Kelly Smith, footballer: her story

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What is the price of following a sporting dream? For most it will be countless hours of hard work; single-minded, selfish, and lonely dedication to developing themselves to be the best player they can be; often sacrificing family, friends and even leaving your home country. England and Arsenal’s Kelly Smith has done all of this and reaped the rewards. She is England’s all-time leading scorer with over 100 caps, was recognised by FIFA as one of the top five players in the world four years in a row and received an MBE for services to football. However, she has also paid more than most. Numerous career threatening injuries and moves away from family and support systems have taken their toll. In the first chapter of her autobiography Footballer: My Story, she describes stopping in at a Harvester pub and drinking herself into oblivion despite being late for training with the national team. “Vodka makes me feel better about things,” she writes. “It makes me feel like I am in control. It makes me confident.”

Having watched Kelly play a few times on TV I never thought she lacked confidence. She has a dominant, almost cocky-style that demands attention from the other team and a tenacious ability to keep the ball. In fact throughout the book it is clear that she never doubted her own ability on the pitch. “I was born to be a footballer,” she says. In the chapter entitled ‘Rock Bottom’ she writes,

“It never entered my head that I wouldn’t be good enough anymore. I was always confident in my ability and I always had the self-belief to succeed. I knew the player I was and I knew the potential I had.”

Life is great when she is able to play the game she loves. The trouble starts when she is not able to play. We don’t get to know much about who she is off the pitch but the book is a honest and brave account of her battle with alcoholism and the realities of being a sportsperson at the highest level.
The other strength of the book is the insight she gives from having played the game at the highest level. She shares perspectives from her experiences playing for England, as well as in the US as a college and professional player. And she also details her ideas about the nature of training, the need for young players to focus on skills and the essential nature of more media/ TV coverage and the role of social media to help grow the women’s game.
The book is a fascinating account of the realities of being a female sportsperson — getting kicked off boy’s teams, playing on sub-standard pitches, having to balance elite level training on a part-time schedule and low wages. But it also documents a special time in the history of the women’s game, a time when there has been a massive shift in the profile and acceptance of women’s soccer/football, a time about which there is a lot to be excited. In one of the final chapters she says:

“When I was growing up, my role model was male, Ian Wright. That’s all I had. But today, a nine- or ten-year-old can watch women’s football on the television — in a World Cup or whatever – and see us play in front of thousands of people. […] [T]hey will inevitably lo
ok up to us. […] Young girls can now reach out and touch the potential if they have the ambition, the drive and the right attributes. They can all strive to a higher standard. You can’t put a price on that. If you don’t see that, you really don’t know about it. We are in a good place right now.

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Is it really all about sex? Women’s sport and media coverage

Clare Balding

Some more please
Source: The Guardian

I had a surprise last weekend. Right there in the middle of the BBC sports update was a story about the England Cricket Team — the women’s England Cricket Team.  Not only were women playing cricket right there on my telly, but there was a match report of their progress in the World Cup in India. It was not a fluffy feature that outlined the details of a “fringe” activity or the get-a-kick-out-of-girls-playing-cricket-aren’t-they-cute treatment. It was a proper match report, almost like they deserved to be there, almost like women’s cricket was a real sport, like women were real athletes.  I almost wanted to give cricket a go . . . and I really don’t get cricket.

I did a few seconds of soul-searching about my hitherto antipathy toward cricket as a game. I watched the women celebrate a good play and thought that looks like fun, maybe I’ve been too harsh.  But then I thought have I disregarded cricket before because I didn’t like the sport, or is my sudden interest because I’ve never seen women playing before?

Women’s sports coverage makes up just 5% of all UK sports media coverage, according to the annual study by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, and yet huge numbers of women take part in organised sport — women’s football is the third largest participation sport in England.

I’ve always thought it was interesting that one of the arguments for men’s dominance over the sports pages and updates is that papers and broadcasters are giving readers and viewers what they want. The argument says that people just don’t care about women’s sport. So does that mean if women’s sport was covered, people would stop buying papers or watching sports shows?  Do we know this to be true?

