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Women, Football and Manchester City - It’s a Man’s Game [For Now]

Why Stigma Still Surrounds Women and the Beautiful Game

Manchester City UEFA Champions League Winners Parade in Manchester Photo by Lindsey Parnaby/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Football is a man’s game

Football is for boys

Girls will never understand the offside rule, they should stick to netball!

Sound familiar?

That’s how it used to be when women were dismissed by men as not being able to understand ‘their’ beautiful game. It took until the end of the 1960s for attitudes towards women and football to change. In a 1962 Football League survey it stated that, ‘as women themselves do not display much interest in football’ they should be, ‘a little more self-sacrificing by letting their partners out to watch matches if they so desire’. It is certainly interesting to note that the role of women in English football during this period is often defined by their alleged negative impact on male attendance. This was despite research-based accounts of the experiences of active female fans who actually went to the games during the 1950s/60s.

Female fans find they have to stress their knowledge and commitment to the clubs they support rather than any voyeuristic pleasure they might experience. How many times have women been asked if they can explain and understand the offside rule? You never hear a man asking another man this question, but I can guarantee for sure it is the woman who will know the answer, not the man. She will have taken the time to learn it, along with the rest of the rules of the game, something most men would never bother to do!

The women’s role as an active fan, who actually goes to watch the game, can jeopardise the legitimacy of their fandom purely because they are women watching men play sport. It has been argued that age can act as a buffer against accusations of being a ‘groupie’. Many female fans are more comfortable as ‘older’ supporters because it serves to protect them from the ‘groupie’ label. A label that undermines younger females and their authenticity as sports fans.

The rise of the rich young male players as national celebrities led to new kinds of relationships developing between football players and female fans. We might speculate that the greater sexualisation and glamorisation of players (George Best being a prime example) may have opened up the sport to some women. There’s no denying that many of today’s footballers are very pleasing to female eyes (Jack Grealish being a prime example of what the modern player must face), and the media had been quick to exploit this with kiss and tell stories.

However, it completely fails to address the fact that women these days genuinely enjoy the ‘beautiful game’ and they are resented for breaking into this previously male-dominated arena. Many women love football, they want to play it, watch it and be a part of it and they are not going to let men stop them. We have been ridiculed, patronised and downright insulted but it won’t work - we have as much right to claim allegiance to our ‘team’ as men do. By 2003, 25% of the people going through the turnstiles at football games were female.

Move over guys. We’ve learned the offside rule and we’re here to stay.

I have been lucky. I’ve never really been patronised or insulted for watching Manchester City, and on the rare occasion it has happened I managed to have a quick-witted reply. When I first started going to watch City, I was a loud-mouthed teenager and I learned quickly to give as good as I got. I was very aware that there weren’t many of us ‘girls’ following my team we were young teenage girls in a very masculine environment and that made us fair game for some males. Most of the away games we attended were standing only (All seater stadiums were not introduced until 1994 after the Taylor Report on the Hillsborough Disaster), and we would be crammed into small ‘pens’ because City have always enjoyed a very healthy 5000+ core away support. Guys would stand behind us and every chance they got (With a large crowd constantly moving around), they’d push their bodies against us.

We would try to move away and shove them back but we had nowhere else to go. The part of the ground they put the away fans in was always packed like sardines, so even if we moved elsewhere it was more than likely some other guys would do the same thing. It was never more serious than this and they never ever tried to do anything else. It was uncomfortable and annoying, it should not have happened, but we were partly to blame and I do accept that. We were seen as rebels, girls who followed a football team, boisterous teenagers who just wanted to get to the pub before the match. We didn’t encourage the behaviour but, on occasion, we didn’t exactly discourage it either. It sounds dreadful now, but as a 17/18-year-old girl, the attention, if it came from the right guy, was quite exciting.

It’s worth noting that things were very different in the late 1970s and early 1980s from how it is today. The guys on those football special trains tried to warn us, tried to get us to behave, but when did a teenager ever listen to anyone? We thought we were invincible and we took risks. We were lucky those guys always made sure we were on that train to go home. That’s City fans for you; we have always been one big family and look out for each other that hasn’t changed in the fifty or so years I’ve followed this team. Just like today's teenagers, we pushed the boundaries of acceptable behaviour and we go away with it, double standards I know, but I would hate it if my daughter behaved like we did!

Sexual harassment should never be condoned. In reality, those men should not have touched us like they did and nowadays it would get them in an awful lot of trouble. Back in the 1970s/80s, it was not seen as a big deal and to be perfectly honest we did not see it as a big deal, but we did not encourage them that’s for sure. Getting a reaction from us was what they wanted so it was far better to just ignore them. We could not report it because no one would listen or even believe us so what would have been the point? We were in a man’s world and had to play by their rules. If we had complained they would have simply said it was our own fault for drinking so much and putting ourselves in those situations and they would have been right!

