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  • Anita Abayomi

“The battle for more women in football is being lost at an early educational level”

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

Sexism has been a social issue that strong women before me have fought hard to tackle. I went to an all-girls’ grammar school. Pretty high-end stuff. The pinnacle of our education rested on the premise that women could do anything a man could do … and even do it better.

I enjoyed these words of encouragement throughout my first couple of weeks in year seven. A young, naïve 11-year-old being encouraged to do things that society told us only men could do? I jumped at the thought, but I didn’t jump in the right direction. I signed up for football training in week one. By week six I had completed the after-school trials. By week 10 the after-school science club had a higher turnout than football training.

You see, the idea of women being capable of doing what a man could do started with education and stopped with sports. If it wasn’t netball, rounders or athletics, our extensive, well-funded sports facilities were not accessible to you. There are young women who won’t have these facilities in their schools or a chance to play sports at all – I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like for them.

Despite my undeniable footballing talent, I was also pretty good at netball. The facilities offered to our netball team were unbelievable. They even had their own personal bus for transport to different schools and tournaments. There was so much importance attached to winning netball and rounders tournaments which was amazing; I just wished that they’d put the same energy into encouraging women to take up football. Sections of the field and playground would be closed off at lunchtimes for netball or rounders practice. If you were not playing the right sport, then you were not given the privileges of those who were.

The battle for more women in football is being lost at an early educational level. Education was kind of a Trojan Horse; it looks good for you and it is extremely fundamental but it was not an ally to the fight for women in football. Being a strong woman meant being a woman in technology. A woman in finance. A woman in politics. The system teaches young girls to have ambition, to make a difference in male-dominated professions and, in the same breath, discourages them from a career in football. Weirdly ironic. I look back and wonder what my secondary school could have done to make me the next best women’s footballer.

My prime years were between the ages of five and 10. I was sick. My skill set was on a par with Ronaldinho… in my head. Point is, I was fearless. I didn’t care about the boys; I didn’t care that we’d always lose to them when we played at break time. All I knew is that I was good and I could do this for a living. Back then, I was introduced to the David Beckham Academy. It was the best time of my life. I was awarded player of the tournament for the girls’ team and all of a sudden I had accrued serious bragging rights. Of course, I was humbled by my secondary school experience. I was no longer Anita, mini-Ronaldinho. I was Anita, the girl that was good at English literature.

Once it had sunk in that a career in football was not tailored for women, I immersed myself into poetry, writing creative stories and reading. Football was the only thing I felt that I was good at but I had to figure something out otherwise I’d put all of my parents’ efforts into getting me into a grammar school to waste. I had my own battles to face during secondary school. The concept of racism was an extremely taboo topic so every time I felt hard done by, I’d just blame myself. I was labelled “the bad kid”, “the kid that won’t make it in life”. I was no saint but I did not deserve these labels.

Having hair was always a problem for the young, black and ethnic minority girls; but when a young white girl dyed her hair red, it was praised and overlooked. Our parents would pay top dollar for us to embrace our culture through our hairstyle but we would be met with scrutiny and disgust. I remember a number of us girls, all dark skinned, had light-brown braids. We were told to take it out there and then, or face a week in isolation. We took that week in isolation like champions. My best friend at the time was white. She didn’t understand why I’d get into so much trouble for having naturally coloured braids. Quite frankly, at the time, neither did I. It felt like another avenue to tell the young black women that they must conform to societal pressures without question or face consequence. The same societal pressures that the school wanted us to overcome. Oh, the irony…

I just wanted to play football with my friends. I became so frustrated with the harsh reality of not “being good enough” that I started to believe it. The one thing I excelled in was football and that was no longer an option. The relief you feel when kicking around a ball, being able to let out your frustrations through your craft was taken away from me. That “you’ll never make it in life” line really sticks with you. It’s a line that several young black prospects hear on a regular basis. Whether it’s to their face or behind their backs. Some of us succumb to the derogatory remarks but some of us use it as a catalyst to fight back.

I, however, lost fitness, lost the desire to play football but I got my GCSEs, A-levels and a politics degree. BAM! Society’s strong woman, adding to the statistics. Now that that was out of the way, I decided it was time to make my return to football. There was a lot of stigma around women in football in 2014 when I graduated. I was never going to be fit enough to play professionally but I knew that there were other avenues to explore, such as journalism. Now, it’s one thing being told that you won’t make it as a teenager, but having that sense of hopelessness as an adult was extremely daunting. I didn’t need to be told that I wasn’t going to make it as a journalist, this time I could see it for myself. Not a single woman was in sight on my TV screen. Just white, middle-class men.

You know that feeling you have, when you’re about to watch your chosen football team, live and direct in their stadium? A feeling of unending excitement, the restless anticipation? The overall feeling of comradeship with other fans? Yeah, I didn’t have any of that. I wanted it, but struggled to shake off the emotions rooted in fear. Yes, me, a football fan, was scared to see her football team play. Doesn’t make sense, does it? Okay, let me rephrase that. Me, a black woman, scared to watch her football team play due to the possibility of me being subjected to not just sexist abuse, but racial abuse as well. That’s just the fan in me; imagine me trying to pursue a journalism career.

