FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

Sports

What I Learned Taking Up Football in My Twenties

​Much like Saint Trinian's and Saudi Arabia, my school didn't offer 'male' sports to girls. So, when I took up football in my twenties, I wasn't exactly playing a fair game.
March 8, 2016, 2:55pm
Photos provided by the author

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Much like St. Trinian's and Saudi Arabia, my school didn't offer 'male' sports to girls. This meant I spent five years feigning menstrual cramps to avoid badminton and netball games so tedious that getting a lacrosse ball to the eye one time actually livened things up. I was only offered the opportunity to play football for the first time last year – aged 21 – when a group of lads from the student newspaper offhandedly dared me to come along to their weekly kickabout. I've since become a dedicated player along with my mate Rachel, the only other woman on our mixed-gender side.

Advertisement

Though I still struggle to make it to the end of Charlotte Crosby's Three Minute Body Blitz without crying because I let Richard Callender down again, I'm still faster, fitter and more enthusiastic than the majority of guys I've played with or against. Despite this, general consensus on the team is that I'm pitifully inept and a complete hindrance when we play competitively. It's hard to rival years of practice with blind enthusiasm.

But it's about more than inexperience. Before you even step on the pitch, you're faced with the assumption that women don't really play the sport. Take buying kit, a near Sisyphean task given that women's football clothing doesn't really exist. I've trawled every Sports Direct within a 10-mile radius of Edinburgh University, usually being met by doggedly uncongenial staff who have asked me whether the shin pads I'm buying are for my boyfriend. I took my search for sportswear online, a place where you can buy everything from selfie-sticks to ricin – but not women's football gear.

Refining my search results by gender on a number of online retailers offered up the option of either 'men' or 'children', meaning that I currently play in a pair of children's boots with men's football shorts pulled up under my breasts. Perhaps it shouldn't matter, but it's difficult to take yourself seriously on the pitch when you look like you've just rolled out of a collection bin next to a Power League facility.

Despite my glaring inadequacies, I genuinely enjoy playing football. Being one of only two women on a mixed-gender 11-a-side team is pretty unique when you're playing competitively against other squads. Aside from the occasional good-natured joke about my shortcomings, the lads I play with are generally incredibly respectful towards me.

It also seems that they're exceptionally unrepresentative of Saturday league football, as the same can't be said for the other (same-sex) teams we've played against. I've been stood a few feet away from a guy who was marking one of our players and said he would "touch him like a fucking rapist", a comment that no one else on the team seemed to have noticed when I brought it up post-match. I've had the offside rule mansplained to me more times than I've had my arse groped in a Vodka Revolution, and heard plenty of other snide comments about us having girls on the team, with predictions implying that we'll be about as much use as Daniel Sturridge's knees.

Advertisement

There's also the weird phenomenon of guys never trying to tackle me, presumably because of some archaic notion that it would be wrong to put a challenge in against an inherently weak damsel. The best brushoff I've ever heard during a match was as antiquated in its popular culture references as in its gender politics: a lad actually asked me if I was Amanda Bynes out of 'She's the Man'. He fractured his ankle in the second half and that's a fucking great movie, so I felt kind of bad saying anything about it, but it was a very clear indication that I stood out like a sore thumb on the pitch that day.

READ MORE: Sexism Still Rules in British Football

Rachel, the other woman on the team, is different. She grew up in Belgium and played on a mixed team until the age of 15 (at which point, she tells me, it becomes illegal by Belgian law). She's an incredibly talented player, but her superiority is in no way attributable to some sort of gender difference – as far as I'm aware we're both hiding vaginas under our kit. The reason I am worse at football than her is that I didn't get the chance to play until university, and that's a very frustrating reality to be faced with in your twenties.

Despite the gulf between us in technical skill and ability, Rachel has experienced the same preconceptions about women not being able to play. She's been similarly written off by the opposition, and referred to as 'the girl', rather than the number on the back of her shirt. The only difference is that Rachel gets to smash people's perceptions like a Jamaican bobsleigh team. I simply uphold their preconceptions and question whether I should just leave it to women like her, rather than perpetuating the stereotypes that hold her back.

Advertisement

And this is the most frustrating thing. Learning to play football when you're a woman in your twenties means you're essentially being judged as pathetic and hopeless by the same patriarchal attitudes that prohibited you from learning to play earlier. It's irritatingly circular in the way it fucks women over – first discouraging them from playing a 'male' sport as children, then denouncing them as substandard on the basis of their gender when they do try to get involved.

I get the impression that opposition teams assume I'm going to be shit at football, which makes it fairly crushing to have to continually prove them right. It's like I'm missing an opportunity to disprove preconceptions about women in the sport. There's no doubt that I stand out as the worst player on the team and one of only two women. But there's a lack of recognition that my incapacity stems from having been discouraged from taking up 'male' hobbies and sports, rather than some god-given 'shitness' nestling in my uterus.

I have to emphasise that there is no innate or essential quality that makes women worse at football than men. It just doesn't exist. But the gendered coding of certain activities does directly serve to prevent a marginalised group from excelling, forcing them to embody the stereotypes thrust upon them by the denial of opportunity. Realistically, it's nigh on impossible to display instant prowess in a field you've been historically disbarred from, unless you're Rosie the fucking Riveter.

READ MORE: Are Any Pubs Showing the Women's World Cup?

While my experiences might be slightly different from the norm as I'm playing on a mixed-gender team, they still echo the wider problem with perceptions of women taking on traditionally male dominated sports. Women's perceived inadequacies on the pitch are often regarded as being the result of some sort of inherently weak femaleness, ignoring the historical and social context in which they have either been strongly discouraged or banned outright from taking part. Expecting a marginalised group of people to enter an institution they were systematically denied access to, and then denouncing them as lesser sportspeople on the basis of their gender, is totally flawed. It's like genuinely trying to sustain an argument that African American people can't swim because of some essential racial difference, rather than acknowledging the fact that black communities were historically barred from public leisure spaces and activities.

I will continue to try harder than the lads on my team, yet still be worse than them because I'm starting from scratch. The same is true of women's professional football, where talented women have to try twice as hard to be taken half as seriously as a bunch of guys who inherited a system of privilege in the form of a well-established football league, and widespread acceptance of their presence in a space.

Women are starting to disrupt these spaces, and dealing with the inevitable backlash, be it England's Lionesses at the World Cup or a gawky 20-something wearing children's boots on a strip of grass in Edinburgh. Wherever it is, a universal truth remains: you can't keep one team on the sidelines for the first 45 minutes and still call it a fair match when you finally let them play the second half.

@emiliabona