My quest to raise the profile of girls' football in the UK brought me to Wembley stadium on Sunday afternoon. It was an eerily foggy day - the famous Wembley arch nearly invisible though I could sense it towering overhead.
The stadium was filled with about 200 youths, there for an once-in-a-lifetime afternoon of celeb coaching. Pat Jennings was teaching a group of boys in green striped jerseys how to use their body to be more effective goalies. Oh, look there's Geoff Hurst (yes, he's still around). Andrew Cole was helping a group perfect passing. Gareth Southgate (ooh, he's cute) strode by and stopped to instruct a group of girls.
Impressive as it was to be surrounded by all that talent, that's not who my three girls and I were there to meet. We wanted to see one of England's greatest women's footballers, Marieanne Spacey. She's represented England Ladies 91 times, played for Arsenal and Fulham and is a member of the English Football Hall of Fame. I can see you, reader, looking quizzically at your screen. That proves my point. You've never heard of her.
As I looked through the list of coaches for the masterclass, Marieanne was the only female amongst a long list of male legends. Disappointed, yes, but not surprised. The attitude towards girls and football in this country is appalling. Most people in the UK did not even know that the Women's World Cup took place last June (and when you point this out to them, they don't even seem embarrassed.)
I took out my list of questions for Marieanne. Do you have any suggestions for parents combatting the blasé attitude towards girls and football? How can we arm our girls to do well? It must have been hard for you to succeed in a male dominated sport.
Marieanne shrugged, she was lucky. Growing up in the 70s, she found a group of girls at her local youth club in Wimbledon and formed a 5-a-side team. There were only a few girls' teams for them to play, but she kept it up and, encouraged by her parents, she went on to play professionally (by the way, two others from her team, including Brenda Sempare did too).
But my daughter's experience this decade was different. After joining in an Under 6s mixed team she and the only other girl on the team were out-shadowed by the boys (who by the way all seem to have a football velocroed to their foot since birth). My daughter ended up quitting football when she was eight because "football is for boys, mummy".
When I asked Marieanne how to combat the stigma attached to girls and football, she automatically deflected it. I could tell she had been asked this before. Many, many times I would guess.
Don't see it as a barrier. Use it as an opportunity.
She's right. And oh what an opportunity it is. Football's popularity amongst girls is at an all-time high (as reported by the FA). The sport offers our girls so much. Exercise. Lifelong friends. The skills to work effectively in a team. What they learn on the pitch they will use again and again in life.
As we left Wembley, the sun breaking through the mist, and the white arch towering overhead, I wondered where my quest to raise the profile of girls and football would take me next. Canada perhaps? (The location of the 2015 Women's World Cup, in case you didn't know.)
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