From rivalries to inclusion, women’s football has a decision to make over which direction it wants to head in.
“Wow” I kept hearing it, from those next to me in the press box to those on Twitter, just, wow. “I’ve never experienced an atmosphere like that at a women’s game before… wow.” “Wow. That. Was. Amazing.” The appreciation only hammered home the discomfort in my gut. It was loud. I didn’t want to crack into the overlapping synonyms like raucous or claustrophobic, and I certainly didn’t want to even let the word “oppressive” crystalise in my conscious mind. Loud covered it and that was fine, but the knot in the pit of my stomach refused to loosen, rather it reached up my torso and intermittently squeezed at my chest as it had all match.
When you have over 90,000 people in any one place, it can and will be loud, but for 90 minutes the soundwaves crashed against my head, throbbing through my mind and disrupting all thought. The cheers were part and parcel and something that would have to be adapted to, but the booing and hissing from tens and tens of thousands of people grabbed at my throat, choking the air out of my lungs. I had never heard anything like it before. Each boo hung thickly in the air, mixing into a hate-filled humidity.
It would go on to be an atmosphere that everyone lauded, after all: wow. But they were right, it wasn’t like any women’s match we had been at before. It was an El Clásico, a meeting of two clubs who have bathed in hatred for each other for over a century, if there was any time that atmosphere was to be expected, it would be at the meeting of the two. As I said at the time, the derby is, “about identity, about the endless internalised battles Spain has struggled with for far longer than this tie has been a classic.” Maybe it was simply the atmosphere one could or should expect for an El Clásico played at a near-packed Camp Nou.
I haven’t slept, I haven’t eaten and all my brain can pick out is an unforgiving wall of noise pic.twitter.com/lgVpDC7PH6— Sophie Lawson (@lawson_sv) March 30, 2022
I came home the next day but weeks later I was still left with the knot in my stomach, even when I returned to Barcelona for the first leg of semi-final against Wolfsburg, the knot was still there. After the match, I sat outside my hotel and waxed poetic in the fresh night air, my mind telling me not to share this anxious opinion, yet here we are and I find myself at a fork in the road similar to the one women’s football does.
I’m a soft soul, maybe that’s a necessary caveat. I got into women’s football because I was already a fan of the men’s game but the very idea of attending men’s matches made me uncomfortable. They say that football is for all, but I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable in a dense men’s football crowd.
One of the things we always say about women’s football is how welcoming it is, and yes, there are multiple frustrations that [in England] the game had for so long been marketed directly to children. It’s sold as a day out for the family, football without hostility and players, pure players, playing for the love of the game.
This idea of a family atmosphere has driven the sport, but for me – and many others – it’s the inclusion that makes the game so welcoming, attending matches aren’t a source of anxiety or discomfort – performance of your team aside. We usually use this idea of an open and safe space to mean queer sexual and gender identities, but it reaches beyond the LGBTQI+ spectrum, it breaks colour and disability barriers. You could even joke that it’s the future liberals want. [It should be pointed out that there have been incidences of racism and homophobia reported in the women’s game in England, but they remain the rare exception, not the depressing norm’.]
So, what happens to this open environment as the game grows? Everyone associated with women’s football (and women’s sport as a whole) wants to see the game grow, wants those who play to be treated with respect and be in a position to realise their dreams and turn professional. Professional sport needs investment and that investment needs fans, so, women’s football has no room to turn any fans away right?
When not marketing to children, the game has historically stood on rooftops and hollered at the men’s fans of the same team, one club right? But those are some (not all) of the same fans that will reply, “no one cares” when their club tweets out something about the women’s team on the main or men’s account. Likewise, not all fans of men’s football flirt with hooliganism, not all fans of the men’s game will follow their team on a European tour, drinking all day and starting fights before hurling racist abuse at locals. The England fans who caused troubles at European Championship final last summer are representative of the minority, but they exist within the men’s game, like a tumour that needs to be cut out before it does any deeper damage. Not least with reports this week highlighting the extra measures the powers that be are planning to take should England women progress at this summer’s Euros.
Women’s football is at a crossroads, in fact, it’s been hovering in place for several years, uncertain which path to proceed down. There is an assumption, or a fallacy, that women’s football has to follow the same path as the men’s game, after all, men’s football is a breathless success loved the world over. Not just a commercial success, football has bridged countless gaps, and repeatedly been a source for progress and positive change. But football has made countless mistakes in countless countries along the way, and women’s football has every opportunity to learn from those mistakes and do things differently.
Women’s football doesn’t have to sell its soul for 30 pieces of silver, or at least it shouldn’t. As the women’s game falls under the reach of FIFA, it is at the whims of the governing body, just as countless clubs who’ve grown fat off of blood money have women’s teams who benefit from the same funding lines. Yet there are conscious decisions that can be made, like Scottish Women’s Football banning all alcohol and gambling sponsorships as far back as 2016. Women’s football is under no obligation to tread the same path that the men’s game has.
Back on the pitch, or in the stands, women’s football has a handful of rivalries, now, that’s rivalries that have grown on the women’s side, not the men’s, but you can’t simply supplant them from one to the other. Rivalries are born from moments of anguish, of wounds inflicted upon the football psyche, but from a deeper, longer-term struggle for power.
