Almost three years ago, one of my first features for Daily Cannon was about the condescension of female football fans.
As a female Gooner, I wrote from personal experience about how women often have to answer a 100-question quiz on the history of world football if they just so happen to mention that they enjoy watching the sport. Whereas, as I say in my previous piece, “any bloke can seemingly fart his way into the conversation without as much as a raised eyebrow.”
Not being taken seriously as a female fan isn’t just about pride, although of course that’s involved to a certain degree, it’s about how quickly women can be completely written off and nodded out of a conversation if men don’t deem them as worthy.
If I misquote a manager, forget something that happened in the weekend’s game or make a mistake when using statistical evidence, it’s because I’m not as clued-up as men about football. If a man does the same, he’s only human – it’s just a mistake.
As a female football writer, I’m often pulled up about nothing more than human error far more than my male counterparts. And, after speaking with over 100 women who are every bit as passionate as men about football, I’m confident in the fact this isn’t sheer coincidence.
When I set out to rewrite my original piece published almost three years ago, I wanted to simply pen an up-to-date version given my experience in the field. And by ‘the field’ I mean at the matches, on the internet and in the pub. However, when I put out a call to arms on social media, asking women to share their individual experiences of what female football supporters face, the response was, quite frankly, overwhelming and this new piece took on a life of its own.
Firstly, let me begin with how I personally became a football fan.
My family are Manchester United supporters and I grew up in a Chelsea-supporting village in Surrey, not far from where the Blues train. As a result, I’ve always been around the sport and although I had very little interest in it as a youngster, this changed when I hit my teenage years. My friends were happy to teach me about the offside rule, which until this point society had led me to believe was practically quantum physics if you had a tiny woman’s brain, as well as formations, players, the Premier League and trophies.
Despite often watching games with my Chelsea-supporting friends, I soon found an affinity with Arsenal. As cliché as it sounds, I liked the way they played and I held a fondness for Arsene Wenger and his unwavering class. Before long, I was going out of my way to watch games, openly conversing with people about how amazing Eduardo was online and religiously soaking up content from a certain Arsenal website known as LadyArse.com.
Several years later, I would find myself writing for the same site, which is now Daily Cannon.
Something I’ve noticed whenever telling people, especially men, that I’m a football writer is my compulsive need to immediately follow this with the fact that I actually earn my living doing this and do so full-time. As if writing about football for fun makes me less qualified to be a fan. This is something I’ve noticed with a handful of women I’ve spoken with. If they’re a season ticket holder, this is something they often feel the need to interject, as if just being a casual fan – as men so often are – isn’t good enough.
“I would always introduce myself as an ‘Arsenal season ticket holder’ rather than an ‘Arsenal fan’ to immediately add some credibility,” Helen, a fellow writer for Daily Cannon told me, “which perhaps speaks volumes in itself.”
It’s something that I didn’t even realise I was doing until other women pointed out that they do the same thing. They don’t feel as if they’ll be taken seriously as ‘just’ a female fan, so they have to embellish their position in order to. They’re so used to getting shrugged off, they don’t even realise they’re desperately seeking approval.
Even looking back at my original piece, I cringe because I’m so desperately trying to come across as witty. Almost as if I’m afraid to actually sit down and say to a mostly-male audience, “Look, some of you can be sexist as hell and it’s actually not a laughing matter.”
Not being taken seriously when you actually want to be is frustrating and although it’s one of the less-harmful ways in which female football fans face discrimination in the sport, it’s rooted in misogyny. Sports – especially football – are for men. Except maybe ballet dancing.
Women don’t like sports; they like make-up and fashion and clothes and having babies and making sandwiches. Sure, a lot of us like those things, as do men, but just like our male counterparts, we’re not one-dimensional. It’s possible for us to have further interests outside of the kitchen. Mind-blowing, I know.
The problem is, by perpetuating these seemingly silly stereotypes, we’re also perpetuating an ideology.
And if you’re a man reading this thinking, “Nonsense – that’s archaic. I would never tell a woman to get back in the kitchen! Women are great!” Read on. Because sexism isn’t as black and white as you either are or you aren’t. You can hold sexist views and not even realise it. Just like you can against any other oppressed group. Certain ideals are instilled in us from a young age by our parents, books, films and the media in general. When you’ve grown up with an idea deeply embedded in your brain, it’s hard to shake. Most of the time, you won’t even realise how harmful this can be.
Sometimes, people don’t realise they’re even being sexist at all.
For example, I once met a work associate of my dad’s. We were out in London having a drink and my dad informed him of my profession. His first reaction was to raise his eyebrows admirable, which I find pretty patronising but I’m used to it, before asking me which team I support. Arsenal, I obviously answered.
“Okay, well, which team do I support then?” He paused before slowing right down. “We’ve won the Champions League FIVE times.”
I imagine it’s a similar response to ‘tell me a joke’ when someone informs you they’re a comedian. Of course, I knew the answer, but if I hadn’t, what was he going to say? I shouldn’t have my job? You should find another career? Did he think I was trying to swindle him?
The man in question meant no harm and when I answered him with ‘Liverpool’ without hesitation he grinned and nodded approvingly.
More importantly, if my brother, who was stood next to me at the time, had told him he was a football writer, I highly doubt he would have been subjected to the same exam. It would have been a given that he knew what he was taking about and the conversation would have moved on. And the crux of it is because he’s a man and I’m a women. And therein lies the problem.