First, are we sure we know what people want? Would anyone have believed that the British nation would hold its collective breath as Rhona Martin cast her “stone of destiny” at the 2002 Winter Olympics or as Charlotte Dujardin danced with her horse this summer in London? Probably not.  Why not? Is it because curling and dressage are fringe sports? Is it because both of these heroes are women? Is it because there are people who might not consider either ‘real sport’? The answer is a combination of all of these things. But we still watched and then read all about it.

What gets me going about sport is the story. Growing up in America, every Saturday I’d listen to Jim McKay promise “The thrill of victory … and the agony of defeat … the human drama of athletic competition” at start of each ABC Wide World of Sports programme.

It wasn’t just the coverage of the events that delivered this promise it was the stories of the athletes, the teams, and the competitions. I have a fuzzy memory of a woman at a starting gate and wanting her, more than anything, to fly.  The WWoS team told me about a woman I’d never heard of, doing something I’d never seen anyone do. They told me about her training, her rivalry with the Swiss skier, the broken leg two years before that threatened her career, the troubles she’d had on the training runs. Now she was back and this was her chance. Would she do it? Could she do it? I didn’t keep watching because I knew about skiing (I’m from pancake-flat Ohio, for goodness sake). I kept watching because I’d been told the first part of a story and I was desperate to find out what would happen in the end.

There is evidence that the story is what many people want from sport. Why else would someone who’d gone to a match, read the coverage the next day.  Because even though they’d seen it, they want to hear about it, read about it, re-live the story. Why did record-breaking numbers support the women’s football Team GB this summer? Because the team were given the unprecedented profile of being the first event of the Games, spectators were treated with some cracking play and people wanted to see the end of the team’s story, they wanted to be part of the team’s story.  If the story is good, people will watch/read about anything, even curling and dressage … even women’s sport.  So why don’t we have more stories about women playing sport?

Shaking up sports newsrooms up might help.  In the UK there are a few high-profile female sports broadcasters: Clare Balding, Gabby Logan, Hazel Irvine, Sue Barker, however only  3% of UK sports journalists are women and not one of the UK’s national dailies or Sunday papers has a female sports editor. Lynne Truss, a former sports columnist for The Times, wrote in her book, Get her off the pitch! How sport took over my life:

“… [T]he more I saw of this particular all-male world of sports writing, the more I found it peculiar that it was even legally allowed to exist. Why is sports journalism considered a job that only a man can do? Why is it (generally) only men are drawn to it? Is it a job for a man? I mean, it’s not like going down a mine. It’s not like rounding up mustangs, or rescuing people from towering infernos.”

She asks an interesting question. It seems clear to me that the primary prerequisite for being a good sportswriter is being a good writer. This skill is clearly not limited to men. Some maintain that participation at the highest level of sport is important to be able to report it. More and more women are competing at the highest level, so this should not be a barrier.  Also while some ex-athletes are good writers, there are many who are not. Experience on the pitch in not essential to tell the good story, good storytelling skills are.

Outdated societal attitudes about femininity also seem to get in the way.

No. 1 – Looking pretty is more important than performing well.

When I googled “female sports writers” the top result was an article called “The 50 hottest Sports Broadcasters in the World” written by a female sports writer. I’d love to think that the definition of “hottest” included necessary intellect and the red-hot ability to do their job.  Several of the women’s entries did include information about journalism degrees and previous sports or writing experience. Many entries listed beauty contest and reality TV credentials. All had pictures, some even had clothes.

The Stylist magazine is currently running a Fair Game Campaign for Women in Sport with the aim of changing attitudes towards female participants.   As part of this series, Laura Williamson, a sportswriter for the Daily Mail, asked why women’s sport, generally, and women’s football specifically, are overlooked:

“ The underlying assertion that playing, watching or even writing about sport somehow makes you “less feminine” may be the real crux of the issue. Male and female tennis players now earn equal prize money at Wimbledon, but it’s no coincidence that the more traditionally attractive women at the championships, the likes of Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic, get greater media attention. Last year, the All England Tennis Club admitted “good looks are a factor” when deciding which players to put on the high-profile show courts.”

