For years girls have admired and emulated male football players. Why not the reverse?

August 20, 2023

You know the song, “One year of hurt, never stopped me dreaming.” Euro victory last year, World cup final this year.

The Lionesses have done us proud. Skill, commitment, courage. Lauren Hemp hitting the bar in the 16th minute. Mary Earps saving a penalty. Alex Greenwood’s bravery. Fighting until the final whistle. Great role models for young women. But I’d also hope, great role models for young men. For years girls have admired and wanted to emulate male footballers. Why not the reverse?

Let’s be honest here, it’s the success that matters, at least for media coverage and sponsorship. We’ve long taken our women Olympians seriously.

A phrase struck me when reading a pre-match article: “the lioness Spain will fear most…” Lionesses are fearsome. Strong. Female but not ‘feminine’ with its negative sterotypical connotations. Taken seriously as athletes. Even if they don’t have equal pay.

A BBC study reported that a Women’s Super League (WSL) Player get’s £47,000 a year on average. For men’s Premier League players it’s £60,000 a week – 66 times more. An economist would point out that’s market forces – the TV money in the men’s game is astronomical. And many would argue the wages are out of control.

Sarina Wiegman gets £400,000 a year to manage England. And she’s coached them to international victory. Gareth Southgate gets £5,000,000.

To be honest, I’m not sure anyone needs £5m a year. I reckon you can get by just fine on £400k. But if there’s a case for a wage cap, it’s not on elite athletes and coaches, who are, at least, exceptionally good at their job. And get tested in full public view. I’d start with the utility companies racking up £billions in debt and pumping sewage into our rivers, while their CEOs get £millions.

Broadcasters are offering up to 100 times less to cover the Women’s World Cup than last year’s men’s tournament in Qatar.

Two years ago the Football Association signed a ‘landmark’ multimillion-pound deal with Sky and the BBC for the broadcast rights to the Women’s Super League. The agreement is reported to be worth £8m a season – the biggest broadcast deal of any professional women’s football league in the world. It expires in 2025.

Compare that to the Premier League’s £5 billion TV deal in the UK, with roughly the same again from overseas broadcasters. Of course, the Premier League split away from the FA to earn more money and spread less to the grassroots.

If you want to raise your game, you need to play at a level that stretches you. That’s true of pretty much anything, not just football, or sport in general. My niece played football, trained hard, and loved it. She played in a mixed team, until she had to stop at the age of twelve. Then there were so few girls’ teams, she had few opportunities to play. This is twenty years ago, when the FA rules stopped mixed teams after a certain age.

It’s changed now, and young players can be in mixed teams up to 18. There are also more competitive girls’ leagues around. As a country we’re improving rapidly. Inspired by the Lionesses, we’re improving even faster.

I spoke to Steve Dale, chairman at Wallsend Boys Club – famous for producing 92 professional players, including Alan Shearer to Michael Carrick. “These days the Premier League academies snap up anyone who looks like they’ve got some talent,” he told me. They focus on the fitness, the team spirit. The courage and discipline. And above all, the enjoyment. I saw boys and girls training together.

I’ve taught and trained with dozens – probably hundreds of women in Jiu Jitsu over the years. We never had separate sessions or rules or gradings for women. Everyone did the same thing, and it was very physical and full on. Many’s the time I’ve seen a strapping bloke look up in shock and awe after a woman black belt has hurled him over her shoulder and flattened him on the floor. We never had any issue with women being taken seriously.

And if there’s an tongue-in-cheek argument goes on in a home somewhere tomorrow where a woman tells her husband, “We brought home the trophy, it’s your turn to bring home the shopping and collect the kids,” then maybe it’s worth waiting 57 years.