it’s super important to share these negative experiences as well as positive ones to change opinions about the women’s game, and to make it clear that it’s not okay to make someone feel like they shouldn’t play a sport that they love.
The start of the football journey
I don’t think that there were many primary schools who provided as many opportunities for girls to get involved with football as mine, and from what I have seen, these opportunities have only got better since I’ve grown up. One of the female teachers at the school had previously played for West Ham Ladies and was passionate about getting girls to play, no matter their ability. Also, despite the school having a really successful netball team, all the girls were encouraged to give football a try, and training was always organised so that they didn’t clash with each other.
As an 8-year-old girl, I didn’t really have any idea that people would have a problem with me playing football, but even at that age, some of the boys would make comments about how girls shouldn’t play. It’s quite a long time ago, but one such comment really does stick in my mind:
‘Girls shouldn’t play football!’
It was something that I would hear many many times in the future, but on that specific occasion I thought, ‘well, you’re wrong’. You’ll also be pleased to hear that as the smug 8-year-old boy ran away laughing, I kicked a football at him, which hit him with a satisfying thud. Of course, I would never condone violence as a way to get back at someone, but on this occasion as an 8-year-old girl, having the skill to hit my critic with a pinpoint kick proved him wrong, and probably made him think twice about mouthing off to any other girl footballers.
GCSE’s, A Levels and fighting to play
I thought that secondary school would be a new opportunity, and I was pleasantly surprised at one of the open evenings that the school claimed to have a girls football team. Alas, by the time I got into the school, this was not the case, and for the next 7 years it was a constant battle between me and the PE department to play football.
It wasn’t until I had trials at Arsenal and Reading that they finally let me play football in PE, which was already 4 years into my time at the school. Finally, I thought, but I was also dreading it. As I was one of the first girls to play football with the boys, I thought that if I messed it up, I would be ruining the chances for future female footballers to be able to get involved. Luckily, I had a great group of guy friends who supported me through it, and although it was tough, it definitely benefited me in terms of confidence, and I proved to the school that it shouldn’t be a problem for girls to get involved.
In Sixth Form, I was made Sports Captain (a prefect put in charge of sports at the school) and was determined to make a difference for other girls who wanted to get involved with football, or for that matter other sports which weren’t traditionally offered to girls. At the same time, I continued to play football recreationally with the boys, despite some sarcastic comments, from those who I managed to nutmeg, alongside playing and training with Wycombe Wanderers Ladies out of school hours. However, I never felt completely accepted, despite a majority of the boys I was playing with being my friends. I was still always questioning whether I was good enough in the back of my mind, and similarly, I thought the boys were probably thinking the same.
‘Shouldn’t you be playing netball?’
In my penultimate year at the school, I was awarded ‘full colours’ which were a prize awarded to people who were high-achieving in sports. Before I became Sports Captain these were only given to students who played the sport for the school, but I had argued that there were people who couldn’t (or weren’t allowed!) to play the sport they loved. I think that this was one of my biggest achievements of my teenage years; not necessarily getting the prize itself, but paving the way for other female footballers excluded from the school set-up to still be recognised for their achievements.
It was certainly an uphill battle to get those hours playing in school time, but it was worth it, and it definitely helped me realise that I would have to fight to get into the teams I wanted to play for and to keep pushing women’s football. I also realised that being a player didn’t just mean putting on my boots and playing, but it also meant getting involved with the issues that surrounded the game. I can happily report that my school now has a girls football team in nearly every year and that they’re winning a lot of games! If only they’d listened a bit earlier…
University: Cliques, cleats and lad culture
I had it in my mind that university football would be the best years of my career so far, and that the sexist comments were a thing of school. Boy, was I wrong.
Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy uni football. It’s great to be able to roll out of bed and go to training, and then finish lectures and pull on my boots again, but I did struggle with the cliques and lad culture. For whatever reason, there was a small minority of girls who would make comments about the players in the lower teams, despite preaching the need for a ‘family’ mentality. For someone who was used to criticism from the boys and support from the girls, this was a big shock to me.
In my second year, I bounced between the 1st XI and 2nd XI, and felt that the superiority complex of this small group was creating a really toxic environment. I never thought it would be other football girls that made me want to quit, but if it hadn’t been for a couple of close friends in other teams, I would have called it a day.
Something which I expected more was ‘lads’ making comments about women playing football. I thought that this would be less of a problem at a uni like Bath, which is renowned for it’s sport, but unfortunately, it was still something which I saw and heard a lot. One such occasion was when we shared a coach back from a fixture in Swansea with the men’s hockey team. They spent the journey making comments about the girls appearances, sexual jokes and how women who played football were all lesbians. Literally, a 3 hour journey of comments like this…
‘Girls who play football are all lesbians, right?’