No. 2 – Women should be soft

There was plenty of coverage of Ellen MacArthur’s record breaking around-the-world sail, however not on the sports pages. Simon Barnes, chief sportswriter at The Times, in his interesting book, The Meaning of Sport, wondered why he was one of the few sports writers present when MacArthur hit land for the first time at the end of her voyage:

“I, apparently alone among my tribe, found all this fascinating. Why so? Was it a question of categories, then? Is round-the-world sailing not really a sport, but more like climbing a mountain or flying a balloon around the earth? Or was it because she’s female? Did MacArthur’s gender – and the consequent sentimentalising of her—make this a soft, human interest […] story? […] But perhaps the fact that it was a woman who had done this thing did not make the story acceptably soft. Perhaps it made the story unacceptably hard.”

No. 3 – It’s all about sex

Finally, Lynne Truss, in her book about her sports writing experiences, puts forward an altogether different theory. She recalls that Victorians established organised sport in the 19th century in an effort to ensure that working men would fill their newly found leisure time and use energy that they might otherwise be directed towards misdirected sinful and sexual activities. She suggests that this original aim still colours our enjoyment of sport today.

“All of this may explain […] the timeless mystery of why women’s team sports never catch on with the public […]. The trouble is that when women play professional sport […] their play is plainly not about sublimating the sex urge; it’s about celebrating physical liberation, which is a lot less interesting to watch. […] Women can play game’s brilliantly to the crack of doom, I reckon, and no one, including me, will give a toss, because they make it too obvious they’re enjoying it. Unlike men, they wouldn’t rather be doing something else, you see. What they’d rather be doing is this.

My hope is that, as with other Victorian notions like the benefits of child labour, the poor house and limiting suffrage, things have changed.   However, Truss raises an interesting question: is there something about women playing sport that so challenges our ideas about men’s and women’s roles that keeps us from wanting to talk about it? What else but something deep seeded and profound would keep sports editors from telling women’s stories?

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Rangers Chief willing to sue to ensure sex equality in football

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Hope Solo in DWTS dress
Photo from zennie62’s

Last week Glasgow Rangers Chief Executive Charles Green announced that he wanted sex equality in the game so much that he was willing to go to court to get it.

Really? No, of course not.

What Mr Green said was that to overturn barriers that prevent his Scottish based-team from playing in English leagues (i.e. attempt to make more money), he threatened to use a Dutch/Belgian cross-border professional women’s league as precedent in a sex discrimination case against UEFA.

When I heard the news, I allowed myself a few moments to muse over what sex equality might look like in the game in Scotland.  Could we have a Title IX style Scotland? Title IX is American legislation that ensures that for every male team in publicly funded schools there must be a female team as well.  Could women’s and girl’s teams have equal access to facilities? Could women players, coaches and referees have equal access to all leagues? Could women’s football/soccer get equal billing in the media?

But do we really want to adopt every aspect of the men’s game.  Sectarianism, violence, sexism and class issues are largely absent from the girl’s and women’s game.  Do we really want to blur the reasons why the women’s game is different, and often better, than the men’s?

There were a range of responses to Green’s comments from fans and the media. Scotzine stated that rather than suing UEFA:

“…Green could always go for the cheaper route and dress up messers Alexander, McCulloch, Wallace and co. in drag. False eye lashes, wigs and sports bras are far cheaper that taking on UEFA in a court of law in Europe.”

Others suggested that Rangers join the English women’s leagues. One Liverpool fan actually took the prospect of an equal future seriously but didn’t like what he saw:

“…[If we] start challenging football with sex discrimination he’ll open a whole can of worms and potentially open up football to a challenge that could break down the wall that keeps men’s football and women’s football on separate pitches and leagues.”

In Scotzine’s defence they at least published a picture of women playing football to accompany the article about Green’s comments. The BBC announced Green’s comments over a video of the Scotland team doing a warm up drill, holding hands in a circle, giggling, i.e. looking girly. They were playing at playing, not actually playing. I suppose I should be grateful that it was not announced over photos of them in eveningwear, or worse, in various stages of undress.