Social media played a massive part in my choice of pursuing a career in journalism. The volume of sexist abuse towards women in football was horrific! The songs of abuse would sometimes reduce me to tears. The usual chorus was: “Get back to the kitchen and make me a sandwich. This is a man’s sport.” It was the verses that hit the worst. Creative racist abuse is what I used to call it. It wouldn’t stop with the regular name calling such as “monkey” or “gorilla”, it would surpass that and words surrounding the pigmentation of my skin colour, slavery and rape would come knocking at my DMs. I guess the old “get out of my country” was not enough. Funny enough, I used to laugh at that comment… like: “Hello, sir, I was born here… this is my country too. Ha!” I’d have to make light of painful situations sometimes.

Wow, that got really dark. Feeling uncomfortable yet? Good, whether you are or not you’re still reading and that means I’m getting somewhere with this.

What I love about the beautiful game is that the ugliness feels temporary. For those 90 minutes, I put aside all of my troubles and focus on my TV screen. I often sit back and relax with my old man. Lunchtime Saturday kick-offs were always an excuse to put my chores on hold. Luckily for me, my mother understands the important role football has in my life; she would never moan if I didn’t get round to hoovering the corridor. The vibe at home could never compare to the thrill of my football club’s ground.

I remember the first time that I attended a football match at the stadium. It was a frightening experience. I was constantly looking over my shoulder. Paranoia consumed me. I couldn’t focus on my team acquiring the three points because I wasn’t sure if I was actually safe. I decided not to go to the kiosk at half time just in case I was not welcomed. My dad texted every 20 minutes to make sure that I was okay, which was sweet.

During the second half, I began thinking: “This isn’t so bad, is it?” I reminded myself that one of my club’s legends is a black, African-born man. They love him here, so what did I need to fear? Across the Premier League, there was a plethora of black players doing well for their clubs. Football was diverse. There was nothing to be afraid of. I became vocal and interactive with the singing and chanting. I felt like I was at home. As soon as the beers kicked in among a small portion of the fans around me, so did their ignorance. The subtle monkey noises crescendoed and that was my cue to leave. It was at that point that I thought enough is enough. If I want to see change, I’ll have to find a way to do it myself.

Football is such a diverse sport. There are so many ethnic minorities that are playing at the highest level giving it their all for the fans, so it baffles me when racist and sexist abuse fly around. If having that sort of diverse representation on the pitch was not making a difference, then efforts need to be placed in other aspects of the sport.

The 2019 women’s global international tournament was as inspirational as it could be. To see women from different countries come together and play a male-dominated sport and represent their country… Wow. That’s what I call strong women. Fighting the stigma and doing what they love. Not backing down because society wouldn’t back them. The USA team was a force to be reckoned with but their stand out player Megan Rapinoe reignited the desire that I was lacking. A gay woman dominating football and being unapologetic about it. That right there proved that the space is changing and there is nothing that can be done to stop it.

In 2017, the Football Association launched its Gameplan for Growth to empower and encourage young girls and women to take part in football activities. The aim was to double participation of women in football and by 2020 they had done just that. The FA reported 3.4 million women and girls were playing football in England. That’s what you call a paradigm shift. The battle for women in football no longer feels despairing.

I reignited my desire to become a journalist. The odds were stacked against me but I couldn’t let that stop my pursuit. It was not going to happen overnight. I had to work 10 times harder and think outside of the box. Growing up, seeing representation on the big screen or writing for renowned newspapers was a rarity. Diversity and inclusion should not stop on the pitch, it should extend to those who bring the best moments of the game to life through their writing, presenting and so forth. Having been inspired by the FA’s steps toward inclusion for women, I created a platform where women of colour could come together in a comfortable environment to discuss all things football. We called ourselves the Goal Diggers Podcast. It’s remarkable the number of women who have been through the same experiences as myself and have felt a sense of not belonging. Being a part of this inclusive community gave me the confidence I needed to chase the journalist dream and do it without compromising who I am. I am still young in my career but I can guarantee that as my journey continues, I will be flaunting my coloured braids, flicking my weave and continue to be the best that I can be.

I am not writing this to be a moral compass or to find some sympathy. I’m doing this because the game that I love so much still has a way to go. The steps towards a diverse, inclusive sport have so far been positive. Kick It Out shows an increase in statistics where more people are beginning to report abuse directed towards them or another being. Reports to Kick It Out rose by 42% in the 2019-20 season. Some see this as an increase in abuse but the victims such as myself will see it as more people finally feeling comfortable enough to voice their concerns – that includes the football players who so many young children look up to.

Taking the knee, numerous campaigns, No Room for Racism campaigns all highlight the problems that we face as a society. There’s a reason why the England footballers feel the need to take the knee, there’s a reason why these campaigns have been plastered across the nation. It’s for people like me to feel included. This is the most welcomed that I’ve ever felt as a football fan because change is happening. Football is accepting the strength in being a diverse haven and there’s nothing you or I can do about it.

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