Alex Scott and Gabby Logan on changing opinions to women's football
"I don’t think we’re ever going to have another head of FIFA who says that women’s shorts should be tighter."
This July, 101 years after women’s football was banned by the Football Association on the grounds that it was proving too popular, England will host Women’s Euro 2022. With unprecedented demand for tickets and the final at Wembley Stadium selling out in just an hour, the mounting excitement is palpable. If England do well – the Lionesses are widely tipped to reach the final – the mood of the country might well match the unbridled joy of the 2012 Olympics.
Women’s football has come a long way in recent years. In 2018, one of the most prestigious individual awards for players, the Ballon d’Or, was extended to female footballers, with the Ballon d’Or Féminin. Imagine the shock and then the despair when the DJ presenting the award to Norway’s Ada Hegerberg asked if she knew “how to twerk”. The 23-year-old said no, looked horrified and turned away.
And back in 2004, Sepp Blatter, then-president of the world governing body FIFA, proffered his advice on how women could boost the popularity of the game. He suggested they should wear “more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball... for example, tighter shorts”, sparking outrage.
Gabby Logan, who is leading the BBC’s TV coverage of the tournament, says the change in attitude to women’s football has been extraordinary. We talk a few weeks before the opening match of Women’s Euro 2022 on Wednesday 6th July, when England kick off the tournament against Austria at Old Trafford.
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“There’s always going to be the person who misjudges the room,” she says of the twerking request and the Blatter comment. “I wouldn’t like to say those days are gone, but I don’t think we’re ever going to have another head of FIFA who says that women’s shorts should be tighter. I think there’s been a massive change in attitude towards the women’s game. You only need to look at ticket sales: the final at Wembley sold out in record time and all England’s group games sold out soon afterwards.”
Logan says she first noticed the difference in how women’s football is perceived when her builder couldn’t stop talking about the goals scored by England forward Ellen White in the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
“I do think that tournament was a game-changer. I came back from covering it for the BBC and everyone seemed to be talking about it, even my builder. Since then, Barclays re-signed their deal with the Women’s Super League [WSL] and last year a joint deal was done with the BBC and Sky to show all WSL games. It feels as though the women’s game has been pushed forward in the past few years as much as it had in the previous three decades. Now that women can actually earn a living from playing football, it won’t feel as though they are sacrificing everything to play.”
The tournament will see 16 teams play in 10 stadiums, including Bramall Lane (Sheffield), Stadium MK (Milton Keynes) and St Mary’s (Southampton). The BBC will show all 31 matches live, with analysis from the likes of former pros Alex Scott (the ex-Arsenal and England right back made 140 appearances for her country), Fara Williams (with 172 appearances, she is the most capped England player, man or woman, in history) and Gail Redmond (the former Northern Ireland captain).
The coverage comes as an increasing number of girls play football each year. According to the FA, 3.4 million women and girls are regularly playing in England.
“We want women’s football to be at the heart of the national conversation,” says Barbara Slater, director of sport at the BBC. “There is a fantastic opportunity for that to happen this summer. The change in attitude to women’s football has been phenomenal. When England played the US in the semi-final in France in 2019, it was watched by nearly 12 million people. It was the second most watched programme of any genre in the entire year.”
After declaring women’s football – which was hugely popular after the First World War – “quite unsuitable for females”, the FA banned it in 1921. The ban wasn’t lifted until 1971 and there wasn’t a fully professional league for women in England until the start of the 2018–19 season. Although Manchester City offered some of their players professional contracts in 2014, with Chelsea following suit in 2015, most players had been holding down part-time jobs to top up their meagre wages. Since 2018, the women’s game has steadily become more elite and the standard started to match countries like the USA, who introduced the first professional women’s football league in 2001.
Scott has first-hand experience of playing in clubs that treated the women’s game as second-rate. She recalls the distinct lack of build-up around the Women’s Euro in 2005. “We were excited because it was our first tournament, but no one was talking about it. I was still working in the Arsenal laundry, getting excited when Wrighty [Ian Wright] came down to get his washing. And my fitness programme amounted to tying my dog to some goalposts while I did laps up and down the pitch.”
Making the transition from hero of the pitch to TV pundit hasn’t been easy for Scott. Last year, former minister Lord Digby Jones wrote a tweet saying that she needed elocution lessons. She says that the BBC had her back – particularly Slater, director of sport since 2009. “I said to her that I didn’t want to be taken off air because then who wins? I’ve had so many tweets saying I should be at home ironing or cooking. I don’t care about those, but sometimes people threaten my life and those have to be taken seriously. It’s my responsibility to change perceptions by sitting in that chair and talking about football.”
There is also a wider issue around diversity. The panel of pundits and presenters on the BBC might be diverse, with Reshmin Chowdhury co-presenting with Logan, and Scott and Anita Asante among those providing insight and analysis, but the England squad is almost entirely white. Logan says that she discussed this with Scott at the 2019 World Cup. “I said to Alex, ‘There are nine blonde ponytails on this pitch for England. What happened to the likes of [former England manager] Hope Powell and [former Arsenal player] Rachel Yankey?’”
Scott says the explosion of the game – and with it, the rise of academies – has had its downsides. “The women’s game has grown and cages [concrete pitches at the heart of many council estates in south London] aren’t as important any more,” she explains. “Instead, all these academies have appeared that are maybe two hours away, and an inner-city street kid doesn’t have the financial means to access them. One of the girls I’m mentoring said that when she looks at the England team she doesn’t see herself represented... That needs to be addressed.”
If England do well at Women's Euro 2022, interest in the game will surely force the issue of inner-city girls accessing academies to be addressed. Expectation is certainly high, with England hosting the Women's Euro for the first time since 2005. The Lionesses are second favourites to Spain, with France and the Netherlands coming in as joint third favourites. Northern Ireland, qualifying for the first time in their history, are the lowest-ranked side but could also be something of a dark horse (Scotland and Wales did not qualify). “I get all emotional thinking about the possibility of my mate Leah [Williamson] being captain and lifting the cup at Wembley,” says Scott. “Magic might happen this summer,” says Slater, simply.
I ask Logan if the Lionesses might even outdo their male counterparts, who were runners-up in the 2020 Euro tournament last summer but who have since performed abysmally in the Nations League. She smiles. “I think it’s great that the Euros have been delayed by a year [due to COVID] because there are players in this squad who definitely wouldn’t have been there a year ago. And of course England have a great manager in Sarina Wiegman, who won the Euros with the Netherlands in 2017.
“Spain might be the bookies’ favourites, but some of the England squad have been treated like professionals since they were in their teens and so, yes, it feels like a good time. I’m going to say it: England can win, and then a whole generation of young girls will be inspired to play football.”
The BBC’s live coverage of Women’s Euro 2022 begins on Wednesday with England v Austria at 7pm on BBC One, 5 Live and iPlayer. If you’re looking for something else to watch check out our TV Guide or visit our Sport hub.
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