What was missing from all of the coverage was the huge gulf in support and attitude that does exist between the men’s and women’s games and the clear point that suggesting to use sex discrimination legislation in such a way is cynical and ignorant. What a long way we still have to go.

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Taking Part

Goal on Robben Island Photo by Gillian West

Goal on Robben Island Photo by Gillian West

I wanted a copy.

I am sure it had never happened before while looking at someone else’s holiday snaps, but right there in the middle of the 689 of my sister-in-law’s shots from South Africa I saw an image that I knew I wanted to see again and again. Don’t misunderstand, my sister-in-law is a great photographer. She captured beautiful shots of the clouds cascading over Table Mountain, a luxurious spread at a vineyard, and a close-up of a leopard lounging at his kill between meals. However, one picture touched me instantly and in a way that only powerful images can.

“It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part.” I can remember my mother saying this to me after lost matches.  I have even said it to the girls I coached. It’s well meant but as a player it annoyed me and as a coach I could see it did little to help my young team who felt crushed after a large defeat. 

Who can blame young players for this attitude? Winning is why you play, isn’t it? You don’t go out on to the pitch to lose. A hard-fought win feels so great. Many wins feel even better. At a professional level, football is a results driven game. Football managers are sacked on a regular basis because too many perceived loses.  Wins can make huge differences to a club’s financial situation and even decide their survival.

But then there was this picture.

Prisoners at Robben Island started playing football in 1963 in an inside exercise room with balled-up sheets of paper that could be dismantled quickly to avoid detection from guards. The games became popular.  In 1969, after four years of negotiating with prison officials, the prisoners were allowed to set up the Mankana Football Association.  Eventually there were three leagues of teams and the prisoners kept meticulous records of the games, results and referees. In the 1970s, prison officials erected a wall to make sure that Nelson Mandela and other prisoners in isolation could not view the games. Prisoners established an elaborate system of communication to keep those in isolation informed of match progress and results.  South African President Jacob Zuma and many other keys actors in the Anti-Apartheid movement were players and referees with the Association. In 2007, FIFA granted Mankana FA honorary membership in a ceremony on Robben Island and the film, More than just a game, telling the Association’s story was released.

“For us, playing soccer on Robben Island was just another way of survival and finding sanity in a situation intended to dehumanise us,” former inmate and Makana player Anthony Suze told the film launch ceremony.

“A game that other people take for granted helped a group of people find sanity.”

South Africa was also the setting for the great story told by the film Invictus. It showed us how sporting victory can make a difference. Nelson Mandela’s commitment to the underdog South African team’s ability to win the Rugby World Cup inspired the team to victory. The team’s campaign and utimate win helped start to heal the racial rifts in the post-Aparthied country.

The South African story told by sister-in-law’s photograph tells us even more about how “the taking part” can be just as powerful and important.  I am hoping for a framed copy for Christmas.

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Making history and the Tartan Army’s newest recruit

“Yes,” she had a firm, almost defiant tone. “I’d really like to go.”

This was not the usual “date” I went on with my mother-in-law.  We’d been to games before—occasionally, as the family has Falkirk season tickets—but always flanked by the “men folk”. My mother-in-law and my outings usually centre on shopping, chatting and coffee.  Very rarely, well actually never before, had we discussed going to a football match, just the pair of us.

However, on Saturday October 20 we drove to Hampden and joined 4000 others to watch football history being made. It was the first time EVER the women’s national team played at the national stadium.

The Scottish Football Association (SFA) deserves credit for supporting women’s football this way. After years of outright opposition, the match on such hallowed ground was an important symbol to show that times are changing and that more respect and support are being given to the women’s game.

The SFA deserves credit for not charging admission to the game. This meant teams of girls and boys could be bussed in to enjoy the game. It also meant that families could afford to come along.

I do wish however that this first-ever game was part of a grand plan to support and promote women and girl’s football in Scotland.  The SFA does have a development plan however the match really only took place at Hampden because the team’s usual home pitch, Tynecastle Stadium in Edinburgh, was not available.  The team knew that they would play their Euro 2013 qualifier on 20 October but only found out where the day of the draw.

