A perfect storm: everyday sexism and females who like football :: 4-5-2014

It is a beautiful, sunny, blue-skied spring day. I’ve just finished editing a book chapter and catching up with some reading. The window is a crack open; I can hear the birds tweeting and the occasional sound of aeroplanes overhead. During most weekends when the weather is amenable I can hear the sound of a football game happening on the patch of green space behind my flat and today is no different. It always sounds like a good-natured, competitive match; men’s voices float up through my open window, directing and exhorting each other to pass or shoot or tackle. I can hear them laughing and celebrating goals. It’s a nice, simple, informal kick-about the like of which happens on thousands of playing fields countrywide every Sunday. Women are neither present nor, in all likelihood, welcome.

Football is a game for men. They play it, they run it, they attend it. The few women working in football are often marginalised, patronised, ignored, abused and/or disrespected on a daily basis. Women do actually play football as well but nobody really cares. When the England team are on TV the BBC broadcast (it’s always the BBC – a commercial channel would never put it on because they can’t make money from women playing football) is treated with the same respect as men’s games but the stadium is usually half-empty, even for a World Cup qualifier. The attendees are families and local schoolchildren: the straight, white men with season tickets across the land, who turn out in their millions to watch the nation’s favourite sport every week, largely do not attend and are not interested in doing so. Before Hillsborough, women rarely attended football matches. The all-standing terraces were not a welcoming place, unless you wanted to be pressed up against male strangers. Children were taken, but only boys of course. After the Taylor Report was published, post-Hillsborough, which recommended all-seater stadia in order to avoid such a tragedy recurring, gradually women started to attend matches.

According to these 2009 figures, 19% of Premier League attendees are women. It feels like less when I go, I must say, perhaps because I mostly go to away games. It feels like a few dozen women and about 2000 men but being entirely outnumbered doesn’t remotely enter my head when I go to a match. It’s just the way it is when you’re female and you love football. However, a cursory Google search of women + football brings unsurprisingly depressing results – reams of articles, blogs and message board posts on why women don’t like it, don’t understand it, are not welcome at it and so on. Largely, football is something that men both watch and do. And they want to do it with each other, oblivious to its homoeroticism of course (oh the irony of worshipping its perfectly coiffed, manscaped, buffed, vain and sculpted players, who kiss and cuddle each other frequently), and they do not want women there. It used to be the one place where they could escape from the nagging shrews and harpies they married. The women who won’t shut up. The women who are interested only in shopping and spending the money their men earn. Yes, the universe of football still exists in the 1950s. The spouse of a football player who dares to publicly express her opinion about where he should live, who he should play for, what city they should live in and what schools they should send their children to are called gold-digging slags who should shut up and take their husband’s money. Sadly, most of the women that surround footballers, the famed WAGs, are perma-tanned, pneumatic airheads; though a few are the childhood sweetheart type, the girl next door who doesn’t like football anyway. Bagging a footballer – either as a husband so these women don’t have to work or so they can sell a tabloid tale – is a commonplace sport in itself in nightclubs up and down the land every weekend and women like that are not helping themselves or the rest of us. However, the notion that not all women are the same is an alien concept to men who resent having their personal football space invaded. Virgin, mother or whore: the three eternal categories into which we all fall, right? The spectre of women attending, watching or speaking about football is largely unwelcome and any woman who likes football has an endless supply of tales to tell about being disrespected by men.

My own experience of this, until yesterday, was rather typical. Before the days of watching online, I might have gone to pubs to watch my beloved Manchester City. I would chat happily with non-City supporters about the game. More often than not they would express surprise that I knew so much, or anything I suppose, about the sport, beyond liking fit players and their thighs, which is what women who like football are supposed to comment on or care about. Recently on holiday in Rome, a taxi driver expressed shocked bemusement that I knew anything about football or even liked it at all. Musings on what life is like for female football fans outside the UK are for another time. It’s difficult to be a black man playing football on the continent, so let’s not even wonder about what it might be like to be a female in football’s general area.

On non-football message boards I have over the years encountered fairly tame comments that men think are funny (sometimes they are, if from the right person) telling me to get back in the kitchen and stop watching the match because women don’t even understand the offside rule (that old chestnut), let alone the intricacies of tactics, team selection, transfer windows, zonal marking systems, high line defences and how goalkeepers should cover their angles. I’m used to being disrespected, constantly. However, I should mention that this treatment has never, not even once, been meted out to me by my own people, by other City fans, either in pubs or at our games. We’re all in it together and the men who have sat either side of me at the matches I’ve been attending for over 25 of my 37 years could not give any sort of shit about whether I’m female or not. I shout at an underperforming player the same as them. I cheer the same as them. I bite my nails just as much as them. We cry together and we celebrate together.

