This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
Few corners of the earth are darker and less hospitable than the comments section under the trailer for FIFA 16. Women's National Teams are now 'IN THE GAME', but their entry into this consecrated space, once solely reserved for discerning noblemen, has brought with it a lexicon of woman-hating vitriol.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that any step towards gender equality must be met with outrage from an army of keyboard warriors. Online abuse is just part and parcel of fourth wave feminism. However, this stream of hateful commentary does seem to reflect a wider trend in public perceptions of women's football. I'm a feminist and a football fan; it's a difficult balance to maintain when there are so many glaring examples of sexism within the sport's governing body.
With Sepp Blatter's tenure as FIFA president coming to an unceremonious end, he can retire with the reassurance that his record on gender equality is enough to make Richard Keys look like a reincarnated Pankhurst. The 'best bits' montage from Sepp's shit-show of a presidency would undoubtedly include his suggestion that female players should play in tighter shorts if they wanted to increase the popularity of the sport.
With the lack of respect and resources directed towards the Women's World Cup by FIFA, it's hardly surprising that the tournament has received about as much positive attention as Sian Massey on a Sky Sports set. With all this in mind, I decided to spend the first England game hassling some of my local pubs to show the match. Some people might call me a hero, but Emily Davidson didn't throw herself under a horse for me to be denied my basic right to drink a pint of cheap lager and watch England struggle hopelessly against a superior French side.
Liverpool is a city that's essentially founded on watching football and chatting shit down the local, so it seemed like the ideal place to carry out my one-woman crusade to bring the World Cup to every pub along my bus route. I had carried out some prior research, calling local boozers and asking them if they would be showing the match. I either got laughed at, or gently reassured that one pub would show it for me, "as long as it didn't clash with the proper football, love."
First stop on my feminist football tour was The Brookhouse on Smithdown Road. The Brookhouse used to be a Scream Pub, and it's mainly popular with students, or people who want to eat beer-battered cod for under a fiver. It's basically a glorified Wetherspoons, offering the same food and furnishings as any mid-range chain pub in the country.
With the inspiring sentiments from my phone investigation still ringing in my ears, I was expecting some hostility. My guess was that I'd be received as warmly as someone walking into the Kop in a Manchester United strip (or anyone, anywhere, wearing a Manchester United strip, ever).
I was surprised to find that they already had the match scheduled on telly, although they weren't expecting many people in to watch it. One of the lads behind the bar told me that the issue wasn't with women's football, but with England in general. While passion for a shit men's squad may be well established in middle England, the North West have a proud tradition of not really being arsed. I was fine with that, and feeling like I'd achieved what I set out to, I downed my pint and headed on.
Feeling like Karren Brady on E, I moved on to my next target in the Baltic Triangle. The Camp & Furnace is home to the Fanpark initiative, which is meant to bring the best in domestic, European and international football to a big screen, in one of the hippest bars in the city. It's the kind of place where people only wear retro kits on match day and beer is sold by the stein. Considering the Camp is an arty independent venue, I had kind of assumed this would be the ideal place to strike up a conversation about sexism in sport.
The result was just really shitty and disheartening. I got referred over to a guy called Ian, who made me feel like I'd just interrupted him during the birth of his first child to chat about the merits of a four-four-two formation. Ian said he had no idea the game was on, which isn't his fault, and also told me that they don't screen events there's no demand for, which I understand. But it still surprised me that the most hostile reception I got all night came from the place I'd expected it least.
I'm used to pissed-up dudes in bars telling me women don't belong on the football pitch, but I wasn't expecting total indifference and a disinclination to engage from a venue that aims to make football accessible. Ian gave me some pretty acceptable stock answers, but his attitude sucked, so I pulled a Bela Guttman and cursed their deconstructed industrial décor as I hurried back towards the centre of town.
The next stop was the Rack and Dollar on Berry Street. It only opened recently but Steven Gerrard apparently came here a couple of days after his last game at Anfield, and I was hoping to be shown similar kindness after a crushing defeat at the Camp & Furnace. Rack and Dollar has everything you could ask for in a sports bar: a group of lads in Lyle and Scott polo shirts hogging the pool table, an excessive number of flat screen tellys, and some sage words of wisdom on the doors of the women's toilets.
The match was already on when I got there, and the manager Darren was a supreme babe about letting me chat to some of his punters. By this point in the night I was four pints deep and drunk enough to start talking to a group of lads who'd been making jibes at the match. I was presented with a tableau of sexism so hackneyed I started to think it might be a mirage.
Opening with an ever-promising, "Look love, I'm not sexist but…" the conversation centred on why they thought women's football would never be as popular as the men's game. One of the lads kindly explained to my fragile female brain that women aren't physically able to dominate a sport in the way men can, as well as not being as naturally aggressive.
Tiring of gendered tropes in a conversation that constantly skirted on the verge of suggesting that menstruation caused hysteria, I decided to wrap up this ordeal, when one dude actually offered me a nugget of gold. He told me that sponsors wouldn't invest in women's football because not enough people see it, and that ultimately, "it all comes down to money."
He'd nailed it, and whilst I was too shitfaced to articulate it myself, the shift manager at the final pub helped me out. Lewis from Fly in the Loaf was a total dreamboat who gave me a packet of crisps and talked to me for a while about why women's football receives so little attention. The pissed up guy at Rack and Dollar had been right: without big investments at the grassroots and high stakes sponsorship deals, it's impossible to cultivate a following strong enough to fill a pub with punters on match day.
Maybe it was Lewis' schoolboy charm, or maybe I was just suitably plastered, but I started to realise that I'd been aiming my campaign at the wrong dudes. The blame doesn't lie with the venues that won't show women's football matches, or the twats that sneer at it down the pub.
The reality is that without meaningful efforts from governing bodies like FIFA, women's football has no potential to grow or to gain any sort of following. Like most feminist goals, this one's about changing perceptions. Sometimes that process has to happen from the top-down, with governing bodies signalling that it's time to start taking women's football as seriously as its male counterpart.
My moment of clarity was quickly forgotten in the haze of another pint, but the night hadn't turned out as I'd anticipated. I had expected to be treated with all the grace of a Paul Scholes tackle, but people were generally really nice and quite keen to show the game. My predictions were actually pretty awful, other than that I'd end up getting a fuckload of chips after England's inevitable trudge towards defeat.