13/06/2014 07:27 BST | Updated 11/08/2014 06:59 BST

When Do Girls Stop Playing Football?

When the whistle blows and the beautiful game begins tonight, little girls and little boys all around the world will be far away from the screen. They won't be watching the first kick or the first goal. They will instead be running around together, kicking a ball, scoring goals, and winning school-yard tournaments that mean more to them than anything else on earth. They won't spend the next few weeks glued to a television. They will spend it playing football with a renewed fervour, because no-one is immune to the buzz of the World Cup.

But little girls and boys who love football grow up. In a few years from now the boys will be fans obsessed with their teams, they will worship strikers and go to bed dreaming of lifting a trophy one day. The girls, however, in a few years from now won't play at all.

What happens between World Cups that makes many little girls who love football become little girls who won't play? What changes in their minds, what makes them stop kicking that ball at the park, and what makes them switch to standing on the sidelines instead of running in for a tackle?

It doesn't take little girls long to realise that one of the biggest shows on earth, the one that the whole world is excited about, is all about men. The women who feature on our television sets over the next few weeks won't be on the pitch. They will be on the periphery. Sidelined. There will be presenters and journalists who tell a story and ask questions but don't get involved with the main act. There will be beautifully made-up 'wives and girlfriends', labelled as if they don't exist in their own right and rely on a footballer for their identity.

Little girls don't take themselves off the football pitch by themselves. Their parents stop taking them to practice, their teachers stop encouraging them to play with the boys, their brothers stop including them in their games. It doesn't take long.

My football-crazy two year old son will be in bed when the first match starts tonight. But over the coming weeks, his love for the beautiful game will no doubt grow. He will spend hour after hour kicking his ball around the garden, he will be scoring goals from right up close to the net, and running round demanding high fives from anyone close enough to give them. At night, his football stickers will be lovingly placed on all the right pages of his World Cup sticker book. He doesn't understand what the World Cup is - but he knows the protagonists are all men.


My ten-month-old daughter is far too young to make any such observations. But she is old enough to love having a ball rolled at her feet. She is old enough to want to join in with her brother when he scores a goal. She is old enough to simply love to play - whatever the game.


At the start of this tournament, the first I have watched as a parent, I've decided I owe it to my daughter to encourage her to play any sport she wants. I don't want her to feel pushed off the pitch. I don't want her to feel marginalised. I've decided too that I owe it to my son to encourage him to grow up with a respect for women they aren't always afforded. I don't want him to see a woman's place as on the sidelines. I don't want him to see a woman as an accessory. I hope more than anything that as he grows up, his on-pitch heroes are role models who value women as their equals.

We all have a role to play in doing this for our girls and boys. The media of course is key, but we cannot underestimate the roles of parents, teachers, sports coaches, advertisers and all of us as consumers. We must continue to tell our girls they can play any game they want. They can be anything they want. They can do anything they want.

My two-year-old son goes to football practice once a week. In his class of twelve, there is one girl. I can't believe that's because two-year-old girls don't like playing with a ball.

Our little family will be watching when the World Cup kicks off tonight. Over the coming weeks we will dutifully fill in the numbers and winning teams on our wall chart. Tonight though, it is a blank page of promise. It is a space where my little boy can put his new stickers. It is a space where we can secretly dream about England repeating 1966. It is a space where we can change the world for our sons and daughters. Really.