About two weeks ago, I read this story. TalkSport is a radio station, fairly well respected, but its website is not something I have any knowledge of. If a rumour appears on a website I tend to pay no attention. If it appears on a broadsheet newspaper’s website I will certainly pay attention. And if it appears on the BBC it is true. That’s how it goes. So that story, about Manchester City’s brilliant keeper, England’s number 1, Joe Hart being swapped in the summer for Tottenham Hotspur’s French goalie Hugo Lloris received a little attention, though not as much as if it had been reported on a respected website. I don’t think Lloris is very good. At the Crystal Palace game last week, which I attended, the City fans made their feelings known about the article. It was good-natured, a tune of support to ‘super Joey Hart’ (comically, sung to the tune of Achy Breaky Heart!), with an ending salvo of ‘if you sell him you’ll have a fucking riot on your hands!’ The report seemed ridiculous. We have one of the best goalkeepers in Europe and if he ever did leave he’d go to a team in the Champions League anyway. Spurs aren’t a bad team at all, I should say. They’re top 6 and have their moments of brilliance. This season, however, they’ve had a bit of a disaster. They keep switching managers (in fact, they’ve had 6 in 10 years, an approach which my own club are also guilty of) and had to sell their best player for £100 million but then pissed away the money on seven very average players (far too many to integrate into a squad at once and only one, Eriksen, looks any good at all). Their last manager was fired partly because of those transfer failures but mostly for presiding over some poor results and their current manager has recently had to comment on the club talking to other managers behind his back. They’re not in great shape, but they’re still one of the best teams in the country.

City and Spurs have some previous, going back decades – football fans have long memories, as often that’s all we have. There’s no love lost between the clubs. And while this is technically off-topic, I find the section of their fans who revel in chanting anti-semitic hate speech to be worthy of only my contempt. If the few Jews at White Hart Lane want to chant Yid Army, incidentally, that’s fine by me. It’s the non-Jews chanting it that I object to. It ain’t their word to reclaim… imagine if I’d told the Twitter hordes I was an actual yid, as well as being a female with an opinion, yesterday. I shudder to think of what might have transpired. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We’ve played them twice this season. They came to our place in November and got pasted 6-0. Lloris was responsible, as you can see here, for two of the goals through egregious errors. We went to their place at the end of January, tore them to shreds and won 5-1. Just before then, on New Year’s Day, I sat with my uncle and dad and we watched Spurs play at Old Trafford. Incredibly, they won 2-1, but with no thanks to Lloris, whose blunders nearly cost them the game. The three of us laughed at him throughout, remarking on what a poor keeper he was. Since then, he’s improved and hasn’t made any really big mistakes for a couple of months. He is a truly fantastic shot-stopper and can make wonderful saves when called upon. But that is only a part of the goalkeeper’s job – he must anticipate attacking danger, be ready for it; he must come out to get high balls, or stay back if he can’t get there; he must come for corners if he can, or know when he can’t; he must give confidence to the defence in front of him and set them up correctly (following the manager’s instructions); he must make sure the wall in front of him for free kicks is exactly where it needs to be so they can cover one side of the goal while he covers the other. And so on and on. Simply stopping a fired shot is only one part of the job and Lloris is excellent at that, but he’s not that great at a fair amount of the other stuff. Of course, I do not watch Spurs every week. I only watch my own team every week. So I will defer to the knowledge of any fan over my own regarding their own team. While I only watch Spurs in highlights packages (though I have seen perhaps 10 of their games in entirety this season), I’ve not been very impressed with Lloris. He is not physically imposing, he comes off his line obsessively quickly and often wrongly, he parries shots in front and has let goals in because he failed to turn a shot around the post. For example, he failed to arrange his wall properly yesterday and caused Spurs to concede a second, crucial, goal away at West Ham, though arguably that’s the fault of the gutless Paulinho and (here’s a surprise) Adebayor.

During the game I posted, as I have done many times, a Tweet that I hashtagged to #bbcfootball. I’d never had a Tweet chosen before for their football updates page, which is viewed by millions of people. It said:

Lloris, like most keepers, is a good shot-stopper. But he's truly a dreadful all-round keeper! Worst in the PL by a long way. #bbcfootball

And then I went to make my lunch. Of course, he’s probably not the worst Premier League keeper. That was a bit of hyperbole! The rest is something I believe. I came back from the kitchen and that’s when it started. A Favourited Tweet. A Retweet. And then another, and then another. I thought, oh my, the Beeb must have put it up, how exciting! I checked the page and, sure enough, they had, with a live link to my Twitter page. My excitement was short-lived.

Soon a trickle of Retweets turned into a stream of profane and abusive replies, the like of which I’d only read about women receiving for suggesting, how dare they, that a woman should be on a £20 note or something. It soon overwhelmed my email and Twitter page. Comment after comment after comment. Here are the best ones (and you will notice the word yid in several of their usernames):


And here’s one apology from a sane person.

Twitter 2

I replied to a few of the non-idiot respondents and we had a nice chat about football. I ignored the trolls (you can’t engage with crazy, nothing good ever comes of it). By the end I had 26 Retweets – all of which had been made by furious Spurs fans to other fans and forums so more people could see it and visit my page to abuse me. The respondents were 99% male. 95% of the comments were abusive. My heart was thumping as it was all happening. After two very long hours it had all calmed down and, fortunately, did not reach the levels of rape and/or death threats that so many women have had to tolerate.

