To coincide with March 2023’s International Women’s Day, we take a look at what the Lionesses’ winning performance has done for women’s football, and we check in with the XL@Football team to find out why it’s not just about the results.
Since the Lionesses stormed to victory in summer 2022, it has raised the profile of women’s football, shone a light on gender equality and inspired girls across the world to believe that they too can play football, not just at grassroots level, but as a serious professional sport.
However, 9 months on, how much progress has there actually been?
It’s clear that, for the young players at XL@Football, the Kent female football academy we support, the Lionesses had certainly inspired them and that women’s football is seeing more publicity and prevalence.
As further proof that the sport is being taken more seriously, just last month, the Football Association announced new “talent pathway” plans ensuring that young female players have access to high quality coaching, and that the game is more inclusive and accessible1.
This involves setting up 70 “talent centres” across the country for those aged 8-18, as well as new football academies. This should mean that 95% of players will be able to access a centre within an hour of where they live.
These changes follow an extensive 3-year review into the women’s game by the FA, in order to provide new opportunities and a better spread across the country.
While this is welcome news, there is still concern that there is inequality in the sport, in terms of it still being seen as a “middle class” sport, and the lack of diversity. There were three mixed-heritage players in the Euro 22 squad, but none were part of the original starting line-up.
Baroness Sue Campbell, Director of Women’s Football at the FA, recently expressed2 that while the movements by the FA are a welcome initiative, and we’re experiencing a “sea change” at grassroots level, there is still a lot to be done. In particular when it comes to enabling access for those in deprived areas or from minority backgrounds.
She said: “There is much to learn and enjoy through a well delivered, high-quality physical education and sport programme for every child. Providing an active start to life is not a ‘nice’ to do – it is a ‘need’ to do.”
Another area of inequality is when it comes to the salaries paid to women footballers.
While some at the top of their game can earn relatively high amounts – England player Lucy Bronze reportedly earns up to £200,000 a year3, this is the equivalent to what a male premiership footballer could earn in just one week. Obviously sponsorship opportunities can boost this amount but the difference is stark.
Chelsea manager Emma Hayes believes that academies need to be brought into the inner cities more, rather than existing mainly in the more affluent areas. She believes as well that travelling to academies is more prohibitive for girls, both due to the safety aspects of travelling by themselves and due to the geographical location4.
She said: “Why aren’t we hosting our academies right in the heart of London? Who in their ivory tower has been dreaming up this prawn sandwich girl’s football club?”
However, things could be looking up. According to latest figures for the 2021/2022 season, Arsenal Women Football Club has increased pay by almost 30%5. The club’s total £4.3m wage bill had almost doubled from £2.6m the year before, even if still pales in comparison to the men’s’ team’s £220m. But this does mean the average player is now earning around £98,000.
There’s nothing more inspirational to young female players than seeing premiership games in action, and they were given just this opportunity when the Tottenham Hotspur women’s team gifted the XL players with tickets to watch their 12 February match against Manchester United. Not only that but they gave extra tickets to Kent Reliance employees, and some of the children and staff from the Demelza Children’s Hospice we also support.
The match was played at a brand new state of the art stadium, and was a great experience for all involved – a testament to the players of where hard work and determination could lead to.
While teams such as XL provide a great opportunity for young female players looking for a career in the sport, it’s not just about the football. The players often describe the team as a family, and a support network, helping each other out through the good and bad.
Getting in with a wrong crowd and in a little bit of trouble with the authorities isn’t an uncommon occurrence for many young teenagers, but it can so easily be a slippery slope. For one particular promising young player, being part of a team such as XL has prevented them from going further down a wrong path. After getting in a spot of bother with the local police, a plan was put in place with the help of the team that involved a paid-for gym membership, an older responsible player appointed as a mentor, and some tailored training sessions.
At a recent court hearing to check on progress, the British Transport Police said that everyone “working together for the same goal has been effective”, that having seen her first hand play football she’s “a real future talent” and they’re hopeful that they’ll see her involved at some sort of professional level in the game in the future.
Things are back on track for the young player. But it so easily could have been a different story.
Stuart Grist, XL Founder and Technical Director, has always insisted that he doesn’t care as much about the results as he does about the girls and how football can help them.
He said: “I am very proud of this club and the focus we have on developing female talent across Kent. The development of the young players we coach is paramount to all that we do. It is more important than the results as we are looking to create well rounded players of the future, not looking at a short term bit of glory from winning a game. It’s also far more than them developing their football. We look to develop their skills off the pitch, helping them understand their social responsibilities, how to overcome adversity, control emotions and have strong discipline.
“I take great pride in the fact that we have diverted girls who were going down the wrong path and that we have made meaningful impacts on so many young lives. It’s so much more than football. We haven’t got it all right yet but we are making good headway despite the many barriers that still remain. Female football is on the up and we will continue to drive change and where needed be disruptive to make change happen.”
Let’s hope that a new generation of players can reap the benefits of the path the Lionesses have paved for them.