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The girls gap - how to get more females playing football.

Fulham Lillies co-founder and social anthropologist, Dr. Tamara Dragadze, pens her thoughts on the shortcomings still prevalent in the women's game for those starting out, and its impact on the possible growth of the game that we love.

It is almost unbelievable today that women’s football in the UK was BANNED for 50 years, from 1921 to 1971. That was all my youth! And it is one reason why I am so bitter about it. But it is in the past now; I have a hope that the inequality I will describe will become an issue in the past also. I am not talking about past history bur rather to dwell on one moment in history, a moment today which I hope will one day be seen as a turning point.

Women's football today

Women’s football throughout the world has grown both in status and in its excellence. 

We are all sisters who rejoice in the recent successes of women in football.

Today there is the Women’s Super League and the Lionesses on the international scene.

However, as we celebrate Black History, we have to open our eyes. Wherever, in England we compare the men’s teams and the women’s teams of the same club, or the men’s England team and the women’s—what do we see? Mostly no black women players or very, very few. If we look at nearly all the European countries with women’s football, we see exactly the same whether in Sweden or the other UEFA women’s national teams. 

EXCEPT for one country, France!

In the few minutes I have here, I would like to show an example of what anthropologists find, and that I think is true: that it is the economic positions of a majority of whole communities rather than their social customs and certainly NOT their genetics that have created inequalities for their adults. Add to this the still universal ranking of men being above women. 

My few words about women in football encapsulate all of this. 

Before I start, let’s get it done: yes there are exceptions—Kerry Davis (England’s first Black female footballer), Mary Phillip (England’s first Black female captain) and of course Hope Powell (first female manager for England). There was an event about them recently hosted at Wembley. There is also Lauren James who plays for England and Alex Scott who is now a star of presenting football. And others. However, they are celebrated partly because they really are exceptions.

Cultural influences are used for this difference quite easily. There are so few black role models for girls, the argument goes. So black families and girls don’t see a future for themselves in aspiring to professional football.

I wonder why that would be such a strong reason for a black girl to be so very influenced or their families? I do not think so. But there seems to be a more important reason. And that is one that is economic.

The cost for girls to play football

Mostly girls go twice or three times a week to football training after school, towards evening. And mostly they have to pay for the classes. I am a Fulham supporter and at the Fulham Foundation which embraces the Fulham Academy, it costs £150 per child per term. 

However, club football academies, who take on promising boys to turn them into professional footballers, provide free tuition along with their schooling and boarding, sometimes even placing them for free with families when their parents live far away.

Most girls, however, pay fees and it is not just that. It is above all that the girls have to be taken to the places for training by their parents. And it is this, above all else, which hits black communities. Many women here have more than one job to feed their families. Many also do shift work. Often the fathers do too. And some training grounds need a car to get to them.

The result is that it is not them who can enable their daughters to train to be serious footballers.

Location based inequality for girls

We look at the elite clubs: Chelsea and others and Fulham, whose men’s stadiums might be in cities and urban areas, but their training grounds and especially the women’s training grounds and places they play their games in, are very often in suburban areas. 

So it is natural that these training grounds attract suburban white girls, middle class, who live around there locally. Emma Hayes, the celebrated manager of Women’s Chelsea Club team has called the women’s football game a “middle class game”. 

There are local urban community initiatives where the coaching of girls from ethnic minorities takes place. But the transfer of the most talented girls to training for a future as a professional footballer is mostly not an option.

UEFA national clubs

This situation is mirrored in most of the countries whose national teams compete in UEFA. But I said earlier: France is not like that.

Why? Because sport is the financial responsibility of the municipalities and the regions (départements) and as a consequence, the expenses of football training are covered regardless of whether you are a girl or a boy. And this has transferred really visibly into the composition of their national women’s team. Compare their national men and women’s squads and you will see the same spread of black players in both teams.

It seems that the Football Association (FA) has recently been made aware of the disparity between the diversity of the local population at large and in the male team and that of the women. There are discussions taking place but not enough and without enough pressure. One discussion with Arsenal is a point in case, where the club says they are aware of the lack of diversity in their successful women’s team. For Arsenal, there is  diversity both in the area where the men’s stadium is, among the fans and especially in the composition of the men’s team. But that cannot be said of their women’s Arsenal team. So they are looking to how to bring women’s training closer into the urban area where their main stadium is—at least just looking to date.

So there is some talk of moving academies from the suburbs into urban areas or having what is known as “outreach”.  In my local case, however, regardless of whether Fulham Foundation has training sessions in Brixton or not, girls have to pay fees even if they get chosen for something more.

But why does it matter to football? Women are doing well. But imagine if the field were larger to choose from. Imagine if the pool included girls from many more communities! Then surely there could be even more excellence for the sport as a whole.

And what can we do ourselves? We must ask our councillors to press for bursaries for talented girl footballers like in France. We must get leaders of political parties and future governments to understand how much fairer it would be.

And finally, I have used the example of girl’s football as an image of a beautiful phenomenon to behold, a manifestation of Sisterhood in a really special way, but where both gender and economic inequalities have prevented us from enjoying the fruits of true diversity.


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