Female footballers / Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

OPINION

For 4 weeks, I was a football fan – and it was glorious

The optimism and hope of the World Cup got a nation onside. And girls and women shouldn’t be excluded from that, says Sali Hughes

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By Sali Hughes on

A week ago today, I was lying with a blanket over my head. “Oh, my God, I cannot watch… This is hell, I cannot watch… AAAAAARGH THIS IS SO FUCKING STRESSFUL!” My husband, eyes wide open, damp sweaty patch on his lap where my imploding head lay, said, “Babe, the last 40 minutes is what watching England has mostly been like for the last 40 years. It’s not meant to be enjoyable.”

And therein lies the difference between the true football follower and the reviled glory-hunting part-timer. He, like every man in my family, is a devoted fan who spends every Saturday bellowing at the telly or radio, while I read a book and tut about the noise. Likewise, my best girlfriend, J, whose unstinting devotion to Spurs I simply ignore. I have zero interest, until I pop my head round the door every four years when, like millions of others, my ordinarily scant interest in football peaks. It manifests, if not quite in World Cup wall charts and face-painting, in at least a stockpile of Peroni and the cancellation of any prior engagements on England match days. I enjoy the atmosphere, the excitement, the shared purpose. And this makes me the dreaded fair-weather supporter, the dilettante. Our fleeting interest and superficial knowledge of football enrages and infuriates to such a degree that we find ourselves trolled online for so much as expressing delight at an opponent’s missed penalty.

There’s no denying that very many of us are women, but there are heaps of men like me, too. Men who, for a month every couple years, regress to Palaeolithic times and start bellowing angrily about a World Cup or Euro side they couldn’t have picked from a line-up in May. And that’s fine, except they fly under the radar purely by virtue of being, well, men. In packed pubs and box-fresh football shirts, they assume the appearance of someone who’s paid their dues. Women who suddenly start tweeting about football are immediately suspicious and almost certainly not the real deal. They are reminded with every tweet of their ignorance, their lack of entitlement to a viewpoint, their shrill enthusiasm and lemming-like engagement, while men are immediately given the benefit of the doubt.

The scorn heaped upon the many female World Cup enthusiasts is not only disproportionate, but outdated. A study even early in this World Cup showed that over half of women were following its progress on a daily basis. One in five of them said they were more excited by the World Cup than their male partner. Ten per cent of men asked their wives and girlfriends to turn off the football so they could watch something else. Women’s football is growing faster as a game than its male counterpart and, in a different poll, over one in five girls aged 6-16 years old harboured an ambition to play the game professionally. And yet, tellingly, almost half of all women said they felt football was an inherently sexist sport and that they didn’t feel empowered to have an opinion on it. Those angry “Get off our pitch” tweets are demonstrably doing their job. 

This year, we didn’t so much hijack your passion as delight in sharing the love and the optimism, when both seemed gone from our country for good

I can’t in all seriousness claim to be a member of this female football movement. I understand the offside rule and could name many Liverpool FC players of the 1980s (the shared bedroom wall of my childhood was papered with their posters from Shoot), but, beyond that, I am largely clueless and broadly uninterested. So what? I don’t make a habit of listening to euro-pop records or follow archery or Taekwondo – I’m still glued to the Eurovision Song Contest and the Olympics, cheering on the competitors. What is so very wrong with joining in the excitement over a tournament that is, by design, the ultimate global celebration of a sport? We part-timers are, for a limited time, appreciating the sport to which millions of true fans devote much of their lives. In their position, I would be happy in much the same way I’m delighted when my husband, who doesn’t share my extreme film nerdery, wants to stay up and watch the Oscars. I was pathetically impressed when he correctly identified a picture of Coco Chanel on an episode of Pointless – I don’t need him to share my deep and all-consuming dedication to tracking down vintage designer clothes for pennies on the internet. A nod of solidarity for something that matters to me is cheering enough. 

I do understand the frustration of fans who see a load of shouty newcomers jumping on a bandwagon when it suits them. I imagine that the sight of a country of dilettantes tweeting about players they’d never heard of last week, or criticising partnerships that have evolved over several seasons, is much like someone loudly extolling the virtues of REM, when they’ve newly downloaded Automatic For The People. “Where were you when we were shit?” is a question that no doubt crosses their minds.

The answer is that we were here. We may not have been stood, wet burger in hand, watching Forest Green Rovers take on Stevenage on a freezing Tuesday evening, but we’ve sat next to our devoted boyfriends, husbands, girlfriends and wives, through the same miserable, disappointing, electrifying, sometimes wonderful and ultimately heartbreaking World Cups the fans have. And it’s a tournament that this year took on even greater significance. I’ve watched chunks of every World Cup since birth, but Russia 2018 had something extra that I hadn’t experienced since the 90s. It had an England team – young, gentlemanly, sportsmanlike, optimistic – and a manager – overtly decent, thoughtful, statesmanlike – who inspired me and many others who might previously have instinctively been turned off by players with a sideline in racial slurs or extra-marital shagging with sex workers. Win or lose, the England team reminded us of the very best national qualities and allowed a divided country to share the same hopes, dreams and ultimate goal. This year, we didn’t so much hijack your passion as delight in sharing the love and the optimism, when both seemed gone from our country for good. Abandoning football would now feel like surrendering the qualities we as a nation need to cling to. So, we’ll see you at Euro 2020. Please play fair.

@salihughes 

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women in sport

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