In 2015, I interviewed the manager of Chelsea FC Women, Emma Hayes. The interview got off to a bad start when I asked her the seemingly innocuous question: “Can women ever achieve equality with men?” The women’s game was some way off achieving parity with the men’s, she told me.
Seven years later, this is still the case (but they did also have a 50-year head start – more on that later). But what she really seemed frustrated by, I sensed, were the constant comparisons with the men’s game. Could we not “appreciate [women’s football] in its own right”, she asked, and recognise it as “a great product” regardless?
As a young and idealistic reporter, I struggled to understand Hayes’ point. Surely this was internalised misogyny speaking? Women’s football was gaining in popularity, so why should its players be grateful for being paid the London living wage, when male footballers were taking home as much as £200,000 a week?
But as time has gone on, I’ve started to understand what she meant. There is value in recognising the women’s game as a separate product, because it is a different product, and in that respect it presents different opportunities. For a start, the women’s game hasn’t been corrupted by money, or mired with accusations of misconduct or toxic fan culture, and we can prevent it heading in the same direction as the men’s game.
It is also undeniably a more family-friendly environment, and it is a delight to see so many young women and girls in the crowds flocking to the Women’s Euro. I would be surprised, for example, to find any fans so drunk at a women’s football match that they wound up falling on top of the people in the row in front of them, as I experienced at the league one play-off final in 2019.
This year’s Women’s Euro has seen record upon record broken in terms of attendance and viewers, and women’s football at international level is an unstoppable force, right now. The quality and talent displayed during the tournament has been immense, not least that of the Lionesses in their 4-0 semi-final win against Sweden. Sure, there have been some less exciting games, but let’s not pretend the same can’t be said of men’s football.
Since the 2017 relaunch of the professionalised Women’s Super League – a move, some argue, designed to embarrass some of England’s top clubs into making a public commitment to the women’s game – some have moved towards the “hashtag one club” approach: if you value your club, you value all the teams within it equally.
It’s a lovely idea in theory, if fans actually sign up to it, but let’s not pretend football is an equal opportunities sport between men and women – we need to hold the games up against each other in order to acknowledge these disparities.
It also means that the difference between men’s and women’s football is valued less – “#NotWomensFootball” the Volkswagen adverts at this summer’s tournament state, but why isn’t it? By positioning women’s teams as some sort of spin-off of big Premier League clubs we’re not really encouraging people to appreciate it as a “great product” in its own right, and there are a fair few aspects of the men’s game we wouldn’t actually want to emulate.
That said, there’s no perfect solution. Treating the women’s game as a separate product also opens it up to the heavy weight of expectations heaped upon women across society. Why is the women’s game seen as more “family friendly”? Because women are softer? Less prone to diving, swearing and backchatting the ref? (Just ask Spain’s Misa Rodriguez about that.) Even in this year’s Women’s Euros, commentators have asserted that it is unusual for women players to conduct themselves in this manner.
You only need to look at the criticism the Arsenal Women’s players received when they travelled to Dubai in January 2021 at the height of the tier 4 Covid restrictions to see how we view women players. We simply expect better from them than their male counterparts. They are expected to act as ambassadors for the game rather than just rock up with a Gucci washbag and some Airpods, play football and trot off again.
However, the undeniable elephant in the room when it comes to women’s football, and one of the main issues with the “one club” approach, is that women still take home a tiny fraction of what male players earn at comparable levels, and investment in the women’s game is vastly inferior. Paradoxically, this seems to be the root cause of why the women’s game is favoured by some, and also why women’s and men’s football will never be equally revered. Men rage on social media that “WOMEN CAN’T FILL STADIUMS”, which might be true, but little is done to address why that is.
In 1921, the FA voted to ban women’s football, deeming the game to be “quite unsuitable for females”. Just a year before, the women’s game was enjoying record success, with 53,000 supporters turning up to a Boxing Day match at Goodison Park. It took 92 years to see that attendance record broken. The legacy of that ban, along with today’s male-centric set-up, means the top women’s teams are beholden to the goodwill of their male overlords. Just look at how Charlton Athletic Women were sacrificed to budget cuts in 2006 after the men’s team were relegated from the Premier League.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. “There are radical ways of re-envisaging women’s football,” Prof Jean Williams, the author of The History of Women’s Football, tells me, citing the US National Women’s Soccer League franchise Angel City, a club founded by women – Hollywood star Natalie Portman, no less – in 2020, as a women’s club in its own right. “But that’s not happening here – women’s football is a sub-brand of the men’s game.”
The big question the FA, Uefa and Fifa need to answer is whether women’s football is a money-making exercise, a box to tick, or whether they – and the men’s teams who have benefitted from a long-standing patriarchal structure – have a moral obligation to develop the women’s game, even if it does come at an initial cost.
Jen Offord is a producer and presenter of the Standard Issue podcast, and author of The Year of the Robin