This week the English Football Association (FA) announced a 5-year plan for women’s football in England that included priorities to grow participation and the fan base. This plan was developed largely in response to Team GB’s performance in the Olympics this summer and the record-breaking crowds that the Olympic women’s football attracted.

Scots Kim Little and Ifeoma Dieke both played a large role in the team’s success. The Olympic women’s games held at Hampden were also well attended. Isn’t time for the SFA to put some more resources into promoting the game for potential fans and players and not leave their support to chance?

I know why I went to the game at Hampden. I felt proud to be supporting Scotland on such a historic day. But I was also proud that the busloads of the kids present–both boys and girls– knew that women could play Scotland’s national game too.

However, I wondered why my mother-in-law felt she really wanted to go. She’d never been to a “ladies” match before.  She said that she wanted to go because she knew that it was important for me, but also that she wanted to do something different. She watched Team GB and really enjoyed it. She wanted to support the ladies team.  She said she loved the atmosphere of the game and was sorry that the game didn’t go on for longer. She said that she would definitely come back.

There are probably elements of my mother-in-law’s experience common with many in the Hampden crowd. Over and above a good result, this reaction is exactly what SFA and the women’s team would hope for with the game and why more games should be held at Hampden.

She also said that she would have never known about it if I hadn’t brought it to her attention. If women’s football is going to grow it’s promotion needs to be better and needs to be part of a larger, formal plan and not ad hoc like the game at Hampden.

At the end of the match, my mother-in-law asked what was next.  I told her the team would play again in Spain to decide which team would go on to the Euro Championships. I asked her if she wanted to go.  She said, “We’re part of the Tartan Army now.”

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Women’s game dates back to 1629, says “First Ladies of Football” exhibition

Many would be forgiven for thinking that women’s football/soccer is a relatively new phenomenon.  However, according to groundbreaking research conducted for the “First Ladies of Football” exhibition at the Scottish Football Museum in Glasgow, Europe’s first recorded women’s football game was played in Scotland in 1629. Europe’s first international was played in 1881–Scotland 3 – England 1–and the first black player, Carrie Boustead, was recorded in 1896.

Carrie Boustead (First recorded black woman's footballer 1896) Painting by Stuart Gibbs Copyright 2012. Image reproduction by permission from the artist.

Carrie Boustead First recorded black woman’s footballer 1896
Painting by Stuart Gibbs Image reproduction by permission from the artist.

These are just a few of the remarkable facts uncovered by artist and exhibition creator Stuart Gibbs. Much of the research is new material. So much so, the creators were adding new information up to the launch. “There were so many of them, so thick and fast,” said Gibbs of the surprises he found doing the research. “It’s unusual that you can pick up a subject and then rewrite it,” he said.

Exhibition visitors may also be surprised to find out about a Scot who scored in and won a World Cup final, and won the French and Italian club championships in the same season.

Rose Reilly, one of the Scottish football pioneers honored in the exhibition, was born in Scotland but was forced to move abroad to achieve her dream of playing football professionally. After gaining dual citizenship, she won the 1984 World Cup with Italy and scored in the final. One season she played professionally for Lecce, in Southern Italy, each Saturday, then caught a plane to France to make her Sunday match for her Reims team. Both teams won their league championship.

The exhibition, timed to coincide with the Olympic women’s games being held in Glasgow, includes a series of portraits of key moments in the development of the Scottish women’s game in the ’70s and ’80s. It features Rose’s story and those of many other heroes of the game in Scotland who often had to battle against the male-dominated football establishment and social pressures to get a chance to play the game they love.

Details

 “First Ladies of Football” Exhibition

http://www.scottishfootballmuseum.org.uk/

Until 17 July and then again from 7 August to 16 August.

Open Seven Days

Mon-Sat 10am-5pm

Sun 11am-5pm

£6/£3

Scottish Football Museum

Hampden Park

Glasgow

G42 9BA

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Let them play: FIFA’s Olympic headscarf ban denies Iran

Iran Team Picture from Washington Post

Iran Team
Picture from Washington Post

You’d think Iranian women players had enough going against them without FIFA adding to their troubles.  Playing soccer/football has been impossible for many women in Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 which brought in strict rules about the segregation of the sexes and other restrictions for women under the government’s interpretation of Islamic Law.  

