For my 30th birthday last summer, I received not one, not two, but three football-themed gifts. A bright red 2022 World Cup jersey from my sister. A blue and white England shirt, emblazoned with HARRISON 30 on the back, from my friends. And, from my boyfriend, the gaudiest, most garish football socks you’ve ever seen. On any of my previous birthdays, I’d have reacted to football-themed presents with polite bafflement. Until last year, I hadn’t played for 15 years, and I got an F for the sport in my PE GCSE. Since then, I’d barely touched a ball. Obviously, I watched the big games in the pub but my engagement with the professional sport never went far beyond my inexplicable teenage crush on Frank Lampard. But at the start of 2023, all that changed. I began playing on a grassroots team with a group of other women – and I’m far from the only one.
Don’t tell Joey Barton but women across the UK have been taking up the sport en masse, with teams from Arse-n-All and Inter Melanin FC to Ex-Girlfriend FC and Bend It Like Peckham popping up around the country. (One of my favourite things about grassroots football is the team names – ours is Big Kick Energy.) Like me, so many new players have been inspired by the stratospheric success of the Lionesses: England’s women’s team have, of course, become Euro 2022 champions and World Cup 2023 finalists within the past two years. After the Euros, when the Lionesses triumphed with a history-making 2-1 victory over Germany, a Uefa impact report found that 2.4 million more women and girls in England were participating in football in 2022-23, compared to the previous season. Interest in the professional game has shot up too. When the Lionesses reached the final of the World Cup in Australia, their painful loss was watched by a record-breaking 14.46 million people.
This surge is all the more remarkable given the history of women’s football. In 1921, it was banned by the FA, with the association stating: “The game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” Half a century later, in 1971, the ban was lifted. And in the 50 years since then, the women’s game has been a continuous struggle. Fara Williams, one of the best female footballers this country has ever seen, was homeless for seven years from 2001, playing for England while sleeping in hostels around London. In that same decade, England defender Alex Scott had to work in the Gunners’ laundry room scrubbing men’s kits to boost her Arsenal Ladies wage, which could be as low as £50 per match. But so much has improved in the past few years. Two Lionesses – Beth Mead and Mary Earps – have won successive BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards. Female players now have huge sponsorship deals and millions of Instagram followers. And women like me are heading onto the pitch – slipping on our boots, munching oranges at half time, jockeying, tackling, finishing. The Lionesses’ sheer visibility, bobbing ponytails and all, has reminded us that football is for girls, too.
Sarina Wiegman, the Dutch football manager who guided the Lionesses to greatness with her winning combination of compassion and grit, is bowled over by the growing popularity of the women’s game. It’s a huge transformation from when she started playing at the age of six, defying a ban on joining her twin brother’s team by cutting her hair short and pretending to be a boy. “Football for women was not always accepted,” she tells me, peering through her signature gold-rimmed glasses as we chat about her coaching book What It Takes. “Now, football for women is cool, and what you see is little girls and boys having shirts with [England forward Lauren] ‘Hemp’ on their back. I’ve lived through that change and it’s really incredible.” Her legacy, she hopes, will be the ever-growing number of women and girls playing the game. “I am trying to get more girls, wherever they come from, whatever their background is, to have more access through grassroots,” she says. “Performing at the highest level has made us become visible, and that will drive positive change for society.”
The Lionesses themselves are passionate about driving change, too. In November, the squad hailed a £30m cash injection from the government and FA that is set to prioritise access to football and playing opportunities for thousands of women and girls across England. “We’re just immensely proud,” Lucy Bronze told The Independent at the time. “It’s nice to know that people believe in us just as much as we believe in ourselves, the fact that the government wants to invest so much money because they see the difference that we’ve made, not just as a team on the pitch, but what a difference it made to women all around the country.”
Mia Keating, 29, is a London-based teacher who took up football a year ago after a 16-year hiatus. “I was very much spurred on by the Euros final,” she says. Keating now plays five times a week for several clubs in the capital, including Islington Borough. “I enjoyed watching all the matches so much that after that I thought, ‘Why don’t I just look and see if there are any leagues?’” It took months for her to get on the beginners’ five-a-side team for Islington Borough, so long was the waiting list. Monica Greig, a 23-year-old production assistant who plays for west London team Shepherd’s Booters, was also inspired by Leah Williamson and Co. “I’ve noticed a huge increase in interest in women’s football since the Lionesses’ success,” she says. “A lot of my guy mates will now come to the women’s Chelsea games with us, and there’s a huge renewed respect among everybody about women’s football. Since the World Cup, our team have got so many more players and so many more beginners.”
“It’s that visibility, isn’t it? If you can see it, it becomes more attainable and feels more realistic,” adds Char, 27, a physiotherapist who plays for Manchester team Rain On Me FC. She played football as a kid, out with the boys on her nan’s green. “It’s quite cool to see some of the England women’s team becoming household names. You can get football shirts with their names on and there’s all that interest in Mary Earps’s goalkeeping kit. These are all things that just would not have happened years ago.”