I do have a thick skin, but it really got to me that these men were making comments right to our faces, and didn’t stop. We were representing the university just like they were, we’d won our match (which they hadn’t) and we hadn’t made any comments to warrant their onslaught. I still get angry thinking about the situation, and sometimes tell myself that I should have said something at the time, but in reality it’s not worth trying to reason with a small-minded pack, no matter what they say.
What really hit me about the situation, was that no-one else made any effort to try and diffuse the situation. There was another sports team on the bus who sat quietly and accepted what was going on. Similarly there was coaching staff, who should have at least some control over their team, especially when they were making comments like they were. A lot of the football girls also seemed equally unfazed, which surprised me. I can understand not wanting to exacerbate the situation, as I said above, but most of them seemed to accept that these comments were an inevitability.
España: Sun, sea and sexist photographers
My time playing in Spain was amazing, and I would recommend it to anyone who gets the chance to go, but there seemed to be just as many women’s football critics in Spain as there are here. The club that I played for had one women’s team and over 15 boy’s and men’s teams, and we were always at the bottom of the chain. We’d have to warm up on the concrete next to the pitch or not at all if the men’s team game ran over, and the club would change our fixtures without consulting us. However, the worst instance of sexism was at a club photo-shoot.
Three of the women’s team, myself being one of them, were chosen to be part of the club photo-shoot for the new website. ‘Exciting’, I thought. The club want to showcase the women’s side and attract more players. However, arriving at the club, it was clear that the particular photographer they had chosen did not share my excitement. We arrived for our slot at 10am, and he refused to photograph us until nearly 11, as he condescendingly said that the pictures of the youth boys teams were ‘un poco más importante’ (A bit more important) before arguing with the club official that this was the case. Bearing in mind that we as a team paid exactly the same subs, and were generally much lower maintenance, I didn’t buy into his argument, as you can probably imagine.
‘Los chicos son un poco mas importante, no?’The boys are a little bit more important, don’t you think?
By this point, the three of us were already pretty miffed at the whole situation, and were WhatsApping the team with updates of the almost comically sexist photographer. The worst was to come. When he finally deemed it time to shoot us, he told us to pose ‘como modelas’ (like models). ‘Paint me like your French girls’ vibes, for sure. I guess this was a pretty harmless comment really, but we weren’t there to look like models, but to show that women and girls could play football for the club. I’ve thought about this more recently, as Casey Stoney spoke about her annoyance that female athletes are chosen for commercial sponsorships dependant on appearance, which is a kick in the teeth if we compare it to the men’s game… Bale isn’t everyone’s cup of tea appearance-wise, but he had no problem finding sponsors in Adidas, Nissan and Foot Locker. Anyway, a conversation for another day. In this instance it was just another example of this man’s small minded attitude to women playing football in Spain.
The nail in the coffin was one of his last comments as he did the shoot. He’d been really reluctant to do action shots or anything with us actually playing, which was weird in itself, but when a club official suggested we do some keepy-ups for a bit more variety of photo, he practically laughed in his face saying ‘pero, las chicas no pueden!’ (But girls can’t do them!) For Sabela, one of the other girls, this was the last straw. Sabela was one of the most skilful players on the team, and made a point of acing 5 minutes of freestyle keeps-ups, before turning to the photographer and saying ‘las chicas pueden hacer cualquier cosa que puedan hacer los chicos’.
‘Las chicas pueden hacer cualquier cosa que puedan hacer los chicos!’
Girls can do anything that boys can do!
Thankfully, it wiped the smirk off his face for a minute or so…
15 years of criticism: What’s the message?
Firstly, the message is that despite 15 years of fighting to play, insults, comments about my appearance and questions over my sexuality, I still choose to play and involve myself in the women’s game. If, like me, you’ve had wobbles after a particularly nasty or closed-minded comment, just remember that if you quit, they’re winning and they’ll continue to make those comments to countless more people. You wouldn’t stop eating your favourite food because someone else says they don’t like it. The same applies here! It’s none of their business what you do or don’t like. The best thing we can do is to keep supporting each other, and the women’s game in general. The more people that see how great the WSL, Championship and FAWNL (and all the grassroots league), the better!
The women’s game is on the rise massively, and personally, I’m really excited to be part of this new era. Keep on supporting your teammates and silencing the critics, because at the end of the day, the more of us that get involved, the less criticism future generations of female footballers will have to face.
Join the conversation!
This has been difficult for me to write, but worth it! I hope that someone reads this and decides to carry on playing despite comments which put them off!
I know that I won’t be the only one who has dealt with these issues, and I’d love it if people would share their story with me, either anonymously via Direct Message to me personally (@LishaPovs), or by commenting on here or on Twitter. Let’s get the conversation going and show that no matter what people say, women’s football is here to stay for the long term!