The faces on those kids. They don’t know what they’re singing about. Thirty years of hurt? Fifty? Most of the people in that crowd weren’t born when England lifted their last footballing trophy.
You might think it’s all about the kids, but it really isn’t. While their faces lit up our screens during the EUROS and we spoke of a utopian future where boys wore shirts with women’s names on the back and girls dream of being Chloe Kelly, for many of us it was something else too. I’ve been watching the men’s game for over twenty years and have never felt as much excitement, as many nerves and as much pride as I did on the final whistle.
I’ve also never felt like I’d missed out on something as much as I did on that day.
Baddiel & Skinner’s ‘Three Lions’ suffering yet another tournament update was appropriate, in its way. Seeing those kids gustily belting out lyrics written for a tournament we failed to win twenty-six years ago is an appropriate bookend for a period of time that hasn’t been particularly enjoyable for England fans. For those of us who care to remember, the trauma is conveniently conveyed via the peculiar tropes of the managers. Glenn Hoddle and Eileen Drury, say. Keggy resigning in a toilet at Wembley. Svennigans. The Wally With The Brolly. Capello in South Africa. Roy the Boy. Big Sam and his pint of white wine. Southgate and his waistcoat. To the uninitiated, it might make no sense but to fans, every one of those names brings up harrowing memories of dramatic and/or embarrassing defeats. Sometimes both.
Everything is different now. The kids singing those words weren’t born when they were written. The entitlement they express doesn’t exist in the women’s game, where until very recently, players had no alternative but to work outside football to support themselves. These players cannot be accused of not wanting it enough or being complacent over their positions. There’s no fetid air of selection due to pressure from sponsors or media profiles hanging over the Lionesses. They are all there on merit. While the final of the men’s EUROS last year is tainted by the violence, the only fears that surfaced on Sunday involved Mary Earps’ safety as she danced on the desk during Sarina Wiegman’s post match presser.
Now we sit in the debris, still half pissed and removing ticker tape tin foil from our bras, we can’t help but wonder how this will affect the future of the sport. There are so many opportunities for improvement in both the men’s and women’s games, but are we capable of enacting them after all this time? Even if we are, are they sustainable?
Already elements of the press are starting to follow a predictable narrative. The Daily Mail has already begun comparing female contestants of Love Island unfavourably with the Lionesses. THIS woman *points to an image of a woman in a football kit* is superior to THIS woman *points to an image of a woman in a swimsuit*.
It’s the same argument we’ve been using to divide and conquer women since Eve supposedly ate the apple. ‘Don’t be this, be this.’ Throw a little surreptitious fat shaming in the headline and you have the full house.
The trouble with binaries, as we’re learning, is that while they might be broad enough to appear inclusive on many levels, they’re also exclusionary on many more. Allow me to digress a moment to show you what I mean.
If you’ve read my work before, you won’t be stunned to learn that I didn’t have a lot of confidence when I was a kid. Football wasn’t offered to girls at either primary or secondary level back then, so I played netball and tennis resentfully and disliked games vocally. During break times, especially in primary school, I would sit on the edge of the gravel playground and watch woefully underqualified boys pretending to be Gary Lineker.
In 2019 I shared a stage with comedian Sara Pascoe during a viewing party for England’s World Cup match vs. Scotland. We talked about our first experiences of football and like many girls in that era, they were similar. She too sat on her backside, shifting uncomfortably in the ubiquitous cotton school frock that provided no protection from the stony surface, watching boys kick a small plastic ball around. I knew I could do better than some of them. I expect Pascoe did too. The difference between us? She and her friend would evaluate the situation, decide they wanted to play and enter the fray.
I never did. I didn’t have the courage and the rejection would have been too much for me to cope with, even at six years old.
There have always been little girls who will run out, snatch the ball and play their game. Chloe Kelly, the twenty-four-year-old who scored the winner on Sunday, used to play in the cages in Ealing with her five brothers and their friends. She says they never took it easy on her and she liked it that way. It taught her self-belief. Others have said the same. They are the girls who got up and took the ball.
I only realised the complexity of my own emotions surrounding those moments when the final whistle blew on Sunday. I’ve always felt like a failure for not doing what Pascoe did. I’ve always felt like my lack of self-confidence was something to be ashamed of and I didn’t deserve the joy of football because I didn’t have the guts to take it.
Now an adult, I feel the full weight of that anger on behalf of the kids who, like me, ‘didn’t have the guts’.
Kids shouldn’t have to be brave to try sports. They should be led there kindly and shown that anyone can kick or hit a ball. Anyone. Self-confidence is built in the playgrounds and playing fields, and inclusion and opportunity should be built into the school systems. No child should ever be left on the sidelines and ignored because they’re shy or even worse, not that good.
The beauty of this win, the true glory, is that it will force institutions to make changes. Today it’s much easier for kids to access football at school – according to England Football’s recently published figures, 72% of primaries and 44% of secondary schools offer equal access – but it’s only when it becomes the norm will fewer kids, both male and female, get to try something they burn to do but can’t ask for.
The Lionesses’ victory can be many different things. It can be a catalyst for change at the top tier. But if in twenty years’ time, there are still kids sitting on the sidelines feeling that it simply isn’t their place to stand up and take the ball, we’ve failed. We won’t see it and we won’t feel it.
But they will.