I had football. A lot of homeless girls have nothing. – Fara Williams
This week, my daughter ran to show off her new library book from school. I smiled as soon as I saw it; Peppa Plays Football.
“Wow! I can’t wait to read it with you.”
I have a funny photo of her when she was just starting to walk. She had stolen a football from a group of children and was standing next to it, triumphant and smiling, with a sandwich in one hand. An old friend commented:
Chip of the old block. All she needs now is the oranges and Extra Value baked beans and she’s set to go.
I remember wandering the grounds of my American elementary school when I was 8 years old, a newcomer. I gravitated towards the soccer field and a girl in goal waved me over. She was the only other one. I stepped over the white line and was hooked. And I soon made a best friend.
What was it about the game that had me so obsessed? I’ll never know. If I wasn’t playing, I was dreaming about it, imagining myself a star player. I soon joined a team, The McLean Cheetahs. My coach wore aviators, had a growly voice and called me by my last name. He told us with a finger waving in the air that trials were coming up for select teams. Interestingly, when I said goodbye to him for the last time, he had burst into tears, crushing me in a bear hug. Soccer for girls and women was a serious business in the USA. But it is this attitude to female players that has made the women’s US team more or less the best in the world.
In 1990, I went to England on home leave. England was hosting the World Cup. Local children chided me for not knowing who Lineker and Gascoigne were. I didn’t but then they didn’t know who Mia Hamm was. I did buy a sticker book though and tried very hard to learn all the male players. I enjoyed the games on television but there were many things utterly alien to me about football culture there. The hooligans, topless women holding footballs in newspapers and the allure of footballer’s wives.
In 1991, my family moved to Turkey. On the military base, where I attended school, there was no girl’s football and I started cross country running instead.
“Aren’t you worried she’ll ruin her body?” A Turkish colleague asked my father.
But I could not forget my passion. During those years, I thought about the team I played on as a girl. It was like someone calling your name and you turn but find nothing. The next move to Switzerland/France made me determined to play again. I started a successful team at my international school and we competed nationally with other ones. When news of the Rwandan genocide reeled in for seemingly months on end, my parents even travelling there for long stretches of time, my mother and I came up with an idea. We would raise money for football equipment through a football marathon at school. The community responded and we raised more than 5000 Swiss Francs. The notes lay in my wardrobe at home. My mother sent the money to various NGOs.
The next time I played was for Goldsmiths, University of London. The women were from all over the world; The UK, The USA, Finland, The Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Cyprus…It was definitely my kind of scene. We tied with the School of Oriental and African Studies in the final but Goldsmiths did honour us with Team of the Year. I am still in touch with most of the players from that time. Football created ties that bind as well as breaking the ice. Our coach recommended me for a referee course in Peckham. I accepted his suggestion, the only woman doing the course which was at times unnerving. I was elated when I passed. In the coming years, wherever I moved, I always checked out where I could play. I tried very hard to create a team in the United Arab Emirates with expatriate women but also welcome to local ones. It was at first accepted but soon my attempts were stalled and eventually stonewalled by bureaucratic forces. In many cultures around the world, women playing football is just not done. In that sense, there are no level playing fields.
But football was level to me because if I did not understand the rules off the pitch, I did once on it. That was continuity to me when my worlds were ever changing. If the relocating stopped me from going where I could have as a player, then football did build resilience deep inside.
“Ellie, if you’re stuck, put the ball out of play,” my coach in Virginia had once told me. It was the first time I’d defied him, shaking my head. There had to be a way. The assistant coach had laughed at my response.
“Like a dog with a bone,”
“It’s not cheating,” my coach continued. “It’s a chance to create play another way.”
As an adult, I finally understood what he had meant. I hear his words when there is conflict in my life. There is so much that football has given me.