Level playing field?
The struggles of being a female football fan
By Georgia Rees-Lang / 1 November 2019
‘Excuse me mate!’
Picture this: It’s a crisp winter’s day. You’re sitting in a cosy pub, Guinness in hand (I don’t care if you think it tastes like burnt marmite toast, this is my scene you’re picturing here so just go with it). It’s 5.30 on a Saturday afternoon, and the football is about to start. As usual, you got here early to secure a good table, with a perfect view of the screen. All is well. Until, seconds before the referee brings the whistle to their lips… a massive bloke sits directly in front of you, blocking the screen entirely. An unfortunate accident, you may be asking yourself? Or perhaps that’s being generous – he is wearing a West Ham shirt after all. ‘Excuse me!’ you yell, grateful for the bravery gained from the couple of pints already sunk. He swivels round, his beady eyes scanning the room for the source of the disruption. ‘Sorry, you’re blocking my view?’ You explain. His eyes lock on you, then back to the screen, then back to you again. You can visibly see the confusion spread across his face, as it becomes obvious. It hadn’t even crossed his mind that you – a real life woman – were here, in his pub, to watch the game. So is the life of a female football fan.
Maybe your first reaction is that I’m over thinking this, that this simply sounds like an unfortunate coincidence nothing to do with gender. And to be honest I wouldn’t blame you: football fans in pubs aren’t exactly known for their considerate attitudes. But when this is an experience you encounter constantly, it becomes harder to explain away as a one-off. The reality is, for whatever reason, being a woman that watches men’s football is still somewhat of a rarity, meaning the game and its fanbase remains a hotbed for the kind of everyday sexism which makes me want to get back in the kitchen…and just listen to the match on 5live instead.
‘Go on then, explain offside!’
Sadly, the return of the premier league season has made me feel not just excitement and anticipation, but also…tired. And not just of pundits arguing over VAR. I’m tired of guys assuming that when I say I watch football, I can’t possibly actually mean I watch it, like properly, to the apparently unbelievable level of being able to understand what’s going on and who the players are. The number of times I’ve entered into a conversation about a game, only to be asked an unintentionally patronising question about whether I watched it with my boyfriend, or have a very simple bit of history about a club unnecessarily explained, is actually ludicrous. While thankfully, we’re living in a more equal society than ever before in in terms of gender, for some reason football seems to be stuck in the past. Yes lads, I do know who Mike Ashley is and what’s going on at Newcastle. And actually, no, you’re wrong about the Champions League away goal rule. Please stop talking.
I’m not alone. I spoke to Ruth and Grace, two fellow female football fans (try saying that after a couple of pints) who share my frustration. ‘Anything I say is googled, slapped down or mocked’, says Grace, and Ruth agrees. ‘I am a qualified referee’, she explains, ‘and yet I have spent years defending my knowledge to men with demonstrably less knowledge of the rules than me. If I hear “okay then, explain the offside rule to me” one more time…’. It’s definitely disheartening to hear that while according to online community ThisFanGirl.com, women make up around 25% of crowds at UK matches annually, the attitude towards female fans remains that they are a ‘rare breed’ (I’ve been described as such, to my face. Mmm, nothing says ‘gender equality’ like being compared to a pedigree dog).
‘They’re taking over!’
When discussing what could be done to try and normalise the concept of women watching football, Ruth and Gracie both suggested the inclusion of more female pundits on mainstream coverage of men’s games, and I totally agree. Yet even more worrying than condescendence from a group of lads in your local, is the out-and-out disgusting misogyny and sexism female pundits receive when they do appear on TV. During the world cup, Patrice Evra appeared to be left speechless in his surprise that Eniola Aluko (a seasoned former player with over 100 England caps) actually… wait for it… understood the rules of football. He proceeding to follow every piece of her punditry with comments such as ‘very good’, ‘I’m very impressed’, and even, almost unbelievably, a one-man round of applause. It’s hard to imagine a real shift in public attitudes when it’s not even occurring on our screens. I do applaud sports channels for their increased inclusion of female pundits on mainstream coverage of the men’s game, but when clear examples of sexism like this aren’t shut down and condemned publicly, in some cases they can end up doing as much damage as good. Sports presenter Jake Humphreys recently read out a tweet on his show on BT sport, which complained that “they [female pundits] are taking over and it’s awful”. The idea of people speaking the same way about tennis, say, or gymnastics, is ridiculous. The majority of sports fans watch both the men’s and women’s Wimbledon final… so why is men’s football treated as such a sacred ‘male only’ zone?
Ultimately, as with most things, I think the solution has to come down to education. Looking back, when I was at school it was pretty much unheard of for girls to play football, either in P.E or in the playground, meaning that football stayed a sport ‘owned’, in their eyes, by boys, an attitude which followed us all the way into the pub as adults. Thankfully, it looks like this is at least beginning to change. The sport is now available as an option in P.E. for all genders in the majority of UK state schools, and there’s also a growing public interest in the women’s game – the World Cup final this year was watched by over 4 million people (both female and male). My hope is that if this diversifying continues, kids of the future will have more of a choice about what sports they want to play, watch, and chat sh*t about, regardless of gender.
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