A lot of the grassroots players I speak to describe how the sport has made them feel closer to their community, bringing with it a true sense of belonging. Shameek Farrell, 31, started The Goalposts League – the one that I play in – which has been going since 2021, with matches taking place at Haggerston School in east London. “I just wanted to create something different,” he says, “and there weren’t many positive outlets where women, non-binary and transgender players could play, week in, week out. I wanted to create a wholesome environment where people can play football, make mistakes and be unapologetically them.” What started out as a “glorified side hustle” for him has turned into a full-time job. “Turning up and refereeing and managing is the easy bit,” he says, “there’s also the pitch hire, fixtures, fees, liaising with the venues, the trophy gathering, creating multiple plaques…”
Finding space for women to play is a challenge. When Farrell and I speak, we’re sitting at a picnic bench next to three floodlit pitches, all filled with men. “That is a common theme up and down the country,” he says, “and we are struggling for space. Venues don’t care about who’s in these spaces, as long as there’s money coming in. If you ask a venue, ‘What’s your gender split?’, they’re very reluctant to tell you because they know that they are part of the problem. So we have to find other quirky, less beautiful places to play football. You’ve got people playing in the park in the dark where they can’t see, or playing on concrete pitches.” This is set to change. In November, the government and FA’s £30m investment will help to provide new facilities to feature reserved peak-time slots and women and girls-only evenings.
The pitches I’ve played on have, erm, ranged in quality, shall we say. My favourites are the pitches tucked in beneath the Overground line that runs through Brixton – playing at sunset while a train rattles by overhead has a cinematic feel to it – or in the cage near London Bridge where we share water fountains with sandy-footed beach tennis enthusiasts. My least favourite is a spot in Clerkenwell where plump, mangy rats weave in and out of the goal’s net.
But wherever we’re playing, there is a completely unintimidating feel to the sport. In school, sport often felt cliquey, self-conscious and competitive; grassroots football as an adult is the opposite. A huge element of this is our lovely coaches, and the fact that so many of us are beginners. Some of us (me) more than others. It is no coincidence that, in every league game I have played, Big Kick Energy have lost. And just before Christmas, I got my first yellow card for an egregious handball near the goal. But it doesn’t seem to matter – it’s nice to win, but most of all everyone’s there to have fun. I loved it so much when I first started playing that I’d have vivid dreams about being a top striker, and more than once in the night, I kicked my boyfriend awake.
“It’s so silly, we just scream and run around. And we’re constantly pushing each other over and teasing each other,” laughs Greig. Keating can relate to my losses, too. “In the five-a-side league I play in on a Monday, we lose every time [almost] without fail. But we won once. And to be honest, for about two weeks afterwards, we were messaging each other, like, ‘I still feel absolutely giddy,’ and this is because we won one match in a league that goes on for about four months. That feeling of being champions was so good. And now we go back to losing every time but we’re like, ‘That one time, we did win.’ At some point, maybe, I’ll want to take it to the next level where it gets competitive but I just really like that it’s friendly and sociable and good exercise.”
Keating was planning to move to Berlin last summer but she found herself enjoying the London grassroots football scene so much that she cancelled her move. “I had a big plan,” she says. “I’d quit my teaching job and I was going to move to Berlin. I was super excited about it. And then in the few months that led up to it, I was having so much fun playing football, and I was finally in teams. I went to Berlin and I thought, actually, I don’t want to lose the spots on the teams I’ve waited ages to be on. So I came back. That is how tragically my life has revolved around football. I was actually going to move country and I haven’t.” She has also made “a whole bunch of new friends” through the teams she plays for – and the socials take up nearly as much time as the football.
For Char and Rain on Me FC, the socials get loose. “We have a lot of DJs and people involved in nightlife within our team, so we do throw a good party,” she says. “At one of the after parties from the tournament last year, one of the girls from the Liverpool team crowdsurfed to The Veronicas’ ‘Untouched’.”
“I was nervous about coming back to London after being away for four years for university,” says Greig, “and before, most of my friends were from school and were all scattered around. But it’s just totally changed my social life. I now have friends who are just down the road or a two-minute bike ride away, and we always hang out. We’ll often go to the pub after training, or someone will host a roast after a match. The Shepherd’s Booters have just taken over my life. Whenever I meet a girl or a non-binary person who says they’re in a rut or having a bit of a tough time, I’m like, ‘I’ve got the solution for you. You’ve just got to join this team.’ I’ve never really been in a totally inclusive group or team.” She smiles. “It’s just the most welcoming, non-judgemental space.”
Greig’s giddiness about the grassroots game is something I spot in every person I speak to about it – and I can relate to the feeling. This Sunday just gone, our team had training in Brixton. Knackered after two hours of intense drills and games on the frosty, floodlit pitch, I got home and pulled off my boots, scattering grains of astroturf around my flat in the process. I wolfed down a bowl of spaghetti and rubbed my bruised shins. Worn out. Happy. It’s hard to top that feeling.