Saturday in my house was football. It started in the morning going to watch my brother play, where I desperately wished for the ball to go out of play so I could show off my skills kicking it back in. “Woah who is she?” I’d hear them say from the opposition touchline. Players would stare at me in awe, “such talent for a young age, I wonder who she plays for…” Obviously that didn’t happen. I was quite young, and to all intents and purposes, pretty insignificant. But still, I loved the atmosphere. The passion. The pace of the game. I would be running on the touchline, willing them to drive forward. I’d shout “man on”, “the overlaps on”, “he’s offside ref”. I genuinely enjoyed the game, and wanted to feel involved.
Football would continue throughout the day, with us either going to watch our local team, or sitting down to watch them on the TV. Either way, it was a big deal. A real family affair. It was just a right of passage that Saturday afternoons would be filled with football chat, placing £1 bets, and supporting the team. It has been this way since my childhood, and I can’t really imagine it any other way. It hadn’t really occurred to me that some families didn’t watch football. That it wasn’t an intrinsic part of their lives. But when I was at school I learnt very quickly that perhaps my situation wasn’t the ‘norm’ and that as a young girl, I needed to remember my place, and in some situations, just be quiet. Opinionless. Feign ignorance.
I remember in Secondary school, probably around 12 years old, being sat in a pretty boring geography lesson and the boys on our table started talking about a football game. A game I had seen. A game I had been to. I waited until the conversation lulled a little, and then said in reference to a goal scorer of the game, “I think he’s on really good form at the moment”.
They all stared at me. One of them laughed. One of them looked like I had just said something offensive about a beloved grandparent of theirs. Only one of them, a friend of mine, asked what I thought of the game. We had a short conversation about it, and then it went quiet again. That was when one particular boy, a boy I didn’t like but who was pretty ‘popular’, made a comment which has stuck with me for over 10 years.
“Why are you pretending to like football? It won’t make boys like you more”
I opened my mouth to retaliate but realised I couldn’t say anything. My mouth went dry and I felt my cheeks flush. Other boys in the class turned round to look at me, and I wanted the ground to swallow me up. I wish that 12-year-old me would have retaliated. Would have said that I wasn’t pretending, and that if I was, why on earth would I do it to get the attention of someone as conceited and insignificant as you? I wish I had continued to talk about the game when they resumed their conversation. I wish I had corrected them on statistics they were spouting which I knew to be incorrect. Fixtures which they were getting wrong. I wish I had given my opinion on formations and squad selections. But I stayed quiet. I felt unable to talk about something which I was passionate about, something I genuinely liked. I realised that day, in that class, that not only did they not believe I could be as interested in football as them, but that even if I was, they didn’t want to hear about it. Because I was a girl.
From that day on, I was very careful with who I spoke to about football. I would chat to friends of mine about the game, but would never join in big conversations for fear of my interest being mis-interpretated as wanted romantic attention. Once in a morning tutor session, I was speaking to my friend about a bet I had won on a game at the weekend, and our conversation was overheard by another ‘popular’ lad, who no one really liked but somehow whose opinion was held in extremely high regard.
“He isn’t going to sleep with you, no matter how many bets you’ve won”.
My friend laughed and my heart sank. He afterwards apologised as he realised how offended I was. I was so confused. Why is my liking of football being sexualised? Why do people think I am doing it because I want something, whether its attention, affection, or sexual favours? Why can’t I just talk about it like the lads do? Why does me having an opinion on football seem to be SO amusing to some people?
I wish I could say that as I have gotten older that this is no longer the case. But I can’t. At nearly twenty-three years of age, I still sometimes receive raised eyebrows at the mention of football. I notice the small smirks. The raised intonation in people’s voice when they inquisitively say, “you watched the game?” The difficult questions targeted at you which you know are to try and catch you out, or trip you up, to prove that ‘HA, we knew it, you are just pretending to like football.’ The surprise at having a fantasy football team. The questioning of you having a season ticket. I notice it all, and quite frankly, am sick of it.
Women are becoming more involved in the game. On television we are seeing less ‘token’ female pundits, and more firmly established ones. Commentators, reporters, and ex-professional players are slowly becoming more common in the football space. And I for one am extremely glad about it. But there is still this pressure and expectation that as a woman talking about football, you need to be careful. To watch your back. To make sure you don’t get something wrong because if you do, it is not because you just got confused, or that you had a slip of the tongue- it is because you are a woman. And this illustrates the deep-seated ideology that is still commonplace; liking football is in some way unfeminine. It contradicts your womanhood. The two will always be slightly conflicting and you must learn to expect criticism, laughter, and judgement from some people to whom the idea of a woman liking football is just a bit odd.
I hope this changes. Selfishly for me so that I can speak about football as much as I would like to, not as much as I know society expects me too, which is not a lot. I hope it changes so that twelve-year-old girls can engage in the same conversations as their male peers, without being tormented or assumed to be liars or attention seekers. But I know that for this to change, a huge shift in established gender norms would need to occur, which I fear is a long way off happening. For now though, just know that if you’re a guy, and a girl speaks to you about football, don’t sexualise it. Don’t say that makes her more attractive, or less attractive. Don’t question her legitimacy. Just talk about the game. For it is a beautiful game, and one that should be enjoyed by everyone.