"If only you had been born a man. What a Caesar you would have made"
Time for football to let go of its Greco-Roman roots.
I've been in love with the game since I first started kicking a ball around the sandy pitches of Doha, Qatar in the mid 80s. I watched every match going and absorbed it like it like everyone was my last. Admittedly the quality wasn't always the best - I'm not sure many of the Qatari league players would have made it into our league structure at the time but nevertheless ....it was football!
My first real memory of the global game was the World Cup Italia 90; I can still remember Klinsman's headstand after being upended by substitute Pedro Monzon (incidentally the first man to be sent off in a world cup final), and the heart felt tears of Gascoigne as England fell at the semis.
I returned to the UK just after the World Cup, prior to the start of the First Gulf War. It was on a primary school playground that I first discovered that "football was for boys". My school had only recently started accepting girls in its intake..... but within a few days I too was allowed to run the playgrounds pretending to be Dean Saunders and Ian Rush at the World Cup (yes we still haven't qualified in my lifetime.... 1958 if your asking.... we lost in the quarter finals.... 1-0 to Brazil... Pele scored).
I spent much of my primary school years as Saunders and Rush (mainly Saunders) with the boys accepting me as one of their own.... but matches at other schools brought its own level of apprehension...from the strange looks to the exclamations "they've got a girl playing!". I think this period gave me a grounding in the preconceptions that girls and football didn't mix!
As women's football started to gather momentum in the 90s the sight of women kicking a ball around a playing field became less unusual. My first real encounter with sexism, came away at a windy Southwold, in a top of the league grudge match. Having sent one of their talented centre midfielders flying in the centre circle, I was told by the referee, "If you'd been a man I would have booked you!". At the time I was partly grateful for the £15 reprieve (£5 fine and £10 administration charge) but I was quickly reminded that the women's game had a long way to go before being viewed on an equal footing. Sadly it would not be the last time I heard similar comments.....
It was in my early 20s after University that I realised that I wanted to make a living in the game, to challenge conceptions and break down barriers associated with female physiotherapists in football. There is an approximate 75%/25% female to male split in physiotherapy graduates...with the NHS demonstrating 84%/16% female to male representation in its workforce. Yet in football these values are the complete opposite with what I estimate must be a 95% male predominance amongst football club physiotherapists. Why are there not more women working in medical teams? These graduate figures suggest that football is missing out on a large talent pool and I fail to believe that women simply aren't interested in working in the game.
Whilst I recognised that football had some inherent gender discrimination embed within it...where did it come from? High profile jobs in all industries have historically been held by men and football was no different. Was football just a reflection of society? Possibly.
Academy football has more recently embraced this rather untapped resource... but having a women on the front line.... that is different.
Having worked in Academy set ups for four years (following six years in the NHS), I got my first team break in 2012. Having so strongly set out on my pursuit of that First Team role, had I spent a minute to think about the fans? No. Had I thought about the reaction of players? No. Would I be exposed to sexist chants? To be honest I never thought about it. My aim was to demonstrate that women could break down the institutional barriers and be important contributors to the game.
My experiences with players and staff have been wholly positive. Have I ever felt that player's have been less trusting of me because I'm a woman? Actually no. As in any healthcare environment it takes time to build trust with patients. Football is no different and players will be heavily influenced by past experiences of medical teams they've encountered, whether good or bad. I have no doubt my knowledge and interest in football has helped me gain a rapport with players and most definitely assists me in understanding the demands required of them.
So have I experienced sexist chanting? Yes. Was it a shock? Sadly no. Did I report it? No. To be honest I hadn't seen the bigger picture. The chants never really bothered me, apart from that initial minute of embarrassment... it's not like I went home and cried. It never made me question my love for the job or my role. But did I think it was just part and parcel of the game? Possibly. It was something that I would just have to deal with.
What I've began to realise over the last few weeks is the bigger picture. If I'd been in that crowd as teenage girl aspiring to work in the game...would it put me off? Quite possibly. Would I want my eight year old girl to witness it and believe that it was acceptable for her to be verbally abused due to the fact that she was a women? Absolutely not.
Sexist chanting by crowds has further far reaching effects than merely letting off steam because your team is losing or because you feel the opposition player is time wasting. It implies that abusing someone because of his or her gender, race or sexual orientation is acceptable.
The kick it out campaign, designed to raise awareness of all discrimination has had positive effects on raising awareness of racial issues not just in football but also throughout society. Football is powerful. It has abilities to bring communities together and to guide cultural change. Reporting all discriminatory chanting is the first step in challenging unacceptable behaviour and empowering future generations to embrace diversity in our beautiful game.
Women in Football are using social media to highlight the growing number of women working in football and help encourage more to follow in their footsteps (use the hashtag #SheBelongs). The campaign is also aiming to raise awareness of discrimination and sexist abuse, especially on match days, and how to report it (#ShameOnTheGame).