a coming of age

Yesterday I went to Wembley to watch a football international.

No big deal you may think (although as a football enthusiast I might say that football at Wembley is always an event), but yesterday was unique. It was the first time that England’s Women footballers had played an international at the new Wembley stadium. And they were playing against the acknowledged best team in the world – Germany of course.

The scale  of support took the  FA completely by surprise, and faced with two of the four train lines that serve Wembley being out of action for planned engineering works, they were advised to close ticket sales at 55,000, despite continuing demand.

As far as the game went everything on and off the pitch was as different from the men’s game as one could imagine. There were large numbers of girls aged around 10-13 in the stadium, many wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with anytown afc, all wildly enthusiastic about seeing the England players. The atmosphere was festive, with not a swear word nor derogatory chant, and (something I found quite amusing) much booing of the opposition.

The game itself was fast and notable for the lack of physicality. Sadly the England team was totally outclassed by the Germans who were outstanding, especially their captain, Celia Sasic. This should be put in the context that both teams had a 10/10 success rate in their World Cup qualifying games.

As a new football experience the day was definitely worthwhile, but I was surprised by how it affected me emotionally. Before the match I had read about the development of women’s football in the UK. I knew that when I was at school and active in a number of sports it would have been laughable for girls to ask to play football. I hadn’t realised that it was actually banned by the FA until 1971, so hardly surprising that my rural girls’ grammar school  was not encouraging its pupils to play football. Much of that prejudice has carried on into the 21st century – mention women’s football to a group of men, young or old, and you are likely to be greeted with a chorus of disparaging remarks. Such remarks are at least as likely to be directed personally at the sort of woman  who would play football (inevitably butch lesbians) as at their competence to play the game. Sadly many older women hold similar views.

Hearing the two national anthems, seeing the two teams lined up on the famous Wembley turf, watching Karen Carney being awarded her 100th international cap, were moments that brought tears to my eyes. I realised that this was less to do with football, more to do with women coming of age. Another huge barrier to women’s equality has been dismantled. I have personally battled gender inequality from the age of 13, when I had to make my subject choices for GCSE.. That was the beginning; making a career in hospital medicine, still massively affected by inequality in some specialties, was harder in the 80s. Being a working mother has never been remotely easy, and remains financially impossible for many professional women. Other women face the unenviable choice of making less than ideal childcare decisions  in order to make the money that they need to survive domestically. Many women rely on the unpaid help of female relatives (usually mothers) in order to go out to work. Despite the sacrifices made by women they are still (in the privacy of non-PC conversations) condemned as unreliable workers. Women without children condemn their colleagues with children as selfish for wanting holiday time in the school holidays (who would want to pay  the premium for high season holidays if they didn’t need to?) Women who have worked part time for a number of years in order to be effective mothers and partners as well as effective workers are financially penalised both whilst working and then in their pensions.

The unequal position of women when it comes to domestic and sexual abuse and violence is another huge topic – one only needs to read the extensive media coverage of Ched Evans attempted return to football training to get a flavour.

To return to the footballers – the differences in the game on the field are dwarfed by the differences off the field. Few women footballers are fully pro, and those that are can aspire to a top salary, with sponsorship deals, of around £50k – as a sports writer put it, about what Wayne Rooney earns in a day. Most are still amateur, or at best semi-pro, and consequently have no access to the facilities that their male counterparts take for granted. Training 2-3 times a week is a far cry from training in state-of-the-art facilities all day every day. I don’t know what the German women have in the way of training resources, but I did see that their goalkeeper had had sessions with Neuer  (the German national world cup winning goalkeeper). I don’t think that Karen Bardsley had been offered sessions with Joe Hart.

The amateur/ semi-pro status of women football internationals and their access to training opportunities and financial rewards perfectly mirror the status of working women (and especially working mothers) in UK society in 2014. Superficially the lot of women has advanced hugely since the 1980s, but in reality the problems that my daughters face are very little different from those that I faced. It is possible that in fact they are in a worse situation, as many men think that women now have equality, and are blind to the huge inequality that remains beneath the surface.

Yesterday’s football international was a landmark. It is the beginning of a long road to real equality. The women footballers must hope that their progress is faster than that of their non-footballing sisters. Our progress seems to have stalled since the millennium.

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