The first time I was groped at a Premier League match I was 13. I was there with my dad, we had season tickets and were squeezing past a row of men in the 88th minute to beat the crowds to the tube. I didn’t say anything and it wasn’t the last time it happened that season, either. The season before that I won a competition and got the chance to be a ball girl at Wembley during a Charity Shield match. Every time I ran to collect the ball to throw it back on to the pitch I was wolf‑whistled and cat‑called by a section of the fans. I was 12.
In these experiences and many more I knew I was an interloper and in my mind I had no choice but to accept the rewards of that along with everything else. The rewards were the atmosphere and getting to see my team play, everything else being the groping, the lingering stares, the cat calling; in addition to being exposed to the unchecked and extreme racism, the casual homophobia and the relentless, aggressive abuse of players on both sides.
I was never sporty, I had no interest in playing football and like many girls back then I didn’t see many examples of women playing football to look up to even if I did. My exposure to football was what I saw on TV and the excitement I saw it invoke in my brother and my dad. Where else was I going to get that excitement? When I went to the football I was lucky to be there, to be experiencing that feeling of unified love for your team and hatred for the other team. I felt like I’d been inducted into a secret society that not many girls got to experience. I wasn’t going to ruin it by complaining.
Just over 20 years later, this past summer, I visited Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for the first time. On a balmy July day I had that familiar walk up to the ground you get when you go to any big football stadium in the country. Seeing it in the distance and striding up with confidence and swagger. Except this was different. I wasn’t wearing my club’s colours, I wasn’t surrounded by men chanting, trying to intimidate the locals and the police horses. In fact, there weren’t any police horses at all.
I was going to see Lady Gaga – having tried to get tickets for months I had a stroke of luck when a colleague had one going spare. The show was excellent. I cheered, I danced, I cried, I sang; I did everything that I might do at an amazing football match. But I wasn’t groped. I didn’t hear any racism. I saw gay people embrace each other. I saw little girls being lifted on to their father’s shoulders. This past summer I saw similar scenes in the crowds when watching the Euro 2022 on TV.
On Sunday I made the trip to the King Power Stadium to see Leicester take on Tottenham on the opening weekend of the Women’s Super League. I was surrounded by families in a crowd where the majority were women and girls. Even though they didn’t hurl abuse at the opposing fans, or players, they cared as deeply as any other football fans. This should go without saying – but when you have grown up watching men’s football in this country, you start to believe you can’t have passion without aggression.
At the stadium Marcus Baines and his daughter Phoebe (seven, nearly eight) were at their first WSL match since buying a season ticket. “It’s as serious for the fans [as with the men’s games] but I don’t think there’s so much tension,” he said. “Some fans for the men go to cause trouble but in the ladies’ game we feel they don’t and it’s more of a mixed atmosphere.”
It is a sentiment shared by the Gibsons, a football family, frequent visitors to the WSL and season‑ticket holders to the Spurs men’s team. The differences between the men’s and women’s crowds boil down to inclusivity and an appreciation for the football over the rivalries. “You’ll find with women’s football that you kind of just enjoy the game and appreciate the football more,” Kim said.
Like me, Kim was taken to football when she was younger by her father. “I think when we went to matches back then it’s just what it was, that’s what we expected,” she said. “Personally I feel really comfortable coming to a women’s game, I could bring the girls on my own and feel safe.”
That feeling of innate safety came across a lot. Emily Williams, who came along with her daughter Elly, spoke of this too. “I worry about the men’s matches more with the children going along,” she said. “I take my son and they can feel a bit intimidating, especially with me being female, I feel like I can’t protect him if something goes wrong, but women’s matches feel a lot safer.”
Many of the WSL fans at the King Power Stadium go to pains to remind me that women’s and men’s football are very different, so making comparisons is difficult and perhaps foolish. It’s true, it is difficult and probably unhelpful to the women’s game from a football perspective – the game is played differently and the rivalries are not the same. However, from the point of view of a fan a lot of it felt very similar: the swell of energy from the crowd after a good pass; the applause for a well‑timed tackle; the elation with a goal.
The audible frustrations of a bad touch or a wasted pass were there too, but with a notable difference. The little frustrations were just that, they did not progress into outright hostility, they did not boil over into abuse. Tottenham’s Ashleigh Neville was booed like a pantomime villain for much of the second half as she went down a little too easily while Leicester were on the break. Was it nice? Probably not. But it never became personal, they didn’t call her names, they didn’t chant a song about her personal life and I would hope she did not get harassed on social media after the match.
Sitting at a competitive WSL match, going to a massive stadium show, seeing the Lionesses sell out Wembley, it makes me think again about what it means to occupy these spaces. These spaces that dominate the skyline of our towns and cities, that generate some of the best moments of our lives. Those of us who watch men’s football hear a lot about the atmosphere these spaces generate. It is coveted, every fan wants to feel it and it’s something that can’t be artificially created with a Mexican wave and a vuvuzela. Atmosphere, as far as we were brought up to believe in this country, means aggression, it means intimidation. The fact that this comes with sexual abuse, racism and homophobia? Well, that’s just a few bad apples.
But we’re wrong, we were always wrong.
I can say now that I am deeply ashamed of how I have always equated the perfect atmosphere in stadiums with masculinity. Through the increasing popularity of women’s football and the use of Premier League stadiums for more than sport we’re showing that these spaces are for everyone. Toxic masculinity should not dictate what it means to create an atmosphere – because when we let it, we let everything that it encompasses flourish.
Football fans like to convince ourselves that racism happens in football because racism happens everywhere. And that’s true. But why were there no reports of homophobic abuse in the grounds during Euro 2022 this year? Why were there no reports of violence from the two nights that Lady Gaga sold out Tottenham Hotspur Stadium? Why would a father happily take his young daughter to a WSL Leicester match but would think again before taking her to a Premier League one?
The reason is that men’s football has become a safe space for violence, racism, homophobia and misogyny over decades of reinforcement. By making football grounds a safe space for everyone we can truly rid the game of the aspects that tarnish the enjoyment of it for the vast majority of us. If putting rainbows in stadiums makes people uncomfortable, do more of it. If some men feel it’s no longer “their club” because they can’t sing the antisemitic chant they used to sing in the 1970s, then let them stay home. We do not need them. Football does not need them.
Making women, ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ+ community feel uncomfortable on and off the pitch at football matches has been the tactic used by toxic masculinity for decades, and the governing bodies and the clubs have been complicit in not doing enough to tackle the issues. But, if their inaction is steeped in fears of a loss of atmosphere or – even more reprehensibly – a loss of revenue, they need not worry. Because it turns out 70,000 people shed a tear as Lady Gaga sat at her piano in the middle of a football pitch in July and 87,000 people sang Sweet Caroline when the Lionesses won the European Championship.
We don’t need aggression and hatred to create an atmosphere. In fact it is better if we don’t have it. Actually, it is a lot better.