Many in the country see women’s interest in soccer/football as a challenge to women’s roles under Islamic Law. Timothy Grainy reports in his recent book that an Iranian newspaper said that the growing interest among Iranian women in soccer “is not evidence of ethical correctness. There are a lot of people in the world who would like alcohol, drugs, and gambling, all of which are ugly, unpleasant and forbidden habits.”

Women and girls in Iran are also banned from watching games in stadiums.  A great movie, Offside (2006), told the story of a group of female fans who dressed as men to try to sneak into the stadium to watch Iran play an international (sadly, only trailers and a non-subtitled version is available on YouTube).

That said, Iran hasn’t been a total footy-free zone for girls and women. Futsal, a 5-a-side version of the game that can be played indoors, has allowed females in Iran an opportunity to play and develop skills while keeping on the right side of Islamic Law. In addition, Iran recently fielded a team to try to qualify for the Olympics.

What Iranian players wear has always been central to religious concerns about sport.  Iranian law dictates that women must dress modestly and cover their head in public.  In practice this means that even when playing Futsal, the indoor, female-only version of the game, players are required to cover their legs and arms and wear a headscarf.   The Iranian National Team uniform is a full-body suit that also covers the player’s head and neck.

What the players wear is also of concern to FIFA. The FIFA rules for uniforms and equipment state that “Players and officials shall not display political, religious, commercial or personal messages or slogans in any language or form on their playing or team kits.” Initially, FIFA felt that headscarves were in violation of this rule.  

However, behind the scenes negotiations with parties interested in developing the girl’s and women’s game in Muslim countries were making some head way towards FIFA seeing the headscarves as a cultural and not purely a religious message. It was understood that if the design of the headscarves met certain safety standards they would be allowed.

It was with newly designed, safety-compliant headscarves that the Iranian team took to the field last week for their Olympic qualifier with Jordan.  

Sadly only minutes before the game, the Iranian team was informed that their suits did not conform to FIFA safety regulations. They were not allowed to play the game and, therefore, will not qualify for the Olympics. Some of the players were in tears, according to Iran’s Press TV , and I don’t blame them.

The Washington Post reported:

“This ruling means that women’s soccer in Iran is over,” said Shahrzad Mozafar, the team’s former head coach. She said that now that FIFA is no longer allowing Iranian women to wear scarves, the Iranian government will no longer send them abroad for competitions. “Headscarves are simply what we wear in Iran,” she said.

…Mozafar said the ruling killed professional athletic ambitions of Iranian women.

“When a serious women athlete can’t participate internationally, which ambitions are left for her?” she said.

FIFA’s claims that the current objections are due to safety issues are hard to take at face value. Research and design development has made the headscarves detachable with velcro and magnets. A medical expert involved in the FIFA process recently made this ruling:

…there is no medical basis to prevent women from playing football with sports headscarves that are designed for quick release in the event of inadvertent contact.

So called, health and safety concerns have been spuriously used as arguments against letting women play soccer/football and a range of other sports for a long time all over the world. 

If the safety concerns don’t hold water, what is behind FIFA’s current ban on the Iranian team?  Are they still concerned about headscarves being a purely religious statement?

If so, they should ask themselves whether or not the headscarf could be a statement about something else.  Over and above being the law in Iran, could a headscarf be a statement about identity? Could it be a statement about cultural norms?

Could it be a proud statement about what the women have had to go through to play the game at all? I grew up in what many readers might consider a comparative paradise of Title IX and Midwest America and still had to endure comments and other pressures that suggested the sport was not for females. Only last year, I heard similar arguments used to dissuade little girls in Scotland from playing the sport.  I can only imagine what it might be like for girls and women in Iran.

FIFA should compare what it thinks it achieves by not letting these women play with the message of intolerance they are sending around the world.  They also need to think about how this message might lead to lost playing opportunities and possibly much worse for Muslim girls and women everywhere. 

Come of FIFA, let them play!

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