As I jumped and roared with the rest of Wembley when the brilliant Lionesses were crowned Queens of Europe, after beating Germany 2-1 AET and Chloe Kelly’s iconic Brandi Chastain-esque celebration, my double-consciousness finally spilled over. It was so gratifying to witness the professional women’s game bring football home again before the men, and finally get over its inferiority complex in a refreshingly mixed gender crowd – a record 574,875 people attended Euro 2022 in total. But, contrary to popular opinion, I was also very concerned that this historic win would also be used to justify the women’s game’s conditional inclusivity.
I played an alternative version of ‘Where’s Wally’ throughout the tournament, looking largely in vain for fellow Black women or other women of colour among the 16 teams that competed, as well as the coaching staff and officials. As the founder of SEASON zine, a football and fashion platform to counter the male, pale (and sometimes stale) state of football culture, I found confronting this uncomfortable truth again so soon after dedicating issue 09 to Black joy and football’s Black community deflating. Visibility matters and the lack of game time for Nikita Parris (minutes against Germany and Spain), Jess Carter (minutes against Northern Ireland) and Demi Stokes (didn’t play at all) hammered home how far the Lionesses’ ethnic diversity has regressed since Hope Powell CBE’s management between 1998 and 2013. Alex Scott, Rachel Yankey, Lianne Sanderson, Eni Aluko and other women of colour were game-changing Lionesses once upon a time.
To acknowledge that something needs to change to create a football future where everyone genuinely feels welcome, safe, and represented on and off the pitch isn’t a criticism of the current players or coach Sarina Wiegman. But there are definitely things we can learn from the French team’s scouting system. The semi-finalists fielded 15 Black or Brown players in their 23-women Euro 2022 squad; I revelled in their scintillating performances – France 5-1 Italy especially – as much as their on-point hairstyles, crowning Kadidiatou Diani who wore lilac braids my new favourite player. I could finally see it and believe it for elite players of colour.
In 2020, the Football Association (FA) announced that 3.4 million women and girls were playing football in the UK. That figure will no doubt increase in the wake of the Euros victory; BarBend found that Google searches for ‘football lessons’ increased by 665% the day after the Euro 2022 final. So why isn’t promising talent from diverse backgrounds being discovered and nurtured more consistently for the Lionesses?
‘At grassroots level, there are very few talent pipelines for the England team in inner London, and even fewer training facilities – they’re mostly based on the outskirts and in predominantly white suburbs,’ shares Katee Hui, the Canadian-born Brit who founded vibrant community football club Hackney Laces in 2011. Since then, the club has expanded with three sister clubs and now supports over 200 girls in East London with football training and empowering opportunities, plus kickouts with local England player Lotte Wubben-Moy. ‘I have spent time as a coach taking talented players from racialised backgrounds to trials on public transport miles away, only for the player to decide that there are too many barriers in place for them to continue going.’
In their post-Euros glow, the entire Lionesses squad wrote and signed an open letter urging Tory leadership candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to give all girls equal access to football in PE at school. ‘The reality is we are inspiring young girls to play football only for many to end up going to school and not being able to play,’ write the players. Arsenal legend and pundit Ian Wright called for the same reform after the semi-finals, and right now, 63% of schools offer girls’ football in PE lessons and 40% offer girls extracurricular football.
History-making players drawing from their own against-the-odds experiences to try to hold the future Prime Minister to account is a powerful statement, and the FA is already actioning ambitious reforms that will be revolutionary if fully realised. The governing body hopes that 90% of schools in England will join The FA Girls’ Football School Partnerships Network by 2024, providing a complete pathway and female-friendly training for girls nationwide.
But everything hinges on football pitch accessibility, a common complaint among women’s and non-binary grassroots teams, that is compounded by the loss of 710 council football pitches in Britain between 2010 and 2018, according to GMB research. Free bookable slots were reserved during the Euros to temporarily resolve the issue. ‘[Adidas initiative] “Pitch, Please” was great and an incredible location but it was only available on the weekend which was really inconvenient for our team. And it wasn’t truly “free” as our faces were still being used for content on the pitch for the brand,’ says Baesianz FC co-founder and embroidery artist Nicole Chui. She launched the London-based team to celebrate women, trans and non-binary people of Asian heritage - representation that is seriously lacking elsewhere.
But, when it comes to intersectionality, the standards set by independent initiatives like this in terms also need to bubble up to the men’s and women’s football elite. ‘It is shocking that there were more out LGBTQ+ players playing in the final than the whole of the men's Premier League. At the same time, there is a notable absence of trans people in the women's game,’ adds Hannah-Lily Lanyon who plays grassroots football with Goal Diggers F.C. Tackling the barriers that marginalised and minoritised players may face playing football directly, the non-profit club reserves spaces for older players, trans players, players of colour and those will a lower income.
Only trans players who want to play in professional and semi-professional leagues have to apply to the FA to play in their affirmed gender, which is assessed on a case-by-case basis, and meet specific hormone and surgery requirements. ‘Grassroots football proves every day that trans women are a brilliant asset to our teams and we need that to be celebrated on a professional level. We want a commitment from football's organising bodies and sponsors to trans and queer inclusivity that goes beyond a rainbow flag and enables players to be themselves on the pitch,’ Hannah continues.
Ultimately, greater inclusivity in women’s football is possible if the meaningful action taken is coordinated at every level. Even though Katee, Nicole, Hannah and I are on the same page about leading by example at grassroots level, the far-reaching changes that government bodies and sponsors can drive will safeguard and accelerate progress for generations to come. As Hannah puts it, ‘If we want to see a truly inclusive squad in ten years, commitments for better access to pitch space for grassroots teams, more funding for inner-city girls to access training, equal pay for women players, and a commitment to trans-inclusivity needs to start now.’
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