This Girl Can.
Waiting for the tube this morning, that was the message emblazoned across an image of a girl juggling a football.
The recent success of the England side, securing third place at the World Cup over in Canada has put a spotlight on the women’s game, and seeing an advertisement aimed at getting more young girls active got me thinking about the way football can be such a positive influence in breaking down barriers, prejudices and inequalities.
An historic problem
I love football – you don’t end up holding a season ticket, writing a weekly column and filling in additional features in your spare time by accident. Up to the age of eight, I actively played in a local coeducational soccer school. Up to the age of eight, because that’s the age at which girls were no longer welcome.
I continued to play street football with a motley crew of lads around my home for a number of years, violently defending my right to play in spite of my gender against frequent cries of “But you’re a girl!”
I even captained a mixed side at my somewhat progressive school. However, that’s where my love affair with the playing side of football was brought to an abrupt halt.
Moving to a different school curtailed any further opportunities to play and at the time the local club scene was more or less nonexistent. I briefly rekindled my relationship with muddy shorts at university, and although the opportunity to play again was welcome, the constant begging of friends, acquaintances and even strangers to turn out for us was less so.
We won the league in my second year, yet the biggest highlight for me was a game we drew – because we only had seven players to the opponent’s 11!
Since graduating, my playing efforts have been restricted to playing piggy in the middle with my puppy and the odd keepy-uppy competition with my other half. A few years later, there are now a handful of teams within driving distance of my home, but my appetite for playing has been gradually eroded away over the years because of lack of opportunity.
That bird, as they say, has flown.
Breaking down barriers
My own experiences playing, to a certain extent driven by the attitudes while I was growing up, have been far from positive. Fellow players and even teachers have on occasion asserted that I should not pursue football.
I don’t have any delusions that I could have played for England, or even professionally, but equally I know that if there had been greater opportunity, I would probably still be playing now.
That’s why it’s so great that now there is an increasing focus on women’s sport in general, and women’s football in particular.
The England side has had considerable success over at the World Cup – after all, the last time a men’s side made a semi-final was 25 years back at Italia ’90 – and even managed to compete with the reigning World Champions without starting a single Arsenal ladies player, something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
But this is so much wider than simply trying to improve the top level of the game.
The ‘This Girl Can’ campaign, as seen on the tube, is aimed at getting more girls and women of all ages active and engaged by sport, and not just on the playing side either – coaching, refereeing and volunteering are all worthy activities in their own right.
he poster girl for the football element of the campaign – Jasmine Karim – plays for her local Westbury side and at just 15 was the youngest star involved. When I was 15 the obstacles to playing seemed big enough to stop, and means that today I am very much an armchair football lover rather than an active one.
But thanks to the work of people like Jasmine and the England team, women around the country – no, around the world – are feeling inspired to play everywhere from a kickabout in the street to the World Cup Finals. And it’s not just gender inequalities that are being broken down – Casey Stoney last year spoke about the positive responses she had received as an openly gay footballer still actively playing, and issues around race and religion are slowly eroding as diversity is now increasingly welcomed (in England at least).
For a lengthy period, the Arsenal ladies team enjoyed significantly greater success than their male counterparts, but they remained something of an outlier in a footballing world which saw England’s highest paid male player bring in $33 million in 2007, while England’s most capped female player remained homeless.
This year, we can see major signs of improvement in both the opportunities available to everyone and the quality at the top level. It’s inspiring. I’m off to Center Parcs soon, and I’ll be signing up for the five-a-side tournament for a bit of fun and exercise.
Jasmine Karim can. The Lionesses can.
This Girl Can.