Malcolm Gladwell explained in Outliers why talent is not what takes a person to the top. He shows that where you come from and when you’re born is just as important, but his theory also translates across gender lines and helps explain why women’s football still struggles.
That, and the FA banning the game for 50 years.
Let me explain…
From she could walk she was trying to kick a football. As she grew independent enough to be allowed outside with her peers, she was on the streets playing football until her mum would shout that it was time to come in for dinner. Then followed a competition to stuff the food into her face as quickly as possible to get back out on to the streets to play football again. It didn’t matter if 20 boys were playing or just one, all she wanted to do was play.
At primary school, Sarah wasn’t allowed to play in actual games so amused herself playing during break and lunch. Her friend, David, wasn’t anything special with the ball at his feet, but because he was male, he was afforded the chance to play in a team and learn about the game at a slightly deeper level. He got to play more and when he talked about football adults engaged with him. Some encouraged and challenged him, others praised his ability. When Sarah spoke about football, most adults humoured her or thought it ‘cute’ that she was trying to talk about what was clearly a ‘man’s game’.
When it was time to go to secondary school, Sarah was sent off to an all-girls’ school. Although it was academically superior to the school David joined and had a healthy and extensive sports programme, football was not on offer. This was 1986. Girls didn’t play football then. At last not here.
David, however, went to a school that had a decent football team and he was quickly on the fringes of it. Although still not anything spectacular, he was willing to work hard and coaches started to offer him places in sessions after school. He started to develop the technical side of his game and, by the end of the first year, after he had extra coaching while Sarah hasn’t even kicked a ball, a cavern emerged between the perceived footballing ability of the pair who were identical just 12 months earlier.
These two people don’t actually exist. They are a composite of people and situations I knew growing up but the story is a clear example of how some men go on to be superior when it comes to playing football and why, as a result, we continue to feed the circle that keeps inequality in play.
We can point to puberty and the release of hormones as one reason many people think men are better at football than women (and I realise that’s a massive generalisation, most men won’t be anywhere near as good as women who play the sport professionally) but that would merely explain why men are stronger than women. The ability to control a football and make it move where you want it to in a way you determine is a learned skill. It doesn’t depend on what hormone is in your system or what genitals rest between your legs.
The simple reason the women’s game has not reached the same level as the men’s is because it is not taken seriously enough and the media think there isn’t any interest. Boys are regularly offered opportunities denied to girls, they are encouraged to play football while girls are still discouraged. These things matter, small as they are. When they combine, they result in a massive distortion.
It wasn’t always like this.
Football hasn’t always been with us, although it often feels like that. It’s a game that nobody – male, female nor non-binary – knew how to play before 1863. By 1920, some women’s games were attracting over 50,000 supporters and some grounds were too small to cope with the demand to watch them play.
Contrast that with today where one of the stated aims of the rejigged Women’s Super League was to increase regular gates to 2,000.
So how did that happen?
How did a sport, that was once engaging enough to generate demand that could not be met, fall so low that it now struggles to get much broadcast coverage and often sees just a few hundred turn up at games?
Lily Parr was a player who had a shot so fierce she once broke the arm of a male goalkeeper. The first female player to be sent off for fighting, she stood over 6ft tall and scored more than 1,000 goals in a career that spanned 31-years. She debuted at 14 and scored 34 goals in her first season.
Along with some other factory workers from Preston, she formed part of the Dick Kerr Ladies, the biggest draw in world football but they started at a time when many men who would have been playing were off fighting in World War I. Although women’s football had been in place prior to the breakout of war, like with so many other industries, it was only when the country was desperate did they allow women to fulfil roles traditionally serviced by men. Those women then, of course, surprised many by being more than capable of doing whatever that was asked of them.
Informal kickabouts started at factories but as the war wore on, the game became more formalised, and games, that started as a novelty, soon became established as people willingly turned up to watch because of the skill of the players.
When the war came to an end people continued to turn up to watch women’s football in their tens of thousands. But the establishment wanted women back in the kitchen, where they belonged. If you’re female and involved in football today, chances are you already know that’s where you’re supposed to be.
None too pleased at this new-found freedom women had been handed, the FA declared football unsuitable for women in 1921 and called on clubs belonging to the associations “to refuse the use of their grounds for such matches.” It didn’t matter that their war effort had been every bit as integral as the men fighting on the front, women would not be allowed to continue in this manner.
Today, almost 100 years later, the women’s game is still fighting to recover.
Those years show us clearly there is an appetite to watch women’s football from the general public and that women, as we see clearly today if we pay enough attention, are more than capable of producing football that entertains the masses.
But if you stopped a random sample of men on the street and asked them about women’s football, they would be clueless. Women just aren’t as good as men and that’s all there is to it. It is, after all, a ‘man’s’ game.
It’s not and never has been but to break the cycle we find ourselves in, something is going to have to give. Either the media need to start giving women’s football significantly more coverage to show the public that this is something they should care about, or the public needs to change its mind all by itself. That hardly seems likely.
The FA didn’t lift the ban on women’s football for 50 years.
TV wasn’t invented until six years after women’s football was banned. The BBC only introduced colour television four years before it was restored. It’s no wonder the public have no interest.
By the time women were allowed to kick a ball again the men’s game had seen untold investment and exposure.
I wonder if anyone back before the launch of the Premier League said, ‘it’s probably not worth it?’