Blog by Rachel Williams, Policy and Public Affairs Manager at Women in Sport
When was the last time an emoji made you cry? For me, it was about an hour ago and it was the solitary broken heart Mary Earps chose to sum up her feelings on the World Cup Final on Instagram.
Same, Mary. Same.
I’m not naturally a football person and never have I been as invested in a football tournament as I have been for this remarkable women’s World Cup. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of talking about it. Here’s just some of the reasons why; good, bad and stupid.
How long have you got?! Picking highlights is near impossible, because there are just too many to choose from.
Watching England, of course, has been one. Lauren James’ absolute screamers against China. All three of the wonderful goals against The Matildas. Enough Mary Earps wonder-saves (and iconic reactions) to fill a book. Sarina Wiegman continuing to prove she’s the best football manager in the world. The feeling of watching an England team in a penalty shootout – because of course there had to be a penalty shootout – with confidence rather than a sense of impending doom. The fans. Sweet Caroline. Everything but the final result.
Elsewhere, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to have rooted for Jamaica’s Reggae Girlz. Having to crowd fund your trip to Australia and then knocking out Brazil? Incredible. Nigeria’s Super Falcons too. And the mighty Matildas; what they’ve done for Australian women’s sport is awe inspiring.
Sam Kerr’s goal against England was a marvel. Ditto Brazil’s Beatriz Zaneratto João’s against Panama. The Republic of Ireland getting their first ever World Cup goal via Katy McCabe’s beautiful curling corner. Germany being knocked out! The USA being knocked out! Football at its very best.
Sportsmanship at its very best, too. The grace in defeat that all the teams showed has been beautiful to watch. There are too many examples of this too, but in my absolutely biased opinion, Chloe Kelly telling the cameramen exactly where to go as they tried to film the devastated Nigerian goalkeeper after the round of 16 shootout is the best. That, and England receiving their silver medals with a disappointed dignity that a lot of (let’s be honest, all) men’s teams could learn from.
With such great things to watch on the pitch is it any wonder that the tournament also saw record crowds? No, it’s not. But even so that fact that almost two million people (1,978,274 to be precise) filled the stadia to watch live is remarkable. At the time of writing, there isn’t a figure for global TV reach but when it’s released it will break records, I’m sure of it. And, of course, the crowds were as mixed, sober, happy and full of families as they always are at women’s matches.
Here’s some free advice for men wishing to comment on The Lionesses: if you wouldn’t say it about the men’s team don’t say it about the women’s.
Honestly, the next time I hear a man explain how proud he is of The Lionesses because he’s ‘a dad of daughters’ I’m going to scream. Or maybe I won’t scream. Maybe I’ll just respond, ‘as a daughter of a dad, I really hope Wales do well in the rugby world cup’ and see if this makes them understand how ridiculous the ‘as a dad’ line is. Because when a man says he’s proud of The Lionesses ‘as a dad of daughters’ what he’s actually saying is that women’s sport isn’t something that men really care about. It’s fine that his little girl is inspired by Lauren Hemp, but he never could be. It’s nice that women have a team to root for, let’s give them a pat on the head. It’s patronising, and it makes me sad that so often it’s said with the best of intentions, that it’s genuinely the highest compliment some men can think of.
It says a lot, none of it good, about the value society places on women’s sport even now. See also: ‘they’ve inspired a nation of girls’. Why not just, ‘they’ve inspired a nation’? Would anyone ever say of a successful men’s team ‘they’ve inspired a nation of boys’? No. So stop saying it about the Lionesses.
I will say this though: respect to those girls who’ve opened their dads’ eyes to women’s sport (and, in fairness, respect to those dads for whom the eye opening has been genuinely transformative). It’s no easy task! I for one can’t wait until that generation of women is in charge.
Whilst we’re on the topic of things said about women that wouldn’t be said about men, the number of (do I even need to say that they’re male?) journalists who have reported on Sarina Weigman’s future with articles along the lines of ‘she’s so good she could even manage the men’ since England made the final is not ok.
