Pro-LGBTQ Culture in Women's Football Means You Can Openly Date Your Teammates
We spoke to professional players about what it's like to have a girlfriend for a teammate.
Merel van Dongen (left) of Ajax Women with her teammate and girlfriend Ana Romero (right). Photo: Laurens Lindhout/Soccrates/Getty Images
Football rewards those who focus. During a match, it's vital to shut out all other concerns – the impending doom of the planet, Nigel Farage's existence, the hilarious demise of Alexis Sanchez – because there should be nothing more important than the moment you make contact with the ball.
Unless, of course, you happen to fall in love with one of your teammates.
For some women involved in the beautiful game, this is an extremely normal occurrence. While men's football as an institution is rife with homophobia – from abuse hurled by fans, to players being encouraged to keep quiet about their sexuality lest they ruin a sponsorship deal – women's football has cultivated a far more supportive and transparent LGBTQ culture.
Currently, there are no openly gay male footballers in the top English leagues, and the few players (of which there are literally, like, four) who do come out often choose to do so after retirement. The women's game, however, has many openly lesbian or bisexual players, both on a professional and grassroots levels – from Karen Bardsley to Lucy Bronze, who are both in this year's England squad; as well as many international players, like Nadine Angerer, who captained Germany's national team, or Megan Rapinoe in the US. The women's game has built an unprecedented culture of acceptance when compared to its male counterpart, and this is great and liberating for players, who don't need homophobia threatening their careers – but it can also throw up a few challenging scenarios.
For instance: what's it like to play professionally with someone you're dating? Is it impossible to keep your love life and career separate when you're on the pitch together every few days? And how much does it affect your game?
Ana Romero, a Spanish footballer with caps for FC Barcelona, Ajax and Spain's Real Betis, has had to navigate the world of "football dating" since meeting teammate Merel van Dongen a few weeks after joining Ajax. After almost three years of dating, Romero and Dongen now play at Real Betis together. "It's nice, because you're doing what you like the most and what you enjoy the most," Romero tells me over the phone, "but sometimes, if you don't play or you're not having a good time, and your partner is doing really well, then it's difficult."
Having to share a passion and career that can both lift and crush your mood is one of the hardest challenges, says Romero: "If I'm having a good season and your partner is fine, everything is great, but if one of you stops playing because you're injured, then every day can be terrible. The same thing that is making her happy is torture [for me]."
Outside of their personal relationship, managing the presumptions of fans when playing publicly can be hard for Romero. While post-match analysis is the norm, having someone accuse you of playing badly because they think you've had a domestic is obviously the last thing you'd want to hear: "Everybody knows [about the relationship], but you don't talk about it on social media because the fans could be like, 'They're together so they're just passing the ball to each other,' or, 'They're mad at each other so they played badly today.'
"Obviously, everybody knows we are together," she continues, "but in the end, it's your profession, so when we arrive at the pitch we're just teammates."
Playing with a girlfriend or partner isn't an experience reserved for professional players. As the popularity of the women’s game increases, and with a visible LGBTQ presence on a professional level, more and more women who regularly kick a ball about on worn-down astro pitches across Europe are choosing to play with their partners – or meeting their partners through the game.
"I guess I started playing when I was, I don't know, five or six?" Louise Selsby, who works at the FA, tells me when we chat on the phone. "[My girlfriend Roanna Fawcett and I] actually met through mutual friends. She is super sporty and can turn her hand to anything. We'd kind of messed about in the park, but we'd never played together before."
The pair decided to join Lambeth Allstars – a grassroots women's football team in south-east London – four years ago, and have now played multiple league games and one cup final together. While the casual nature of a Saturday football league means less public scrutiny and less pressure, there’s still a challenge not to let a joint hobby affect your relationship. At a more casual level, what kind of issues arise when the teammate you shout at for missing a cross is also your girlfriend?
"By and large it's really good, and it's really important," Selsby tells me, "[but] earlier on, when we started playing 11-a-side, we had to have a conversation [about communication]. Because I know her so well, I can be very quick to say, 'Oh, that wasn't good enough,' or be meaner. That was happening a bit on the pitch, and she was like, 'That's not how I work, I need positivity, or my head's going to go down further.'
"So we had that chat early on and then I kind of got my shit together," she continues. "Now, when we're against each other in training, I still take the piss, but when we're playing together it's about being supportive and giving her a shout when she does something good."
Roanna – who hasn't played for as long as Selsby – agrees that it's important to work out how to communicate about the sensitive issues, such as whether your pass was crap or not.
"[Playing football with a partner] is mostly all I've known. It's really nice, and it's really fun to have that person there supporting you and encouraging you, but they'll also be super blunt if you're rubbish," she tells me. "If they say something snappy on the pitch then you can take it a bit to heart, rather than if it was just a friend. [But] the worst bit is definitely when [Selsby] misses loads of goals and I have to comfort her for two days while she's crying herself to sleep."
The next issue: who gets to keep the game if you break-up? While it can be thrilling to share your biggest passion with the person you love, breaking up with a teammate has got to be fairly high-tier on the scale of break-up scenarios. Splitting up with your girlfriend who works on the floor above you? Grim. Splitting up with your teammate, who plays on an international stage with you, who you train with as part of a small group almost every day? Hell.
"[Breaking up] was really tough, because we had to see each other the day after, and for like weeks and months every day," Johanne Fridlund, a professional footballer who played, with her ex, for the top division Norwegian team Vålerenga, tells me. "I don't think we got the space to get over each other in a normal way ... It was [hard], but we were friends and we are friends now, and it could have been worse. It was not a bad break-up."
A situation like this might be hard emotionally, but it could also be more damaging on a career level. Did Fridlund think her relationship or the end of her relationship might affect her football career?
"The answer is that I don't know yet," she tells me. "It was good for me to come out – it was easier – but I think football was confusing because of her. I didn't have my own place to concentrate and do my own thing because I was thinking about her, and we played in the same position, so it was a bit hard."
The welcoming culture of women’s football is central to many of the couples that exist within it. This is evident at matches: while men’s games are made up of a sea of lads mouthing W-A-N-K-E-R at opposition fans, women's games are largely populated by a younger and more diverse crowd, making the vibe a million times better – depending on your lad-tolerance, of course – for fans of any sexuality.
"As there are so many people who are part of that [LGBTQ] community, it's just so part of [the women’s game] – from players, to fans, to even coaches. Because that representation is there, it just naturally is very open and inclusive," Selsby tells me. "I think everyone's fairly comfortable in it, which I think then makes the whole thing nicer and open-minded. It's a bit more of a relaxed atmosphere, and non-judgmental, which is what a lot of people love about football – it's definitely what I love about football."
The inclusive attitudes can also make it easier for the women who experience their first queer relationship through football, like Fridlund: "When we met I hadn't come out yet," she explains. "We were good friends, but most of the people in women's football are understanding that people are gay and that it's really normal. So everyone understood it, and it was really good for me, and a safe place to come out."
Fawcett agrees that the welcoming culture is highly important: "I think we're super lucky with the [grassroots] team, because even new people join and say, 'Oh, you're such a welcoming, friendly group. It's the same as going to the World Cup games, or the European Games, or even the FA Cup final. You go and it's like families and lesbians, basically. It's just super inclusive."
Women's football: the perfect place to find true love, a teammate, or both.