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“They’ve got GIRLS on their team!”: On gender, football and progress

I’ve often wondered what my relationship with football would have been like if I was ten or fifteen or twenty years younger, and discovering the beautiful game today.

My earliest memory involving a ball is from a childhood trip to the UK to visit family. I was kicking a ball about in my granddad’s back garden; I think I was trying to get it higher than the two-metre fence. I’d have been five or six.

Another early memory, a year or two later. It was lunchtime at school and I, wearing a dress (a rare enough occasion to warrant my remembering it) was asked by a boy, probably a year 6, looking for more people to play in a kick about, asked me to join in. I don’t think I had any idea what I was really doing, but I must have enjoyed it as I’ve not stopped since (sans the dress).

In my first season playing club football, at nine or ten, we had a mixed team. Opposition, all boys, would take one look at us and scoff “they’ve got GIRLS on their team!”. We’d usually beat them.

I remember one game that season where my friend (who went on to play in the under-17 World Cup hosted here in 2008) kept beating a particular defender, with ease, every time she got the ball. He finally reacted by pulling her hair.

The first time I remember elite women’s football getting any kind of coverage in New Zealand was during said under-17 World Cup, when I was fifteen. It felt, for a few weeks, that women’s football (and women’s sport more generally) mattered beyond the interests of myself and my friends.

Over the last few months, and the last couple of weeks especially, women’s sport and women’s football has been prominent in New Zealand. First the news that the Football Ferns are to play World Cup finalists Japan at Westpac Stadium next month, and then the announcement of the world-leading collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the NZPFA that sees the Ferns and the All Whites have equal pay, prize money, image rights and access to business class travel when playing for New Zealand.

The flipside of course is what’s happening at the grassroots level. What happens at the elite level doesn’t mean much if there isn’t a similar push happening to grow women’s sport at the grassroots level. Stuff reporter Dana Johannsen’s investigation into the opportunities currently existing for girls who want to play sport (football, rugby, cricket – traditionally male sports) was illuminating to say the least. It’s not so much the case for football, where considerable efforts are being made to engage girls in football by creating girls-only environments and pathways into the sport (think FIFA Live Your Goals weeks, involving girls in the National Women’s League game days, and even non-eleven a-side versions of the game like futsal).

As NZ Football’s women’s football development manager Holly Nixon points out, girls-only environments are designed to “try and meet the social needs of girls that don’t want to play in a mixed environment. We recognise that girls have different needs, so if we actually want to increase participation we have to give them a choice and give them lots of opportunities to give it a go”.

I wonder whether something like this would have helped break the barriers that would have existed for other girls my age who wanted to play football, but for whom the idea of playing with the boys, was off-putting to the point that they never gave it a go? Quite possibly. As Holly highlights, it’s about giving girls the choice, enabling them to learn the game in environments that they are comfortable in.

When we talk about getting kids into sport, into football, we need to do so with an awareness of how their identities and capacity to see themselves are constructed not by them but imposed upon them by how society talks about them – not least gender.

Society genders kids very early in life (pink for girls! Blue for boys! Make up for girls! Sport for boys!) so inevitably attitudes towards social constructions of what it means to identify with or present as a particular gender seeps into how they see themselves engaging with sport.

Girls and boys are separated early in sports. Boys are told not to play like a girl. That to be like a girl is something to be ashamed of, insulted by. In the same breath, girls are told that they aren’t as good as, can’t be as good as, will never be as good as, boys.

But as Football Fern Hannah Wilkinson pointed out this week:

Screenshot 2018-05-12 14.07.29Maybe one day we’ll reach a point where sport won’t be ‘segregated’ by sex – where we won’t need to differentiate between “men’s football” and “women’s football” and it will just be football. But that’s the subject of an article of its own for another day.

Football Ferns

The Football Ferns: With the new CBA negotiated and a high profile game against Japan at Westpac Stadium next month, it’s been a busy time. 

I’ve often wondered what my relationship with football would have been like if I was ten or fifteen or twenty years younger, and discovering the beautiful game in the week that the collective bargaining agreement was announced.

As a five-year-old a collective bargaining agreement wouldn’t have meant anything to me. But the news coverage might have been the first time I’d heard about the Football Ferns.

As a ten-year-old it probably would have been cool to hear that the men’s and women’s teams were being treated equally by the governing body, but what its intricacies would actually mean might have been beyond me. I might still have played in a mixed team, and opposition boys mightn’t have sneered at us and pulled my friend’s hair.

As a fifteen-year-old, it might have been clear that, for those girls and women dedicated enough, talented enough, that there could be a real career for them in the game.

None of this is to say that the fight for equality is won. But this is a victory that’s been a long time coming. For now, it’s time to savour the feeling.

Categories: Football Ferns Women's kōrero

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Ella Reilly

Waiheke Islander currently in exile in Wellington. Supporter of Nottingham Forest and England, through thick and thin (there's been plenty of that). As a player is somewhat averse to the offside rule.

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