Why female football fans must be taken seriously

Esme Garlake 12 December 2018
Image Credit: Esme Garlake

A few months ago, whilst waiting to go through the security checks at Pisa airport, an Italian man in his forties began talking to me. I was slightly wary of his enthusiasm; as a woman, being ‘friendly’ to a man in Italy was likely to be perceived as ‘leading him on’. It was a lesson I had learned when, a few days after moving to Italy, an eighty-year-old male neighbour had asked me out for coffee upon discovering I was single.

I was put at ease by the man in the queue, however. After a few minutes of small talk about football teams (I explained I was a big Aston Villa fan), he told me he was travelling to Liverpool to see his girlfriend, where he would soon be moving permanently, as they were expecting a baby. I congratulated him, and asked whether they knew the sex. They did not, but he hoped it would be a boy so that they could go to football matches together. I laughed (so as not to cry, I suppose) and told him that, just as my father had done, he could perfectly easily take his little girl. He smiled and shook his head somewhat guiltily, though not guiltily enough to suggest any change of heart: “No, football is for men”.

For most of us today, such blatant sexism and conservatism thankfully verges on the comic, and we mostly feel sorry that his child, boy or girl, will be brought up in the shadow of such old-fashioned ideas. However, when gendered differences in football are not as clear-cut, they are harder to address. A woman’s love for football is very rarely seen in its own terms because her love for the game is almost always seen as less than what a man can feel for it. This dynamic is hardly surprising when we consider that she is a spectator to a male world. When we watch a football match we often see ourselves in the players’ shoes, which explains why supporting a team provides such a sense of achievement and comradeship. It is the working class game, a game for anyone, regardless of background and privilege, and the fact that modern TV cameras throw the viewer right into the action only increases football’s appeal as a symbol of inclusion. It is far easier for a male spectator to imagine himself in the shoes of the male footballers, managers, commentators or referees. For a woman it is a more remote, abstract exercise; her male counterparts will always be a step ahead.

The obvious answer to this is the promotion of women’s football. Indeed, young girls being able to watch women football players has certainly boosted interest in taking up the sport. But I believe that until male fans treat female fans as equally passionate and valid supporters of the male teams, there will always be an underlying sexism at work in this sport. For if parents, teachers, sports people of all genders nurtured girls’ love of football as seriously as boys’, then the world of football would naturally be more open to women both on and off the pitch.

The fact is that my love for football is not as deep as the men’s around me simply because of my lack of experience in actually playing the game. Young girls only play football if they show a real interest, and it is difficult to harbour that interest (or even realise you have it) when no one expects it from you. Boys tend to show an interest in football because that is what they are expected to do. As a child, I knew I loved football and my parents knew it too. I was proud that I was the only one in my class who wasn’t a ‘glory supporter’, that I always stuck up for my team even though ‘Villa are crap’, and I was especially smug that I had already seen Aston Villa play a handful of times (unlike the silly Manchester United boys around me). It was an innocent feeling of ownership that for a short time was strengthened by the boys not taking it seriously. Then when I was around ten years old, I joined the football team at school. None of the boys passed to me, the teacher told me to ‘stop playing like a girl’ and it confirmed more solidly something that I had already felt at times: this was not a club to which I belonged.

Still today, when I speak to my male family members, friends, or even strangers next to me at a match or in the pub, I frequently have a sense of needing to ‘prove’ that I really am a proper football supporter. When I express an opinion about a game or a team, it is quite common for me to feel unheard; my comment is left hanging in the air without a direct response. Even if it is a fruitful conversation, I can still sometimes detect that old familiar feeling of either ‘knowing’ less, or, much worse, ‘caring’ less. The same comes from many female friends too, who don’t understand that I’m watching the match because of the game, like our male friends, and not just using it as an excuse to hang out with friends at the pub.

There has been significant progress in women’s football in the past few years, although there is still much further to go. We must think more deeply about the imaginative appeal of the game and its power to include, and try to understand the reasons for which women have been pushed out. It is the beautiful game’s potential to disrupt social structures that simultaneously reveals why women are excluded, as much as why they should be included. The football pitch is a stage for social change: terrifying for the conservatives out there, but hugely exciting for those who are striving to see a world of gender equality.