Recent studies have shown that this problem has not gone away. In 2021 the Football Supporters Association [FSA] did research that revealed that 20% of the 2,000 match-goers they surveyed said they had experienced unwanted physical attention during a match. It was almost double the proportion from its 2014 survey, with 50% of the women who responded saying that witnessing sexist behaviour made them angry, up from one in three previously (29%). The survey found that previously, one in four (25%) women would have laughed off sexism, but this figure is now down to 12%. The world has changed and for the good we would hope, we have all been educated enough to know it is wrong to discriminate against, insult, patronise, abuse (verbally and physically) someone just because of their gender.

The Woman At The Match survey (FSA 2021) also found that 4% of women were willing to accept sexism as part of the match day experience - down from 10% in 2014. This is wrong. Why should any woman accept men doing this? Most of the people surveyed (59%) said they would like to see clubs condemn individuals who exhibit sexist behaviours, while 39% of people would like to see sexist individuals ejected from the stadium. It really is time clubs called out the guys who do this. It’s not fair that a minority of men make it so uncomfortable for women to attend games.

Football should be for everyone.

One in 20 supporters (5%) says witnessing sexist behaviour makes them not want to attend matches. Why is the FA, UEFA, FIFA, doing so little about this? The very fact that 5% of women won’t attend games because of men’s behaviour is abhorrent - we are just as entitled to attend as men are. Organisations like the #MeToo movement have helped change people’s perceptions about what they’re willing to put up with, and what is or isn’t acceptable.

Half of fans attending their first women’s games are doing so as adults (48%) compared with just [11%] in the men’s game. Women are more than five times more likely to have started going to women’s football on their own than they are to go alone to the men’s game. This angers me. Why should women have to feel they cannot attend a man’s game alone? We should not be made to feel intimidated or afraid. Men should be able to control themselves for 90 minutes surely?

I do not know if I have been lucky or it’s the team I support, but in the fifty or more years I have attended, first Maine Road and now the Etihad Stadium I have never felt threatened or in any danger. I have gone many times alone, so it must be the Team I support - we have always been one huge family. Although the caveat to that is the more trophies we win, the more we are supported by fans who have never set foot in either stadium and generally only know our history from when Sheikh Mansour bought the club in 2008.

Tolerance for, or the expectation of, sexism at the women’s game is lower than in the men’s game, with fans more likely to be angry when they hear it (64%) or find it upsetting (34%) when it does happen. ”The FSA is absolutely clear on this - there is no place whatsoever at football for sexist or misogynistic behaviour. We’d encourage all supporters to challenge it, and if necessary, report it to their club or to the authorities.

At women’s football matches, 75% said they have not heard sexist comments or chants or experienced unwanted physical attention (which means the remaining 25% have heard them and that is disheartening in the modern game). In response to the survey, the Football Association said it stands “firmly against all forms of discrimination and prejudice and believes that’ our game’ is to be enjoyed and participated in by all”.

The Premier League said it is committed to some of the suggested next steps from within the FSA report including an introduction of league-wide bans and commencement of enhanced training for stewards. Speaking after the launch of its enhanced anti-discrimination measures at the start of the season, Premier League chief executive Richard Masters said: ”The Premier League and our clubs condemn all forms of discriminatory and abusive behaviour.

Yet even now in 2023, some men are still so firmly stuck in the 1950/60s attitude that football is a man’s game and therefore women should not attend it. They cannot see the benefits of women sharing their love of the beautiful game. They don’t want to accept that women can and do love and understand the game just as much as they do. They are so entrenched in those 1950/60s views that they refuse to see the rise of Women’s Football as a natural evolution of the female impact on the game.

In November 2022, the World Cup was held in Qatar, a country that treats its female citizens like children. They are not allowed to do anything without a man’s permission, go to school, drive a car or get a job. They cannot even be their own children’s primary caregiver! If the father dies and there is no other male relative, then the State takes over as the children’s guardian. Yet FIFA, in its wisdom allowed this country to hold the most prestigious event in World Football, thereby alienating the female part of the country’s population.

In contrast to the male-dominated World Cup, the Women’s European Champions Final at Wembley in July 2022 was watched by a sell-out capacity crowd. The whole tournament had been a celebration of all that is so good about the women’s game. There were no arrests, no violence, no drunkenness, no swearing, no racism or sexism, just families enjoying an afternoon of scintillating football. Many of the men who attended the game openly admired the relaxed friendly atmosphere and said how different it was from the trouble-strewn men’s game. There was no one trying to force their way into the ground, (The men’s final the year before had fans trying to climb over the fences to get into Wembley Stadium). It was a peaceful, joyous occasion for all the family. The icing on the cake being our Lioness’s winning the trophy, something the men failed to do the year before when they only finished runners-up to Italy.

Football has come a long way but there is still much to be done. Women all around the world love football just as much as men do. It is time for the cavemen to accept women know as much as they do, they play it just as well as they do and if they are not careful we will turn the tables on them!!