Football

This World Cup Should Drive a Lasting Interest in Women’s Football

How organisations are leveraging screenings and meet-ups to increase participation and interest in the sport, beyond this summer.

by Louise Scarce; photos by Emma Williams
02 July 2019, 9:47pm

England fans cheer a goal at The Book Club in Shoreditch, east London. All photos: Emma Williams

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Over the past two weeks, football fans have gathered in pubs across London to watch the FIFA World Cup. In that time they've had plenty to cheer: England are through to the semi-finals, and one particularly enthusiastic colleague has just reminded you that it's "Jules Rimet" and not 'jewels remain' still gleaming, actually.

On both sides of the river in the capital, the tournament is drawing supporters to matches, turning the traditional idea of football fandom on its head in the process. Namely, that means helping to run match screenings where you're as likely to find mixed groups of women and non-binary folk as you are young men. At The Book Club in Shoreditch, where the Festival of Football is in full swing, fans have been turning up in their hundreds to watch every World Cup match live. The Festival also includes panel discussions, films and photography exhibitions across other east London venues.

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Director Hannah Wright devised the concept last year and now works on the festival with her clubmates at Goal Diggers FC, a London club aimed at getting women and non-binary people into football. She says the Festival's reach has been bigger than she ever expected. "There's demand for everything we're doing," she tells me. "It's not like we're doing some niche thing – it's the most popular sport in the world."

Meanwhile a few kilometres up Kingsland Road at the Duke of Wellington, an unassuming local boozer in Dalston, women’s sport platform SLOWE is showing the England games in collaboration with local football collective Romance FC, and Bad Sports, the team behind the former Haggerston bar of the same name.

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For the founder of SLOWE, Ro Jackson, the impetus to screen matches came when she realised she had a role to play in building up audiences. When she began hosting a radio show, Jackson says she "became part of this show-up culture that was imploring people to show up to women's sport, and I started thinking about how I could make it easier for people to actually turn up".

South of the river, the main event is at art gallery and bar space Peckham Springs, tucked beneath Peckham Rye station. That's where This Fan Girl, an online community and creative platform dedicated to female supporters, is hosting World Cup watch parties.

Amy Drucquer, This Fan Girl's founder, has been working on the project since 2017 when she started taking photos of her local club team. She saw huge diversity among fans but noticed that this was never reflected in the photography of women in football communities – namely, the typical photos of thin, white and conventionally attractive cis women spectators. "We found that the images were the same sexualised image: one woman, one size, shape, ethnicity… and we knew that wasn't the reality."

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When women started getting in touch to say that they saw themselves in her photography, Drucquer decided to create an IRL community for female fans to get together, and has been hosting football meet-ups ever since.

Drucquer is especially keen on welcoming fans who don't have a group to watch with. "We know how scary it can be to come by yourself but all our meet-ups are designed for the single viewer." Her favourite guest so far, she says, is some bloke who, while watching his first women's football match, shouted: "oh my god, this is actually sick!"

Attracting the unlikely fan has also been a promising by-product of the Change the Channel campaign, which has challenged pubs to show the World Cup. Kelsey Freeman and Amelia Bowe, who started Change the Channel, have seen new converts to women’s football get invested in the World Cup just because it happens to be on the screen when they go to the pub. Without their campaign, many potential fans would never be exposed to the women’s game at all.

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Freeman explains how she and Bowe wanted to recreate the insane energy that took over the country during last summer's World Cup x Heatwave. "We were in the pub – where all good ideas begin," Freemen smiles, "and we were just chatting about the upcoming World Cup, wondering what the vibe would be because the men's tournament was so crazy last year, and we thought: 'Why don’t we reach out to people and see if they’re playing it?'"

The next day Freeman and Bowe set up a website and began contacting pubs to ask them to show matches. They now boast support from the Chief Executive of the British Beer and Pub Association and the Lionesses' official social media accounts.

Like most women who watch football, Change the Channel's founders have faced plenty of sexist backlash. Freeman has been told by men to "calm down" when cheering on the Lionesses, so she wants to use her platform to encourage women to never be afraid to "make noise about something you're so passionate about".

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Jackson agrees. "I met a woman at the last SLOWE screening who said she [usually] feels really silly in spaces like that, and she was touched because she felt comfortable in a place where loads of women were cheering and being loud, or also not being loud."

A project like this finds its success in providing a forum for a diverse range of fans – women and non-binary people, especially – who may not have felt comfortable or been welcome as part of a hyper-masculine football culture that is loud, aggressive, and often threatening. Jackson has found it valuable to "connect with people who thought sport wasn’t for them because women's sport has been suppressed for so long".

So what’s next when the whistle is blown at the final on the 7th of July and the World Cup caravan packs up for another four years? The importance of carrying forward the momentum from the World Cup is not lost on anyone here. Nor is the scale of the challenges.

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Wright is determined to keep the conversation going after the Festival of Football finishes and wants to continue working with the same charities and not-for-profits. She is also firmly focused on maintaining inclusive football communities: "We've avoided trying to look too trendy, so people don’t think 'I'm not cool enough to go to that'. We just want people to come together, have a conversation, and take things from it."

Having already branched out their operation to New York, This Fan Girl want to host their next international meet-ups in Miami and Los Angeles. In London, Drucquer wants to transform them into a programme of events so fans can watch a match and then go for dinner, for example, to start building relationships among themselves.

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Change the Channel are just getting started, too. Freeman and Bowe are looking to Wimbledon as their next battle and have been in talks with women's golf, cycling and cricket communities. They are planning to leverage the relationships with pubs that they've built so far.

For now, though, part of their future success depends on just how well the Lionesses do. Freeman remembers the strange silence on the streets when the whole country was inside watching England matches last summer, and they hope to recreate that nation-wide focus in the last two rounds, along with the impromptu street parties that erupted after England victories. "Can we create these pockets of people all over the country getting together to watch the sport?" Freeman wonders. "That would just be the best thing ever."

@LouiseScarce / @emm______a