Here Come The Girls
Not so long ago, if you brought up the topics of drinking, gambling and playing football, you were talking about a solidly male environment. Men went out to the pubs to drink and smoke, men went to casinos, and football was most definitely for men. 90% of all the people in the stands were men, all the managers and officials were men, the people who commentated on the game were men, and women’s football was a minority sport that was sparsely attended and ignored by the mainstream media. Those days are now over.
It feels like the move towards greater female representation in society as a whole has come on leaps and bounds in the first eighteen years of this century. Think about the pubs in and around the town centre wherever you live. Are they still pubs, or would they be more accurately be described as bars? Are they still full of old men and snooker tables, or have recent years seen the inclusion of dance floors, the introduction of a cocktail menu, and a greater emphasis on wine? Once upon a time it felt like the pubs were a gathering place for men during the day, or at the start of a night out, and if you wanted to see a female face you’d have to go to a nightclub later on. Now the balance of gender is much more even.
The gambling world has changed, too. It’s not that women have never gambled, it’s just that the stereotypes of old said they indulged in the habit a little differently to the way that men do. You could find men watching the horse racing on the screen at a bookmaker’s, whereas the women were all at a bingo hall. Whilst that gender split may still exist in those two venues, the internet has become the great equaliser in terms of women coming to play what used to be seen as men’s games.
Take fruit machines, for example. Once upon a time they stood in the corner of smoky bars, being watched by hawk-like male expert who were convinced they knew exactly when they were due to pay out. Nowadays they’re more likely to be played online. Online slots are the future of the hobby, and they’re increasingly styled to appear to both genders. There are even online casinos like RoseSlots.com which are tailored specifically to appeal to the female eye. It’s not done in a patronising way; several of the titles available on the site, like ‘Rainbow Riches’ are established favourites with male players. The look of the website has just been subtly tweaked to make women feel more at home.
Breaking Down Barriers
When it comes to the sport we all love, we only have to go back a decade to find the start of the gender revolution. It was April 21st 2007 when Jacqui Oatley became the first female commentator to cover a game for the BBC’s ‘Match of the Day’. There was great debate within the media of the time as to whether women should be commentating on the men’s game at all, given that women’s football existed and she could have been covering that instead, but that wasn’t the point. Women’s football didn’t have the sort of televised platform that the men’s game did, and a female voice there would have been expected. It took her time to become accepted, but eventually even her most ardent critics had to accept that her knowledge and passion for the game was easily equal to her male co-commentators, and in some instances, better. She paved the way for Vicki Sparks, who earlier this year became the first female commentator in UK sporting history to cover a men’s World Cup game live, which was Portugal vs Morocco in the group stages.
Three years later, the Premier League saw its first female assistant referee when Sian Massey-Ellis ran the line for a fixture between Sunderland and Blackpool. Once again, there was resistance among some male figures within the game, and controversy over remarks made by Sky Sports’ Andy Gray and Richard Keys about Massey saw both of them lose their jobs. The message was clear; change was coming, it was permanent, and those attempting to stifle it would be swept aside.
It took a little longer for video games to cotton on to the change. As women took on more prominent roles within the sport, interest in women’s football began to rise and change with the times. The suffix ‘Ladies’ was dropped from the end of many a professional women’s team, replaced by ‘Women’. Women’s teams became more professional, forging closer links with their equivalent men’s teams. The women’s World Cup in 2011 achieved excellent viewing figures around the world. Pressure mounted on EA Sports to start including women’s teams in the game, and 2016 they finally acquiesced, introducing a select number of women’s national teams. They’ve built on it with each installment since then, and ‘FIFA 19’ is the first game in the long-running series that allows players to participate in the women’s World Cup. It’s been a long time coming.
So What’s Next?
Whilst a lot has been achieved, there’s a lot still to do. Now that most men have accepted that women becoming involved in the sport isn’t an invasion that’s going to ruin their enjoyment of it, the idea of a female referee actually taking charge of a Premier League game is one that should become a reality sooner rather than later. In fact, given the eight years that have passed since Sian Massey-Ellis made her debut as an assistant, it actually seems strange and untimely that it hasn’t happened yet.
As for female managers; that’s a gray area. Whilst there are some who would be dead-set against the idea of a woman taking charge of a men’s professional football team, the reality is that men have been managing women’s teams for years, and if one of those ideas is unpalatable then so should the other be. It’s a testament to the rise in profile that women’s football has had that someone like Phil Neville, with his profile all of his England caps and accolades, would even be interested in managing the England Women’s Team, given the fact that many previous tenants of the role have been complete unknowns. Whether he should, by rights, be able to do so is another matter.
We may be some way off Match of the Day giving women’s football parity with men’s in terms of coverage. We may be even further away from female players earning the same as their male counterparts. But those days will, without doubt, arrive. You can’t stand in the way of progress.