Growing up there were two things I believed were strictly not for girls; Yorkie bars and football.
Over the years at school, I tried netball, hockey, cheerleading, athletics, tag rugby, tennis and a lot of cross country, but never football.
Not only did I not play football, I actively avoided watching it too. I found football chat between my brother and dad at the dinner table tiresome, and never joined a fantasy football league or picked a team to support.
Then, last summer, I got into watching the Euros, cheering on the England men’s team and finally buying into the football hype. But it wasn’t until Sunday night, when the Lionesses made history by beating Germany 2-1 in the Women’s Euro 2022 final, bringing football home at long last, that I wished I was encouraged to play when I was younger. After all, Leah Williamson and her squad make it look like a world of fun.
The match was attended by 87,192 spectators and attracted an audience of 17.4 million on the BBC, making it the most watched women’s game of all time in the UK. And while it has been incredible to see people finally get behind women’s football, we owe it to the Lionesses not to leave their legacy at Wembley; it’s time football was for everyone.
“Girls play netball and boys play football” seems to be an unfair stereotype that schools can’t shake. Earlier this month, figures published by England Football, part of the Football Association (FA), showed that 63 per cent of schools in England offer equal football coaching to girls and boys, but this number drops off to 44 per cent at secondary school level.
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England striker Alessia Russo told BBC Breakfast yesterday that she had to tag along to the boy’s after-school football club to be able to play the sport, despite not really being invited along, and had to initially join a men’s football club when she started playing seriously.
Meanwhile, the front page of the Bucks Herald from 1998 has recently gone viral, describing how nine-year-old Ellen White was banned from registering with the Chiltern Youth League, due to being a girl, much to her disgust. White has scored 52 goals at international level since making her Lionesses debut in 2010.
The determination of Russo, White and their teammates to play football despite the barriers they faced is a huge credit to their love for the sport and shows we have made a little progress, but still have a long way to go. It isn’t enough to just allow girls to play football, we have to encourage them too.
In an open letter to Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss asking the Tory leadership candidates to help them create real change and enable every young girl in the nation to have the option to play football at school, the Lionesses wrote: “We ask you and your government to ensure that all girls have access to a minimum of 2hrs a week PE. Not only should we be offering football to all girls, we need to invest in and support female PE teachers too.”
The letter comes just weeks after the Healthier Nation Index found that almost half of women don’t do regular exercise in the UK, with 47 per cent saying that they’ve done no vigorous weekly exercise, such as jogging or gym classes, in the past year.
Encouraging girls to play football at school — or any other sport they might be interested in — could very well translate into future generations of women who have a better relationship with exercise and healthier lifestyles as a result. If the government does the right thing and uses the momentum of the Euro final to get the nation moving, the legacy of the lionesses could help improve the lives of millions of women and girls.
“We — the 23 members of the England Senior Women’s EURO squad — ask you to make it a priority to invest into girls’ football in schools, so that every girl has the choice,” ends the letter. It would be a huge insult to these incredible players not to listen.
One thing is for certain, my future daughters will be encouraged to play all the football — and eat all the Yorkie bars — they want, and I will tell them all about the Euro 2022 final and the Lionesses’ incredible victory.