The greater part of my family travelled to Wembley Stadium today, and witnessed England win the European cup. While the game was going on I checked in on the score from time to time, and convinced myself that my life-long hoodoo about causing anything I root for to lose was still in effect.
I saw perhaps a third of the game in total, and cannot imagine the stress my other half and younger children were going through, among the nearly ninety thousand fans packing the stadium.
Ever since the final whistle, all manner of thoughts have been trying to organise themselves in my head. The commentary team on the BBC did a wonderful job in expressing many of them – touching on the generations of corruption, bias, sexism, and misogyny that have dissuaded generations of girls from playing at all.
Those of you living outside the UK might look at football as our “national sport”, and imagine a well oiled machine that operates from youth level all the way through to the professional and national teams.
The truth is somewhat depressing and more complicated than most imagine.
Most towns have any number of youth football teams. They are rarely connected at all with the larger teams in the area, and very rarely allowed to use any of their facilities or resources. Even when local clubs do integrate, the subscription fees gathered from the youth level rarely percolate back into anything for them.
When you then add in the prospect of a female team, the obstacles and hurdles grow taller still. All three of our daughters played for town teams at one time or another during their youth. I lost count of the weekends we spent trying to find a “last resort” football ground in the middle of nowhere because it was the only place the girls team could find to be allowed to play a game. I remember one CUP FINAL game in particular where the grass had not been cut for some time, and the ground beneath it more closely resembled a ploughed field than a football pitch.
In the middle of all of this, the miraculous thing is that you still find parents and coaches that fight to provide their children with a team to play with, and consistently go the extra mile – sourcing sponsorship, kit, footballs, goals, and so on.
And then of course you look at the men’s game, and the “elite” level – where talented teenagers are pulled from school, have more money invested in them than they can possibly imagine, and who then attract the romantic pursuit off attention seeking social media influencers who aim above all else to become famous for being famous.
On top of all that nonsense you find professional players not wanting to play for the national team because they won’t earn as much as they might playing for their clubs.
You can’t make it up.
One of the commentary team this evening said something interesting – that the England women’s football team won the European Championships not because of the system, but in spite of the system. I couldn’t agree more.