With the new year underway, many have begun to alter their behavior, hoping to keep to their various resolutions. There are a few that seem to pop up on everyone’s lists: exercise more, drink less, be happier…you know the type. Here’s mine—let’s change how we talk about women’s football.
2018 was a monumental year for women’s football across the globe. The inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or was presented to Ada Hegerberg, a 23-year-old star who has scored almost 300 goals. Upon winning the award, the forward declared “It’s a huge step for women’s football . . . it’s such an important thing for women’s football, and together we will make a difference.” Unfortunately, her inspiring words would be obscured in media headlines that followed the event, as many journalists focused on Martin Solveig’s sexist question regarding Hegerberg’s twerking capabilities. While many were infuriated by Solveig, I found myself remarkably unsurprised. This one incident is just a tiny part of a much larger structural issue that encompasses the way we discuss women’s football every day.
Growing up in the southeast of England, I played football on a team where I was the only girl. I was told often that I was “good for a girl.” At the time, I didn’t think about how this related to the much larger conversation regarding how female and male footballers are seen. Now, having coached, and played, in England, Belgium, and the United States over the last 15 years, I have a much clearer idea of how detrimental these types of comments are. Not just to individual girls or women, but to the sport as a whole. Examples at the highest level are pervasive. And many of them, unlike the Martin Solveig incident, have gone unnoticed and undiscussed.
Back in June, when the Lionesses were set to play Russia, Phil Neville complimented Lucy Bronze’s current performances by saying, “She’s phenomenal . . . I always say to people that I think Lucy could play in the men’s game, I really do. She’s got that much quality.” As manager of the England women’s national team, many see Neville as somehow symbolic of women’s empowerment within the game. However, this apparent “compliment” simultaneously placed the standard of the women’s game (as a whole) beneath any tier of the men’s game. How can women’s football ever advance if those in charge of arguably some of the best female players in the world still imply that they’re inherently inferior to any male pro? Yet changing the way we talk about women’s football does not mean removing the platform from men who have made comments like this. Instead, it is a call to action. And it’s not just a call to action for men.
For example, the skills exhibited by Chelsea and Scotland striker Erin Cuthbert against Brighton on December 9th were labelled as “Messi-esque ” by a female commentator. While Cuthbert’s cheeky backheel through the legs of the player behind her is a skill Messi might have used before, so have many female players. Think of Marta. Think of Karen Carney. Think of Pernille Harder. Examples of awesome talent are exhibited in the women’s game every day, and yet they often are wholly disregarded. We have plenty of female idols we can invoke for comparisons. We are just choosing not to. This recent piece, “The 100 Best Female Footballers in the World 2018” by Rich Laverty, is an excellent starting place.
A few weeks ago I was at a wonderful #WomenInFootball event with the Kmita twins, who said growing up that they had idolized players like David Beckham because they didn’t see any female role models. I remember a similar phenomenon vividly. My favorite movie back then was even Bend It Like Beckham!
The Kmita twins said that this problem no longer exists today. I want to be able to agree with them. I want young girls to dream about being able to cross like Megan Rapinoe or to be as lethal in front of goal as Eugénie Le Sommer. But, if we don’t change the way we talk about women’s football, this dream will never materialize. Representation matters. This is not a new concept. The way we talk about women’s football matters. At all levels.
A key shift that 2018 brought for women’s football was Alex Scott’s punditry at the FIFA men’s World Cup this past summer. Describing the dramatic ascendance of her career over the last year, she said “Ian Wright was my hero. Now I talk on TV with him.” Later on she added, “I want to get to that time where I’m not even regarded as the female pundit—I’m just a pundit.” Scott’s words epitomize the change in conversation we need. With the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France just months away, when better to start?
So, tell Lucy Bronze she’s good, but don’t tell her that goodness only equates to any level of the men’s game. Tell Erin Cuthbert her cheeky backheel was great, but not because Messi has done it before. And tell your daughter that she’s good, and not just for a girl.
Of course, the change can’t happen overnight. But, let’s agree to do better in 2019.