We all want the world to be a better place, do we not? To see, or rather make, things change by working towards common goals – protect the environment, fight for gender equality, end starvation, equalise the FA Cup’s prize money pots. Just the stuff we know will shift the needle on our collective happiness and well-being…
OK, so it’s possible that equalising FA Cup prize money between men’s and women’s teams is not in your top ten. I’m prepared to accept that it might not even be on your radar. And I’ll be honest – it wasn’t on mine either until 2017, the year I learned of football’s power to change the world.
The beautiful game
With 3.6 billion fans around the world, football is the planet’s most popular sport, lending it an awful lot of cultural importance. But 51 per cent of the UK’s population have been deliberately excluded from its power for quite some time. Women were, in fact, banned from playing football by the FA in 1921 at a point when they were drawing crowds bigger than the men – and that ban lasted for 50 years. Similar bans were also instituted in four other countries where the game has great cultural significance – namely, Germany, France, Brazil and Italy – and in every case, they were put in place by footballing authorities made up of men.
Now I’m sorry to shock anyone who didn’t know this piece of herstory, but it’s true, and cannot be stated often enough. Because those bans largely explain how and why girls and women have been actively and systemically discouraged from playing and watching football for the past 100 years – and why men’s football has had the monopoly on attention and resources for so very long. Which brings us back to my wish list…
My own interest in football was sparked when my local club suddenly made international headlines by becoming the first in the world to pay its women’s team the same as its men’s. I was incredulous – about the fact that women even played, let alone were paid less across the board.
You see, I grew up in the ‘70s when the effects of the ban were such that girls weren’t allowed to play football at my school. It was boys who dominated our sports field at break times, and I got the message, loud and clear and from an early age, that boys warranted more space and time for leisure. They were allowed to be rough and tumble, whereas it was wholly unremarkable for girls like myself to be restricted to the edges of the playground to play more space-limited games, like hopscotch. Manspreading, as with most gender-conformative behaviours, started in the playground, and it brought with it the growing understanding that competitive sports, and especially football, were not for me because I was female.
As a result of that picture, I ignored football for most of my life. When it did cross my mind, it was as the unfathomable obsession of otherwise straightforward men I knew, a fixation involving hooligans, hot Bovril and obscure rules. And my only glimpses of women in relation to the game were of the ‘WAGS’ decorating the arms of the game’s overpaid stars. Again, wasn’t interested.
So, when I went down the road to watch Lewes FC Women play – out of sheer curiosity having been alerted to the club’s pioneering equal pay initiative – everything I had believed about football changed in an instant. Here were women being strong and dynamic in a public arena, focussed not on how they looked but on winning the game. Watching the only fairly-resourced female footballers in the world play a game once stolen from them by an all-male FA, I felt at once empowered and angry. If I had been subtly fooled for most of my life, these women had been marginalised for most of theirs. And if this was the only club on the planet to be addressing the artificially-created unlevel playing field? Well, then I was a big fan – and I wanted to help change the world via the beautiful game.
Today’s playing field
Today, Lewes Women play in the Championship – the second highest tier of English women’s football – and Simon Parker, the manager, has exactly the same resources to play with as our men’s first team manager. The women are publicised just as much as their male counterparts, and both first teams play on the same pitch – the compellingly named ‘Dripping Pan’ – just a stone’s throw from the town’s train station. Why is that significant, I hear you ask? Because most women’s teams play on inferior pitches, miles away from the town they represent and, crucially, from the townsfolk who would be their natural fan base.
The act of splitting the playing budgets equally between both first teams – or as Lewes FC puts it, not telling your daughter she’s worth less than your son – meant a commitment to marketing the women’s team to encourage a new audience into games. I started to volunteer with the club, and went to speak to women’s groups full of people like myself who, having felt unwelcome at football previously, were now being invited to the women’s matches in solidarity with the cause – even if, as in most cases, they had never attended a game in their lives. With all the publicity about this world first pay approach, it wasn’t long before Lewes Women’s gate figure quadrupled, bringing attendances in line with the men’s.
So why was this phenomenon happening at little old Lewes FC while the rest of the world’s football clubs carried on the socially and economically draining business of being acutely sexist? It’s a fair question with a simple answer.
Lewes FC is a campaigning club, using football as a vehicle for social change. It’s 100 per cent community owned, with members paying £40 a year for a share in the club and a vote to elect the board of directors – and that model means the club is on a mission to create value for its community, rather than make profits for shareholders like other clubs. It’s no secret that what happens on the terraces and on the pitch has an impact in wider society – so why shouldn’t clubs take a socially-minded agenda?
Preposterous prize pots
Footballers are heroes the world over, but if we hold women footballers back by starving them of attention and resources, we miss out on an opportunity to turn old-fashioned femininity on its head – and in so doing, freeing us all from the tired old tropes of toxic masculinity perpetuated by the men’s game.
For if football is a microcosm of the wider patriarchy, it is also the perfect place to implement the changes we need in the wider social mission for equal rights. There are powerful old structures and systems at play here, ripe for change, and the wind of social justice is currently blowing strongly. And that’s where the FA Cup Prize Fund comes in.
This Sunday, Lewes FC Women will be taking on Southampton in the FA Cup, competing to win £2,000. Their male counterparts playing in the equivalent round, however, stand to win £67.5K (with £22.5K on offer as the consolation prize). The comparative paucity of prize money means that if Lewes Women win on Sunday, extending their season by two weeks to continue in the competition will actually cost them money. No such problem for the male footballers of course: their kind of prize money means net wins all the way to the bank.
The FA Cup is just today’s example of the rampant gender inequality built into the systems, by men, for men, that govern football. But if the game’s governing body were to increase – equalise even – the women’s prize fund this year, exactly one hundred years since they stymied the growth of the women’s game in 1921, wouldn’t that be a karmically beautiful response to an injustice that should never have been allowed to happen?
Lewes aims every day to show other clubs that it pays to invest in their women’s teams and girls’ pathways, and there’s no question equalising prize money would aid that agenda no end. Until then, matching prize pots will be on my wish list. Because, you never know – it might just be the key to giving the patriarchy the boot.