Women’s Football Euros – a step forward for women in sport

Dave Kellaway reflects on the significance of the Women’s Euros.

 

Russo’s back heel, the Stanway screamer, Toone’s chip and the Kelly poke…the football was exciting to watch and technically impressive. But the significance of the 2022 Women’s Euros was much more than just the beautiful football. They were also about the historical struggle for women’s rights and emancipation. At the same time, LBGT+ and racial diversity became part of the public debate.

Last week we saw two contrasting images of femininity: Kelly’s exultant dash in her sports bra compared with the spray tan shallowness of the women on Love Island ‘reality’ TV.

Unlike in the men’s game, star women footballers were relaxed about being public about their same-sex relationships. Captain Leah Williamson, pointedly wore a rainbow armband throughout the championships. She eloquently rejected any complacency about the ‘all white’ composition of the first eleven team. Williamson talked in the press conferences about the measures the FA and the squad were taking to be more inclusive of Black and Asian players. Women who have experienced years of pushback and discrimination by Football’s governing bodies are less likely to ignore other forms of discrimination.

We saw the much commented distinctive atmosphere among the crowds at the games. No repeat of the hooliganism of last year’s Italy/England men’s Euros final at Wembley which included racist incidents against Italian fans. There was little segregation between fans which is common for the men’s game. We did not hear the racist anti-German bomber songs or the No Surrender to the IRA chants (yes they sing it even if there are no Irish teams competing). The toxic masculinity that mars the male version of the sport was thankfully absent. Even on the pitch, you saw a lot less aggressive posturing from the players, even if the competitive physicality today is a key ingredient.

The toxic masculinity that mars the male version of the sport was thankfully absent. Even on the pitch, you saw a lot less aggressive posturing from the players

True, the media drums up a certain chauvinism that was also reflected in the commentary in which German fouls were always described as more heinous than the comparable English ones. Also, there was a certain under-appreciation of the skill levels of the German team.

However, most commentators recognised the vital importance of the 12th woman in the success of the team – the Dutch ‘wunder’ coach, Sarina Weigman. Her exceptional managerial and leadership talent which helped the Dutch team to victory at the last Euros and to a World Cup Final meant that there was a multi-national element in the process. She is currently still undefeated as the England manager and provides a calm, intelligent contrast to the histrionics of some well-known male managers.

Some on left make no distinction between cheering for the national football team and supporting the British state in its imperialist or repressive role. As if the England/German match was August 14 once again (this was when the Social Democrats all capitulated to their national bourgeoisies in the First World War). Agreed it would be great if the class consciousness of working people was so advanced that they carried red flags to football matches and refused to cheer for one side or the other. But taken to its logic this would mean you would never cheer for one side to beat another. Lefties who are diehard Man United supporters get upset with fans supporting the national team but are happy to find no wrong with their team. I think focusing on the nationalist aspect above all the other positive aspects of the tournament is not the best point on which to engage with football fans.

Indeed you can have people waving the English flag or the Union Jack and still boo Tory politicians at sporting events. Remember George Osborne’s reception at the London Olympics. Johnson did not attend the final. He gave the excuse of attendance at the David Trimble funeral but he could have made it back. The real reason is that he would have certainly been booed like he was at the Jubilee celebrations recently.

A lot more people today are now better informed about the history of discrimination against women playing football. The media has given some background on the huge success of women’s football during the First World War when the men’s game was suspended.  Tens of thousands attended the games which often raised big sums for war charities. After the war, this continued and teams even raised money for striking miners. This is unsurprising given the overwhelmingly working-class basis of the sport which was strongest in the Midlands and Northern industrial areas. Football’s governing bodies sabotaged the emerging women’s games by preventing them from playing in any official football league ground. Effectively this meant that only small crowds could watch and it undermined any financial structure for the women’s game. The ban was only lifted in 1971!  

It was moving to see how many times the current stars referred back to the women’s shoulders on which they stood. Some of these pioneers were also the pundits and commentators on the games. Many of them were not able to make a professional living from football, unlike today’s elite players.

Alex Scott (former England international) and Cherlene White (TV presenter), who are both Black, provoked quite a social media storm when they carefully raised the issue of the ‘all white’ profile of the first eleven. Only 3 out of the 23-strong squad were Black. In some respects, this represented a step backwards because Black players like Scott, Yankey, Asante and manager, Hope Powell were stars of previous England squads.

What is refreshingly different from the record of the cricket authorities on this issue was that the FA leadership acknowledged the problem and has developed some measures to address it. One key problem was that the academies where the elite youth players train is now often located in the suburbs or rural areas away from the inner cities. New facilities have been built there. As the game has become more professional and tied into the big clubs, the cost and time involved in committing to the academies can make it more difficult for working-class black girls to gain access.

The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) has also identified this fault line, recently setting up the “See It, Achieve It” campaign to counter the absence of visible role models from ethnically diverse backgrounds. The PFA initiative is being led by former England international Fern Whelan, the organisation’s women’s football equality, diversity and inclusion executive.

Kelly Simmons, FA director of Women’s Football has commented:

Girls still have to pay to play in the Academy system, but boys are actually paid to do so, and they’re often ferried to and from training by the clubs. There isn’t the resource in the women’s game to do that.

It has been reported too that long journeys on public transport for girls are not accepted so easily by families as they are when their sons are involved. Other initiatives like setting up 70 ‘Emerging Talent’ centres in the communities or the ‘Discover my Talent’ programme should help.

For socialists, it is important that we support all proposals that extend participation in sport. The old slogan, Sport for All, is a progressive one. We are in favour of the positive health and social benefits of sport. It should be a right and ideally should be free. Swimming currently is in some areas for young people and over 50s. Labour can win support if it puts forward an extensive and detailed programme for sport with this inclusive agenda. 

For socialists, it is important that we support all proposals that extend participation in sport. The old slogan, Sport for All, is a progressive one.

The left should also have something to say on the general governance and organisation of the game. We need to make proposals that prevent the Women’s Soccer League (WSL) from becoming a carbon copy of the men’s Premiership which is dominated by half a dozen super clubs with huge corporate resources. Why not pool the TV and sponsorship revenues so there is a redistribution that produces a more even spread of finance and a fairer, more competitive league? The government could regulate football to make it a statutory requirement to have fan and community involvement in the running of clubs.

Ensuring schools give girls equal access to football is another part of the change that is needed. The cup-winning England squad penned a tweet to Sunak and Truss, as one of them will be the next prime minister, raising demands around this question.

We want every young girl in the nation to be able to play football at school. Currently only 63 per cent of girls can play football in PE lessons. The reality is we are inspiring young girls to play football, only for many to end up going to school and not being able to play. (…) We ask you and your government to ensure that all girls have access to a minimum of 2hrs a week PE. (…)Not only should we be offering football to all girls, we need to invest in and support female PE teachers too. Their role is crucial and we need to give them the resources to provide girls’ football sessions. They are key role models from which so many young girls can flourish.

Although the Women’s Euros was a step forward for women’s sports there is still some way to go. Last year’s men’s losing finalists, England, were paid around a £500.000 bonus, and members of the winning women’s squad only received £65,000.


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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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