So here’s the thing. Every week people say mean things about my team. Every single week, and often on that very BBC Football page. Awful things. I have never sought out anyone who has said terrible things about my club or my players. What would I do that for? What purpose would it serve to start an argument with a stranger? I love, I LOVE, a good argument and I’m pretty good at it. Perhaps when I was younger I was more likely to lose my temper (I do have a bit of a temper) at someone saying something stupid. But now… unless it’s something really out of order (like a racist attack on a player, a bigoted comment, that type of thing) I won’t weigh in. And I certainly wouldn’t have a go at a stranger on Twitter, the world’s toilet wall.

How can people be riled to the point where they felt they needed to click on my Twitter link and head over there to call me names? Would they do it in real life? If I’d been sitting in a pub and had said to a Spurs fan that Lloris was poor would they have smashed a glass in my face? Probably not. If I were male would that abuse have happened in that form anyway? Certainly not. A football fan can often be rational if engaged one-on-one. But en masse, it takes very little to turn what I hope are usually reasonable people into an incited, angry, hateful mob, either online or at a match. The power of numbers. And in this particular case, the power of numbers plus anonymity. There’s something about collective anger multiplied by mob mentality that allows the anonymous nature of the internet to amplify people’s darkest sides. I don’t mind Spurs fans telling me that I’m simply wrong and that Lloris is a great keeper, that’s fine (and when you’re told by 50+ people that you’re wrong about a player’s qualities you can’t help but doubt what you thought in the first place). He’s their keeper, not mine, I don’t have to like or care about him and how he plays. I’m glad they like him, good for them. But who am I to a Spurs fan? Absolutely nobody. Why does my opinion matter at all? Why take the time to come over to my Twitter page and its 116 followers and tell me that I should go back into the kitchen, where women belong? Why are men so obsessed with women being in kitchens anyway? If only they knew about my terrible cooking and lack of interest in anything remotely domestic.

To elicit such venom from strangers is a most bizarre thing to be on the receiving end of. I’m sure the BBC don’t care (but did know) that posting my comment would have caused angered responses. I don’t think my Tweet was incendiary; it’s not like I said he’s a dirty frog who fucks his sister or something, in which case any abuse coming my way would be justified. I would have been happy to further explain what I meant by the comment in calm tones, but the internet, and Twitter in particular, doesn’t work like that. I didn’t think the BBC would put my fairly flippant Tweet (all of my Tweets are frivolous really) on their page. I didn’t think much about it at all in fact when I posted it. I certainly didn’t think it’d cause me to become an online hate figure and punching bag during an afternoon that I wanted to go quickly while waiting for an important City game to start. While it was going on I called my dad and he unhelpfully said that I should stop Tweeting at all. He was supremely stressed about the Everton game and we’ve talked about it since, he realises now how upsetting it all was for me. But really, why would he understand? He has never been attacked or devalued or discriminated against because of his gender. He has never been told, nor will he ever be told, that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about because he’s a man.

Incidentally, I have never been told that I don’t know what I’m talking about because I’m female on any subject other than football and nor would I be. Because if I express an opinion about, for example, a form of media – a book or film or piece of music or concert – or a thesis or a piece of marketing collateral I’m not responded to in that way. I’m actually paid every day (knock on wood) to give my opinions, it’s how I make a living, such as it is. This only happens in sport. And while I can only speak for football I’ll wager my music collection that the same shit happens to women who like American NFL or hockey or rugby or basketball or any other male-dominated sport where men are (straight) men and women are not welcome. And what we face in sport is, of course, just a sliver, a thimble, a tiny little almost non-existent fraction of the daily horror that men subject women to.

The people who abused me online yesterday will have forgotten about it almost instantly, I’m sure of that. Today they’ll forget that they called a complete stranger a fucking bitch and a mong and a retard. They’re just normal people, who love their team and go to work and make their dinner and live their lives and happened to take umbrage against something a girl said about a goalkeeper. The internet, as a mechanism of communication, goads people to behave like animals on a daily basis. They didn’t like what I said and they sought me out to tell me so, but not in normal terms like a person would if they knew me and disagreed with me (like the friends I have who support Spurs might) because they don’t know me at all. It was precisely because they didn’t know me that they lashed out.

This is where we are now; the facelessness of the online world has fostered a basic lack of humanity, whereby we’re all connected and yet we’re further away from kindness, understanding, respect for others’ opinions and acceptable social behaviour than ever. Where how much men truly hate women can be venomously expressed with a few typed words and a mouse click without anyone being identified or held to account. The internet is meant to connect us and often it does. It’s certainly changed my life for the better and continues to do so. It is a wondrous thing and I am not only grateful it exists but feel privileged to have witnessed it be created, adopted and affect worldwide change beyond estimation. Yet more often than not it creates worlds where, without face-to-face interaction, any remnant of humanity is absent. The world really is moving too fast for some people.