Women’s association football in England is finally starting to recover from the FA’s fifty-year ban (banned because it wasn’t ladylike – whatever the heck that means) but with its catching-up to the men’s game come the growing influences of profit, patriarchy, commercialism, and corruption.
While the stateside tradition of “soccer moms” and girls in cleats led to the U.S. national women’s team reaching incredible heights, they’ve had to form a movement to reap the same benefits as their male counterparts, who were paid more despite being less of a draw.
In England, meanwhile, the massive crowds women’s football matches were pulling abruptly ended when the FA banned them from any sacred football league ground in 1921, a ban only lifted in 1971 after pressure from UEFA and England’s post-1966 feelgood football fever, meaning the women’s game, at the time under the WFA, had an even longer way to go here in England. While the first-ever men’s international match was between England and Scotland way back in 1872, the public wouldn’t see the female equivalent until exactly one hundred years after that, as Sheffield’s own Eric Worthington led the England women to take on and defeat their own Scottish counterparts. Tom Tranter then took over as manager until 1979, replaced by Martin Reagan, who guided the team through the entirety of the 1980’s. After that came Barrie Williams and John Bilton, until the team was officially sanctioned by the FA, who were able to co-opt the national women’s game, assigning managerial duties to Ted Copeland (yes, the same Ted Copeland who went to coach football in Saudi Arabia, that leading abuser of women’s rights).
But while Copeland’s star player Hope Powell would be chosen as his successor, the appointment of a black, female, and gay manager was likely to be less about progress within the traditionally conservative FA, and more about, well, apathy. The FA concentrated its energies so much to the men’s game that it changed managers of its national side every couple of years or so, but Hope remained in charge of the national women’s team for a staggering fifteen years – yes, with an impressive 52% win ratio, though still less successful than Glenn Hoddle, Sven-Goran Eriksson, Fabio Capello, and even Roy Hodgson, none of whom lasted more than five years, never mind fifteen!
But as the women’s game – and with it, naturally, the national team – became more popular, and more commercialised, attention and expectations grew. In 2013, the FA got their man, Mark Sampson, to carry out their football aims in true England style: conservative, defensive, negative – and sexist, condescendingly referring to Fran Kirby as “mini-Messi,” the tennis equivalent of which would be to call Serena Williams “mini-Murray.” Meanwhile, as the FA’s public relations campaign, Respect, was putting out videos emphasising etiquette and proper conduct from grassroots coaches, Sampson was throwing tantrums at referees, to the point where he ripped his shirt in a fit of fury during the 2017 Euros – and the football establishment, commentators, and Sampson himself were laughing it off. What a character! It’s all in good fun if you’re the national team’s manager, eh? Those grimy grassroots volunteer coaches must surely remember to do as they’re told by the Wembley Stadium elites, not do as they do. Forget that the same coaches forced to sit through Respect videos are just as, if not more, likely to spend their time watching national team managers like Sampson. This once again proved that the Respect campaign, for all its positive messages, could never be genuine or heartfelt – it was just a CSR technique from the same old hypermasculine, hypocritical FA. This isn’t my opinion; this is a fact based on their ease with Sampson’s behaviour while (albeit rightly) constantly condemning grassroots petulance.
As if these warning signs weren’t enough, Nigerian-born Eniola Aluko, a long-time star England footballer and lawyer, said she felt ‘undermined and belittled’ by England staff, claiming a chuckling Mark Sampson had expressed hope that her visiting family would not bring Ebola with them from Nigeria. After making the claims, she was promptly deselected from the squad, and paid £80,000 by the FA to ‘avoid disruption’ in the run-up to a Euros competition where England’s “Lionesses” were considered favourites, having been the dominant European team in the 2015 World Cup. Eni Aluko, with 102 caps for England, was forced to watch from the sidelines and television studios, unable to help her team as England’s negative football fell to the positive, pro-active, high-pressing and beautiful Barcajax game of the Netherlands, the eventual winners and by far the best team in the tournament. As the England women pursued the level of the men, so they also adopted their seemingly doomed, pessimistic approach.
Further allegations emerged, including a mixed race player from South London being accused of having a criminal past as part of another Mark Sampson training ground “joke.” And yet existing England players – some even represented at one time or another by legal eagle Eni Aluko – said very little. When they did speak publicly about the allegations, it was to portray themselves as the victims. Captain Steph Houghton complained that the allegations ‘hit the squad very hard.’ Meanwhile, Jodie Taylor stated ‘Mark Sampson has been great for my career,’ as though that was all that mattered let alone even relevant to the serious allegations, adding that the squad had been ‘brought together’ by the allegations against him. This was all after Eni had appeared on television interviews in tears, yet these women stressed how difficult it all was for them and their manager, as if Aluko’s revelations were a challenge to women’s empowerment rather than a crucial defence of it.
That right there is the definition of white privilege: they believe that, since their manager has been great for their individual careers, the claims are an inconvenience for them – a difficulty, even – and one that unites them around the man with the power to crown a woman a “mini-Messi.” Not once has any one of them, it seems, stood up with any integrity to lend support for their former teammate and ally (and a lawyer, no less) who has spoken out about the racism and bullying she has been subjected to.
Yes, every one of us – even those with Sampson’s attitude – are innocent until proven guilty. But the team’s rallying round him acted as though he already had been proven innocent, in the midst of very serious claims from one of their former teammates who had even helped them negotiate their own contracts with the FA. They were standing up for the system, for all the things they cited as important: their careers, their tournament, their lifestyles – a warning like no other that women’s football, in wishing to become as mainstream as the men’s game, needs to be careful what it wishes for.
As I write, allegations continue to emerge. There’s an old saying: ‘If you don’t think white privilege exists, congratulations, because you’re enjoying the benefits of it.’ I’m sure Mark Sampson, and possibly even the FA bigwigs themselves, genuinely believe they aren’t racist – individually or institutionally – simply because they are so out of touch it is unbelievable. White privilege is so inherent among them that they can’t even recognise what would be offensive and what wouldn’t.
Regardless of what happens, they’ll keep hiring people like Mark Sampson, or Glenn Hoddle (you know, the ex-England manager who claimed disabled people were being punished for sins in a past life), and they’ll keep them in place until the next scandal forces them into the public relations exercise of removing that person. They can’t help themselves, because even if someone’s offensive bigotry is listed on their resume, it seems they wouldn’t even see anything wrong with it until somebody like Eni Aluko pointed it out.