I have nothing against the game per se, but it has become a parallel universe of overpaid, usually ridiculously coiffed, self-important players; and some god-awful fans (even excluding the skinheads).
For example. I remember taking my 3 year-old daughter to our local stadium to watch the local lads having their Sunday morning game. I was rather bright and pleased with myself as my little girl took giant steps up the middle of the bleachers – look, we are having a Sortie of the Educational, Sporting type, on a Sunday morning, making me a Good Mother. But we (the only females in the small, cold, sullen crowd) stayed for all of five minutes until the crass language of the usual your-mum type had me scooping up my child and bustling her the hell out of there, my heart pounding with rage and indignation (partly at the insults, partly at the fact that I didn’t say or do anything to challenge them).
There is now a whole campaign in the UK to try to challenge the abusive language of football and football fans: I stumbled across it while shaking my head in disbelief at the incredible story of how the doctor for Chelsea football team gets treated when she runs onto the pitch to help the players … well, get treated.
There is too much money in the world of football: it has lead to unhealthy adulation, corruption, and the top people conferring some sort of godlike status on themselves. Even if there were none of all that, and football was still the kick-around and local, healthy competition of the common people that it started out as; even then, I couldn’t bear it because of the press conferences and how they all, mais tous, comment their performance in the same robotic way, with the same dull expressions. I have often wondered whether professional football players are obliged to complete a diploma in Post-Match Public Analysis.
But anyway. I digress.
So, I don’t usually watch football, but this was the women’s world cup. I had not (: confession) ever watched a female football match before, and there was a tangible pulse of excitement in our living room because this was, after all, France-Germany, and a quarter final, and we all know how France-Germany matches turn out, France always robbed of victory, etc. Yes, yes, I nodded, inching hungrily toward the bedroom, and my bed, and a nice early night.
And then I heard: allez, aren’t you supposed to be a feminist?
Well, ouais, I am. So with more than a little glumness about sitting through ninety minutes of football at 11pm at night (whatever the sex of the players) I settled down on the sofa next to the excited husband, and …
… it was amazing.
Je n’ai pas vu le temps passer. These women, these strong, talented, quick-footed women; all dashing around the pitch and scoring goals and arguing (assertively, without tantrum, then letting it go) with the referee; their normal hair cuts of all varieties, their intensity, their emotion, the collegial way they celebrated goals rather than running laps around the field spreading their arms to the crowd like demigods. It was GREAT. And refreshing. And yes, like how football should be played.
I digress again.
Now, women’s football is still not a major-channel product in France – the Fr-Germany match appeared on an outskirts channel – W9 (bravo W9!). But things are moving. Friday’s match hooked an impressive peak audience of 5.3million. The stadium in Canada where they played was not full to the rafters, but pretty well populated. And women’s football is beginning to enter the advertising mainstream, a sure sign that it’s being taken seriously if companies are willing to pay for TV and billboard space: on my way home from work a week or so ago my train station featured a series of ads for the French team, with catchy slogans playing on the whole gender equality issue.
None of that would have existed even a few years ago.
But even so. I had still never watched a women’s match before last Friday. Afterwards, having so immensely enjoyed it, I forced myself to wonder why. My husband watched with the same gusto and patriotism as he usually does for any male team (while my mother-in-law shared her constant surprise at the “femininity” of the players as we went: celle là, qu’est-ce qu’elle est jolie !) but I had to admit, I had begun the match with a niggling sense of dread.
Because (et j’ai honte, j’ai honte) I was nervous. Deep down, I was thinking: what if, actually, these ladies are rubbish? That there is a clear difference in skill between a male and female player? What if I was going to have to spend the 90 minutes pretending to enjoy it so as not to lose face with the husband, when actually I was ashamed of my own sex for trying to readjust the balance on a man’s sport?
Goodness me, I realized afterwards, I was afraid. Afraid that I would be proven irrevocably wrong about my standard line of women being (generally) able to do whatever men do, afraid that the girls on the pitch would show me up, have me struggling to justify their legitimacy as players. As the fear of ridiculousness ebbed away, to be replaced by rip-roaring enjoyment and pleasure at an exciting match, well-played, I felt ashamed of myself. Ashamed of my moment of doubt.
Because if I, a firm feminist, had harboured secret uncertainty about a woman’s ability to play football, how on earth could I expect anyone else less fervent to believe in it, and cheer them along?
And, even more shameful, I concluded that somewhere inside of me:
1) I still believe/have been made to believe that women cannot be as good as men at some sports;
2) I am passively afraid about other women challenging 1).
How very disappointing. Why did I feel that? After all – correct me if I’m wrong – the ball is kicked with one’s foot or saved from the back of the net with one’s hand, rather than one’s penis or breasts? What, really, does gender have to do with it?
It’s the work of generations, as I have been often told by experts working in various fields of gender equality. It’s me telling my daughter that she can play football if she wants to (as I did, when I was a girl; this I remembered vividly, all of a sudden, watching les Bleues take on Germany; I was suddenly proud of it). It’s parents of boys telling them to include the girls, and all parents not falling into the awful gender-stereotyped toys (what girl will think she can play football if she has never been given a ball or taught to play with it at home?) It’s me ensuring that my husband offers to take my son AND my daughter to a football match – hell, I shall go myself, and make sure it’s a women’s match – AND challenging the sickening language you hear on and off the pitch.
And of course it’s every other gender mainstreaming issue under the unequal sun: education, social norms, availability of training, challenging assumptions, believing in yourself, or believing in the opposite sex if you’re a man.
In the meantime, if you like me admit to secret doubts, go and be convinced by the highlights of the France-Germany match. And don’t miss the next installment: England v Japan on Wednesday 1 July (shifted, don’t you know, from BBC3 to BBC1 – now that’s what I call gender mainstreaming).
If my husband doesn’t watch it, I’ll know it’s because he’s miffed that France are out of the running, rather than because he thinks it isn’t worth his time.