Opinion: The Importance of Grassroots Football During Covid-19

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(Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Grassroots women’s football has seen a surge in popularity over the last year, spurred by the unprecedented success of the 2019 FIFA World Cup.

The summer games, hosted in France, were watched by a combined 1.12 billion viewers, shattering records for the tournament, which has been played since 1991 – still in its infancy compared to the 90-year-old men’s tournament.

In the season that followed, 605 new girls’ youth teams and 260 new women’s clubs registered to play in England. It is undoubtable that the record visibility of the women’s game in the summer of 2019 had something to do with this. What I didn’t realise at the time was how much it would change my own life for the better.

How It All Began

Football has always been a part of my life. I inherited my dad’s lifelong allegiance with the Blues, attending my first Chelsea men’s game at about ten years old.

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I enjoyed it well enough, but I was always more keen to appear interested and spend time with my dad than understand the game itself. It was fun to drive around the country for away games, sing the songs, and sip a piping hot Bovril at half-time.

Despite this, there’s always been something inaccessible about men’s football that kept me on the fringes of the culture, and it never once inspired me to kick a ball myself. It didn’t ever seem like it was for me, something I was acutely aware of from a young age.

Fast-forward to July 2019: the summer I graduated from university, living in London. Suddenly I was being invited to the pub to watch the France vs USA women’s match with a group of friends, the majority of them French and fiercely competitive. I went along for the promise of a pint and some entertainment, and I can’t say I absorbed much of the match.

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But it was also the first time I’d watched football with a group of girls and observed how passionate they were about the women’s game.

World Cup to WSL

It was a month or so later, after moving back home to Manchester, that I caught wind of the opening WSL fixture that would see City and United go head-to-head at the Etihad. I support neither of these clubs, but the opportunity to see the women’s sides play such a huge game, and for the surreal price of £7, seemed like a no-brainer.

That was it for me. The atmosphere at the derby was incredible, nothing like any match I’d attended before. Instead, I was seeing a reflection of myself, both in the stands and on the grass.

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I watched every Chelsea match that season, incredulous that they were so easily available to me on the FA Player or the BBC Red Button.

I went to another three City matches at the Academy Stadium, and even made a ridiculously long bus trip out to Leigh for a United fixture (never again). This time, I was watching football not just for the team I loved, but for the women’s game itself.

When I finally got to see Chelsea play away to City for the first time, my excitement was indescribable. I went decked in merch and blue face paint, and even the painful 3-3 tie couldn’t dampen my spirits.

Contrary to popular belief, the style of play is gritty, technical and endlessly entertaining. With the often substandard conditions of the pitches and abysmal payscale, I could tell that these women were playing with so much love and drive, something I never really saw in the Premier League.

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Not only that, but off the pitch the players became very personal to me as role models – it’s not often you find an industry where LGBTQ+ players appear to be the majority. What’s more, they were so open about it. Watching interviews given by the Chelsea captain Magdalena Eriksson where she referred to her girlfriend, then-Wolfsburg player Pernille Harder, made me feel for the first time that actually, football was for me.

It’s cliché, but representation really does matter.

Finding My Feet

At the time, I was studying a Master’s degree at the University of Manchester, and I’d been inching towards joining their football club. It was such daunting prospect, but I felt so determined to replicate the feeling my favourite players would describe about being on the pitch, and being part of a team.

In January of 2020, I bit the bullet and went along for my first training session, armed with my first pair of boots I’d found for £7 in a charity shop. I enjoyed a fleeting half-season with the Purples, tentatively playing some 6-a-side games in a friendly Thursday league that was inevitably cut short in March due to the Coronavirus pandemic. It would be another six months before I played again, but that brief introduction to the sport had ignited something in me.

That summer, my dad gave me a ball. I got new boots for my birthday and I practiced in my garden – dribbling in circles and trying my best to do more than three keepy-uppies (I still can’t). I watched old games on YouTube, catching up on what I’d missed and learning from videos and interviews.

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New Season, New Team

Finally September rolled around, and I started looking for a new club. I’d left UoM and moved back to London to start a full-time job and I wanted to join a local team to help me settle in and have something to get me out of the house on weekends.

As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one with the same idea. When I turned up for my first training session with South London WFC on a sunny Saturday morning, there was at least thirty of us there, almost all of us newcomers. Everyone was so eager to make friends, and football suddenly seemed like the perfect solution to both exercising and socialising in the current distanced climate.

Two months in, I truly feel at home with my new club. I’ve played my first ninety minute Saturday league match, making my start as a centre-back – a position I’ve grown to love. We lost 4-1 that day, but my pride was indescribable. I felt part of something in a way I hadn’t done for a long time.

My technique has come a long way too, now that I’ve gotten to grips with our formations and club tactics. The club ethos is always not necessarily winning (though that is a bonus), but rather playing good football. It’s something I’ve come to appreciate, as I feel like every small improvement in my playing is an achievement. I value the new relationships I have with my teammates, and how we are able to communicate on the field despite only knowing each other for a short time.

I suddenly felt what I saw on the pitch when I went along to that first Manchester derby just over a year before.

An Uncertain Future

Which sadly brings me to that present, where we are once again suspended from playing due to the second lockdown in England. Unfortunately women’s and girls’ football has suffered a lot from the current pandemic, but I understand that for the time being, it’s not safe for us to play. What I didn’t anticipate was how much I would miss it.

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Football quickly became an intrinsic part of my life here, an escape from the demands of my job and a sense of belonging in a new neighbourhood where I don’t know many people living close by. I’ve become more confident and communicative, as well as improving my fitness and technique as an individual.

Grassroots women’s football has wormed its way into my heart, giving me another facet to my identity that I feel proud of. I might have started playing later in life than most, and I certainly have no illusions of playing to a professional level, but that isn’t what it’s about. It’s about challenging myself, both physically and mentally, having fun, and being part of a team with a shared philosophy. If I stop loving it, I’ll stop playing.

But for now, I’m counting down the days until we can be back on the Commons, cleats on and shivering in the cold.

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