Although I more than caught up in enthusiasm, two days before the glorious celebration that was the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics I was pretty nonchalant about the XXX Olympiad. The Premier League 2011/2012 had gifted me an FA cup win and a Champions League victory for Chelsea with the euphoria of those two triumphs carrying me through to the Euros. Really, after eleven months of football I thought I was pretty much emotionally done with competitions for a while.
As Team GB’s women prepared to take on New Zealand in the tournament’s opener on Wednesday 25th July I viewed it as an opportunity to up my knowledge of the women’s game. Honestly I expected it to be like a Confederations Cup tournament at the tail end of a full season I would at best be a casual observer.
The Premier League season gave way to the Euros, the Euros flowed in to the Olympics, and the men stepped aside for the women. At least that’s how it went for me. On that first day something wonderful happened, my football universe expanded, there was suddenly much much more of what I loved. I began to think of football in terms of men’s and women’s interchangeably and I had to keep rereading footballing tweets I was seeing to determine whether it was the women’s or the men’s game that was being referenced, I had not found the women’s game wanting and I now had an entry point in to supporting it.
I used to manage a jewelry store. When my team greeted me with the news that we had all been signed up for a shop football team I was at first skeptical, not in the least because I was already a yoga junkie and competitive sport was something I’d left behind on the netball courts at school. It was the notion that this was something I’d never done before that changed my mind and it led to one of my most memorably happy sporting experiences. We began training that November, hiring a weekly session at a south London astro turf club. We got ourselves a coach in March, competed against similar all women’s teams and finished our ‘season’ in a 5 a side tournament at Norbury Power League in May. I scored our first goal. We won a third place trophy. Awesome.
Now I accept that in the context of the company we worked for, playing as a women’s team was unique, the warehouse and delivery men got together to play sometimes. As the weather got warmer we moved to training on Clapham Common and every Sunday without fail we would be approached by women wanting to join us and get involved. I have this memory of a Brazilian family, the woman turned to the man with her, handed him the baby she’d been carrying on her hip and came over to speak to us. Her partner stood holding their child with an empty pushchair beside him and their two 3 and 5 year olds running after their mum, it’s the smile on his face that rounds off that image for me. The notion that women aren’t into football is just alien to me and is not borne out by experience.
I followed my first twitter football buddy because her knowledge of the game is outstanding. It’s a delight to immerse yourself fanatically in the aspects of the game and share the experience with someone who has a sound football head on her shoulders, through her I’ve connected with other Chelsea fans and I’ve found that the dimension of shared experience that online communities enables is a newly discovered pleasure. Not once has the question of gender been raised, football is one of those spaces where the great equaliser is your knowledge and appreciation for the game.
Perhaps it’s that my TL is relatively quiet and my football family is generally respectful, this is no accident as it’s heavily filtered and pruned for ignorance. It’s a safe space and there’s not much misogyny that passes through it when casual sexism pops up it’s sometimes startling. On the eve of the Euros I received a jaunty ode to the football widow, pretty certain that this isn’t 1973 my outrage led to a vocal Unfollow but not before an explanation was given about the perniciousnessness of ‘banter’. That exchange became an educational conversation and the following day I drew a line under it and maintained my connection.
This weekend I was reminded of the pockets of ignorance that still need to be challenged within the football fraternity but it wasn’t a surprise to witness men and women calling out someone on his bullshit. There’s some comfort to be had knowing that when you do stand up to it and remind a fool that women like football too you will be supported. Negativity and bullshit ultimately spoil the football experience for all of us; Twitter’s so good for magnifying this.
These were the first Olympics at which every sport had female competitors and it comes a quite a shock to learn that there will no football in Rio given the next level elevation the women’s football teams demonstrated to a global audience. Women’s football rightly claimed its place under the gaze of an audience enthusiastic and determined to watch any elite athletes in any elite sport perform.
What I would expect to experience in the wake of the ‘girls’ games’ is a progressive and inclusive attitude across all strata of the football industry. Disappointingly I’ve noticed the step change downwards happen almost immediately. Timed to coincide with season a current affairs discussion on the BBC aired a yawnsome debate comparing reprobate footballers to golden game Olympians. It was the start of the Premier League 2012/2013 and the subject still had topical currency. From a mixed lineup talking about maternity leave provision the discussion lineup changed to allow pundit Pat Nevin to take part.
Now personally it’s with immense relief that I wasn’t subjected to the views of Katie’s Hopkins on this subject, but I was left aghast by the woman-off man-on ahem substitution. It’s really quite hypocritical on a channel that was home to the most excellent Olympics coverage with commentators obviously selected for their knowledge and analytical abilities. Faye White and Lucy Ward were pundits for the women’s matches and could effectively replace any of those floating out of work managers who show up on the MOTD or Football Focus sofas.
The subsequent discussion was mediated by a host who very apparently had a shallow understanding of football culture -all anecdotes and third hand research. Not good enough on Auntie’s part and I was disappointed to witness the visibility of women who love football be reduced, it’s subtle but meaningful. During the Games the BBC demonstrated that it has access to a number of knowledgeable and authoritative sofa-comfortable women whose contribution to a conversation about football would have been welcome, timely and entirely appropriate. Own goal
The expectations for what the Olympics legacy will bestow upon us are high and now couldn’t be a better time to capitalize on the interest in the women’s game and follow it through to the FA Women’s Super League. Women’s sports receive 5% of sports media coverage it’s clear that lack of access, sponsorship and support are not the only impediments to this footballing nation’s celebration of the women’s game. Habits have to be challenged at all levels of the football industry.
*Chelsea Ladies play Bristol Academy Women on Saturday 22nd September and are fifth in the WSL table.