First of all, would the same journalists speculate about the future of a men’s manager on the eve of a World Cup final? We can’t know for sure of course, but I’m going to say they wouldn’t. More importantly though, this idea that getting to manage the men would be a promotion of any kind is just blunt sexism. It merits the sort of two-word response that Mary Earps would approve of. It’s 2023, stop writing this nonsense.
Speaking of nonsense that shouldn’t exist in 2023, a short note to the FA. It’s not acceptable that the Lionesses and their backroom staff aren’t paid the same as their male counterparts. It’s not acceptable to just keep saying ‘oh, but the women’s game doesn’t make as much money as the men’s’. You’re the FA; it’s your job to help change that! We know there are brilliant women and men in the FA who are really committed to the women’s game (not just Baroness Campbell, but mostly Baroness Campbell). But as an organisation, do you really feel you’re putting your whole heart into it? Could you do more to insist that the clubs advertise and market the women’s game properly, make sure WSL matches are played in bigger stadia and can sell more tickets, invest in grassroots facilities for women and girls to create even more fans (and future Lionesses)? I would gently suggest that you could do more. Help the Lionesses – and those that came before them – build their legacy. Chuck whatever the football equivalent of the kitchen sink is at it. You’d have all the support in the world if you did, including from me and everyone who cares about women in sport.
I’m afraid we have to talk about Gianni Infantino.
In some ways maybe we should see it as a sign of the progress of equality in the game that he feels the need to say something as ridiculous at the women’s World Cup as he did at the men’s. But good grief.
I’m not going to do him the honour of repeating his speech at any length, you’ve probably seen it already anyway. The summary of his argument is that women need to ‘pick your battles’, the ‘right’ battles, and prove to men like him (a dad of daughters, of course) that they deserve equal pay and equal respect. A reminder: this man is head of FIFA, the big boss of global football, and this is the way he talks about women in his sport.
It’s difficult to know where to start when we’re still faced with views like that from the very, very top of football but equally we can’t let them go unchallenged. This is what I’d say to Mr Infantino, given the chance: the right battles for women to pick, in football and in society, are the battles we choose. They’re the battles for the things we deserve, not because any man tells us we do, but because we know we do. How can you watch a World Cup like the one we just had and argue that women don’t deserve equal pay and equal respect? Maybe because women’s football has so often had to drag itself to where it is now despite FIFA – and despite the FA and the myriad of other national federations who find themselves in dispute with their players.
Women’s sport is about far more than what goes on on the pitch. It’s a movement for social change, it always has been, and it always will be. The sooner men like Infantino try and understand that, the better.
Back to the good
This amazing summer of sport should not be overshadowed, though. I hope, so badly, that this is a real turning point for women’s sport and for women in society.
I hope that people in positions of power in politics and in sport stop telling us about their female relatives and start telling us about how they’re going to contribute to smashing the gender stereotypes that make girls and women feel that sport isn’t for them, what they’re going to do to reform school sport so that it enables girls to thrive, and how they’re going to work across sport to get more women into leadership positions.
I hope we hear from sponsors how they’re going to make sure that they’re fully investing, in all senses of the word, in women’s sport (and, yes, that means selling women’s goalkeeper shirts). I hope we hear and see more women’s sport across the media; not just during major international tournaments but as a standard part of sports reporting.
I hope the Lionesses recover from their natural disappointment and are able to fully realise what a remarkable thing they’ve done. Not just through being really bloody good at football, but by fully embodying the joy, the resilience, the passion and the grit that makes team sport so wonderful. I know they’ll continue to be wonderful role models for people – not just women and girls – across the country. I know they’ll continue to represent the best of English football.
What a show the Lionesses have put on for us this summer. How crushing it was to watch them lose at the weekend. But my goodness how proud we, and they, should be.