When the USMNT play Mexico, hearing shouts of, “Dos a Cero” makes sense, yet, when the USWNT play El Tri Femenil, it’s a non-sequitur. In 41 matches, Mexico have beaten the USA just once – compared with the 36 times Mexico men have beaten the USMNT [in 74 meetings]. The two nations will forever play each other as both are CONCACAF members, but beyond a sense of national pride with huge geopolitical underpinnings, there is not the rivalry on the women’s side as there is the men’s – at least, not yet. Dos a cero simply doesn’t belong at a women’s match.
In 1913, Arsenal moved some 11 miles northwest of their home in Plumsted to Highbury, which rather upset a Spurs team who weren’t used to neighbours, especially not such noisy ones. In time, that rivalry grew, but it was always based on geography and a team who emigrated from South to North of the River. Now, from that move at the start of the last century, let’s fast-forward 72 years to when the team that would go on to become Spurs Women were founded as amateur side, Broxbourne Ladies. The side would move home grounds over their lower league years before settling at Cheshunt (eight miles north of Tottenham) and then moving to their current home at the Hive, in Barnet. Ironically, moving closer – about five miles south – to where Arsenal Women play in Borehamwood (in Hertfordshire).
Before Spurs migrated, the two met in the fifth round of the FA Cup in 2017, Arsenal as a juggernaut of the women’s game who’d won 14 FA Cups and Spurs, an amateur side playing in the third tier. Now, it is worth pointing out that Spurs were having one hell of a season and came into the match on quite the winning run, but there was little they could do against a team of eleven full international players. Heather O’Reilly, Kim Little, Jordan Nobbs, Daniëlle van de Donk… well, it seemed like overkill. The match was heralded as a new day in the North London Derby, despite the fact that both teams played in Hertfordshire and it would take Spurs two hard-fought promotions for the two to clash in the league.
Now, don’t get me wrong, after that match, I’m sure the Spurs players felt the anguish I mentioned above but some of that had certainly come from the skewed coverage that was so desperate to bill another NLD. And I’m not trying to rob Arsenal fans of an irrational dislike of Spurs, or vice versa, as I’m sure that rivalry is felt on a molecular level but, between the two women’s teams (not clubs), there is no grounding for the animosity.
Spurs are growing as a team, there can be no question that they have continued to develop through those promotions and their time spent in WSL – and it was only in November that the two played out a draw – but there was little need for the booing that became a fixture of the match on Wednesday. It took me back to Barcelona, albeit on a smaller scale, and the noise from the home fans.
National culture embeds itself in football culture and how we support our teams and express our fandom. For me – and this is simply how it is for me – supporting a team means just that, cheering them on and finding ways to lift them up, it does not mean booing the opposition, and trying to bring them down. It’s the difference between positivity and negativity, it’s about not fostering a culture of hatred because no good comes from that. And yes, we are still talking about booing players, about creating a furore intended to disrupt their focus and impact their football. To have a whole stadium biting at each other, it toxifies everything it touches, that anger spreads from person to person, it overflows onto the pitch and creates needless flashpoints. It leads us back down a path of hooliganism, of thinking it’s okay to stay angry, it brings out the worst in us.
️ Wälti: "The relationship with the supporters is more personal and the atmosphere is more family-focused. I want women's football to stay that way.— miedemastuff (@miedemastuff) January 29, 2022
On the other hand, I hope that federations and clubs that don't take women's football seriously, start doing so." pic.twitter.com/NHgUtjEagx
When I think about women’s football, I think of fans cheering on their teams – yes, there are certain players against certain teams who will incite booing, but I think of a happy atmosphere. The first game of the regular season played at the Emirates didn’t have the animosity, despite the fact it was Arsenal versus Chelsea, two teams who would likely be grappling for the title. The fans were loud and in good spirits, but the home support was just that; supportive of the home team, now, compare that to the Spurs game...
When I was in Barcelona, I also wrote something imploring people to simply treat women’s football as football and not make a distinction based on gender, but surely, that parity means I can’t clamber upon a high horse now?
Football is a game, a sport with standardised rules but different interpretations. Think of the sweeping generalisations people who don’t like the women’s game make, about how it’s slower or less physical, now, think of men’s football in England, in Spain, Sweden, the USA, Japan and Nigeria. Travel the world and you’ll see different styles, the same applies for the women’s game, domestically and internationally. Now think about how the support can be different based on where you are, think of the different cultures. Yet it remains football, just football.
Women’s football has a history of being treated as a curiosity, something lesser than its male counterpart. For years, women have been told to be grateful for the morsels they’ve been thrown, be it old and oversized kits to play in or a footnote in a sports paper. We’ve been told that there’s a purity to the women’s game because these women don’t want for the lavish life of the Premier League, they play as amateurs because they love the game. They’re soft, delicate creatures and would never dream of tackling each other; their matches make for a good day out for the family.
For as long as there are fans and investors, women’s football can and will not stop growing, more players will have the chance of turning professional and more fans, young and old will grow interested in the sport. Maybe, as the game continues to play catch-up on all fronts, its personality will end up aligning to that of its male counterpart but maybe this is one of the areas that women’s football is leading – or can lead – the way. The path it choses doesn’t have to be strewn with projectiles launched from hostile fans, but one that is safe and comfortable for all. It can be a sport that elevates its players rather than one that reaches out a fist to punch another down.