This was a huge problem the overwhelming majority of the women I spoke to for this piece revealed. Many find it difficult to be taken seriously in their love of the sport by the men in their own family and even some women buy into the idea that perhaps we just follow football to ogle the men. But female sexuality and men’s somewhat ironic desire to quash it is a topic I’ll come to at another point.
“The most depressing thing for me has not being taken seriously by my dad and brother even though it’s the one thing that unites us all,” said one female Liverpool fan. “Even though I follow the game keenly and think I’m reasonably switched on to tactics/formations/form etc. I’m never allowed to contribute to a discussion.”
So you see, at one end of the scale, we have women not being taken seriously, which isn’t just a football-related problem, even in 2018. However, mighty oaks from little acorns grow. At the other end of the ‘scale’ (of course sexism is sexism but bear with me), we have women who have actually been groped, abused and ostracised because of their gender.
The number of women who came forward to speak about their experiences who revealed they had been groped at a football match wasn’t just disappointing – it was alarming. Especially as some of this groping was from people of power, disguised as ‘security checks’ when entering a stadium. Groping that no one has bothered to report because, as female football fans, they’ve learned that they’re very rarely taken seriously.
Abuse shouted by opposition fans in their direction is often sexist. As if their gender is the easiest thing about them to mock and that being female alone is so degrading that it’s warrants being bullied. They’re often told to get back in the kitchen or asked what they’re even doing there. Obviously, when it goes unnoticed and unpunished, even by fellow fans, the chants only escalate.
“Only the other day it was half time I was stood waiting to be served in the concourse and two men behind me continued to shout things and touch and harass me and as most people around are men it gets unnoticed and unquestioned often,” revealed one of the 100+ women who reached out to me.
Of course, there were a handful of women who came forward and revealed that they’d been going to football games their entire life. Although they sometimes get the odd raised eyebrow in the pub, at the matches, they’ve mostly had positive experiences and it was refreshing to hear. Going to watch your team play shouldn’t be a risk to your safety, especially because of your gender, the colour of your skin or your sexuality.
Some women admitted that while they did get abuse at first, a select amount of men around them would call out sexist behaviour, which made a massive difference. It’s pretty telling that men have to be told they’re being out of order by other men in order to stop. However, this is the example most men need to follow. If you see sexist or discriminatory behaviour of any kind – call it out.
When this type of behaviour goes unchecked, it only gets worse, as one woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, revealed to me.
The woman in question was part of a football supporters group in the US and, when it became clear that she wasn’t willing to sleep with any of the men involved in said group and was in fact purely interested in football, she almost lost her membership.
It’s pretty transparent that men condemn women who dare to potentially find certain male footballers physically attractive while actively trying to have sex with them themselves. Almost as if they only want women to be sexual beings and explore their sexuality if it’s on men’s terms… funny that. We CAN be a football fan but only in the way they want.
Women can’t enjoy a sport and find players attractive at the same time (those damn tiny female brains again). But hey, Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA at the time, was allowed to publicly say that female footballs should wear tighter shorts in order to make their sport more popular…
Unfortunately, even this is ‘sedate’ when you look away from the Western World. One Iranian female football fan told me that women still aren’t allowed to enjoy football matches in her home country. Some have even resorted to dressing as men to get in and show their support for the team.
“Outside of my own family, a lot of men make fun of me or say offensive things when I share my love of football with them,” she said. “They say things like ‘how a girl can love football?’, ‘You don’t even know how to play’, (which is not true, I am a very good midfielder), ‘You just love football because of good looking players.’
“I cannot, not watch football or play. Being an Arsenal fan since the age of two and a Real Madrid fan since 10 made me a person who cherishes everything in this game.
“In Iran women can’t go to stadiums and watch football, it’s forbidden but there are a lot of us who just want to go there and have fun and cheer our local teams. We have to stay home and watch from TV.
“There are some women who dresses as boys and go to stadiums, sometimes they can pass the security but most of the times they get caught and police will escort them out and fine them.
“Women in my country are really into football, there are so many that you would be surprised at how sexist men can be when a woman talks about football.
“I used to wear my Arsenal sweatshirt to university and boys started to make fun of me.
“I know more about football than any of them so I could handle it but there are some girls who bottle up their feelings for this game because they feel ashamed or they don’t want stupid comments to be thrown at them.”
It’s clear that something has to change. Although there has been an improvement, which some of the older women who messaged me pointed out, the fact that we’re still talking about this in 2018 is seriously disappointing.
So, how can we help? Keep talking about it, keep making a fuss, don’t just ‘get over it’ or feel you have to put up with it. Don’t feel as if your voice isn’t worthy of being heard. You deserve to feel safe watching your favourite team play a sport you enjoy. And you deserve to do so while not being harassed.
We need to hire more female football writers, presenters, pundits and experts. And not just to report on the women’s game.
We need to take women seriously when they put forward an opinion and allow them to feel safe to do so without being patronising, which honestly isn’t that difficult.
You need to call out behaviour when you see it – make people know that it’s not okay.
Mostly, we need to stop viewing football – something that everyone enjoys – as a ‘man’s sport’.
As one woman who messaged me said: “Don’t make it a boys club. That’s the only way people will start accepting and normalising it.”