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Opinion: England’s football future depends on everyone having an equal chance to play!

Nobody - literally nobody - is saying that Serena Wiegman should pick players based on the colour of their skin, but Demi Stoke’s experiences point to the importance of diversity in football and the structural issues faced by players.

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Triggered. There’s no other way of describing the howls of some of the nastier parts of the online commentariat this week, desperate to thrust this summer’s European Championships into their toxic culture wars.

Always on the lookout for a wedge to divide people, they have targeted what should be uncontroversial - that for our country to succeed all girls need the opportunity to participate and see themselves reflected in the national team - as evidence of some sort of anti-white agenda.

They are trying to hammer the BBC for suggesting that there are institutional and structural barriers faced by black and minority ethnic women in sport that need addressing, and they will twist words and meanings to achieve this goal.

England Euro 2022 Training Camp Photo by Lynne Cameron - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

They want to tell us that in examining the obvious lack of racial diversity in the Lionesses side, the national broadcaster is actively lobbying for black players to be promoted into the starting eleven ahead of white players. As one such voice screamed on Twitter:

WTF exactly does this presenter want the English coach to do if the 15 most talented/tactically appropriate players for the match happen to be white?

Jeopardise the score in the name of “diversity”?

The BBC are a joke.

Let’s be absolutely clear, nobody - literally nobody - is saying that Serena Wiegman should pick players based on the colour of their skin. The success of England on the pitch is something we all want to see continue - the game’s ability to unite people around a common cause has never been more evident than it is this summer, and a Lionesses win in the national stadium on 31st July would be a wonderful moment of celebration for the whole country.

The excerpt from Alex Scott’s “Future of Women’s Football” documentary that aired during half time in the England versus Norway game last Monday discussed structural barriers, the intersection of race, class and gender-based discrimination.

Kelly Simmons from the FA acknowledged that such barriers - particularly access to training facilities - are the reason for the fact that all of the players who had taken the field for England during the European Championships up to that point were white.

The online outrage was fueled by the cynical clipping out of the succinct and unabashed introduction to the feature provided by presenter Eilidh Barbour, and her colleague Scott was quick to put these voices in their place.

One of our ex-Sunderland Lionesses, Demi Stokes, has told her personal story in detail - cycling across from South Shields to get to training, relying on coaches and other players' parents for lifts to get her to sessions and tournaments, how football was often her escape from a difficult home life. And for her, visibility is absolutely key to progress in this area.

When she sat down with reporter Fadumo Olow earlier this year, she explained that having Rachel Yankey in the Engand team showed the teenage Stokes that it was possible for her to reach the top:

Growing up its important that you have role models, it’s important to see people who are similar to you so you can be ambitious, and you can, I guess, have hope, and say “well they look like me, and I can do that, and they’re doing that and that means I can”

...Rachel Yankey was literally who I idolised, for my 15th birthday I got an England top and my Nan got “Yankey 11” on.

And I remember seeing Rachel Yankey play and I thought “wow, she’s good”, and she was left wing and I played left wing, and I think that was probably the first time I’d seen someone who looked very similar to me, played the same position... and that was the first time I was like “I wanna be like that, I wanna do what she does”, and ever since then I’ve always looked up to her.

Soccer - Women’s International Friendly - England v Italy - National Hockey Stadium
Rachel Yankey
Photo by Tony Marshall - PA Images via Getty Images

Stokes went on to play in an FA Cup final and win the Women’s Premier League for Sunderland as a teenager, before reaching the heights of the game in US college soccer and in the WSL with Manchester City.

Now 30 and a new mother, she is aware that she’s now in a similar position as one of the three black players in the 23-player England squad at Euro 2022:

I am in a position to be able to do that, I can only pay that forward to someone else. I feel like I hold a responsiblity because there will be girls that think that actually “I look like Demi and I can do the same” and I think that is important.

Stokes thinks the authorities can learn from Nikita Parris and other black players and the work they do in the community to inspire young people in urban and deprived communities to participate in football.

That’s where you’ll find talent, raw talent. Unfortunately, because someone can’t afford to get a lift to training, it’s where they miss out. If I didn’t have the help of Lucy Bronze’s mam and Lucy Stanisforth’s mam and all the good mams and dads who would take me to football, I probably would have missed out.

Her lived experience tallies with the academic research into the barriers that black working class women face in accessing sports. A 2022 study from the USA, Triple jeopardy: The impact of race, class, and gender on girls and women in sport and physical activity, by Mallory E. Mann and Colleen M. Hacker from Department of Kinesiology, Pacific Lutheran University found that:

Girls and women’s experiences are shaped by factors related to their cultural, ethnic, gender, political, national, racial, religious, socioeconomic, and sexual identities. In this article, we highlighted numbers and trends to highlight the fact that many girls and women experience “triple jeopardy” based on their gender, class, and race. This trio of identities is associated with barriers that interlock to prevent full participation and access to sport and physical activity opportunities.

And SAFC Women have consistently been at the forefront of the club’s efforts to tackle discrimination by visibly participating in campaigns that seek to bring people together through football, most recently by wearing Amnesty International’s “Football Welcomes Refugees” campaign this April.

It is also the case that youth football is, these days, often an expensive business and those costs will only become more prohibitive. After a decade of deep cuts to Britains social safety net, child poverty in our region is at record levels - and wages, particularly those for women employed in service industries and the public services where many lower paid black and minority ethnic women work - have not kept up with inflation for a very, very long time.

The squeeze on family budgets makes buying football kit for a growing child even more difficult (new boots a couple of times a year, for example, will set parents back over £100), add into that the fact that wealthier parents can afford one-to-one coaching and ferrying children to training several times a week, and the reasons behind the gaps in participation and achievement become clearer. The study by Mann and Hacker states that:

Part of the increased time participating in sport afforded to White female athletes can largely be attributed to differences in family income. As noted previously, White girls and women are more likely to participate in privatized athletic teams and clubs which are traditionally more expensive.

We are fortunate at Sunderland to have the Foundation of Light and the Beacon of Light, which are dedicated to addressing these issues and target girls and children from deprived parts of our community with outreach programmes and free training sessions.

The location of the club at the centre of our city and the heart of the community means that we have a lot of the infrastructure in place to mitigate against some of these socioeconomic factors. Their programmes address directly many of the issues highlighted, and implement many of the recommendations, in the Mann and Hacker study.

But charitable action will never be enough to address the bigger, structural, cultural, and historical drivers of inequality in our society and our game. That will require more wide-ranging transformations in the football industry, the wider economy, and in social attitudes.

Yet for everyone to have an equal chance of success in our game no matter what their backgrounds, we need to continue to find new ways to mitigate these issues - we can’t wait around hoping for the right government to be in power.

Keir Starmer Launches Security Prosperity Respect Tour In Sunderland Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

While the vast majority of players in women’s football do not earn enough from the game to make a living, black and minority ethnic women will be at a particular disadvantage. Working part time in addition to playing and training, perhaps also combining this with caring responsibilities for relatives or younger siblings, is only sustainable for so long.

Presently, an unknown number of promising footballers will leave the profession due to these barriers, each one a loss to the pool of talent that produces a winning club development pathway and national team.

Professional contracts are available to perhaps 400-500 female players at around 20 clubs in England, and even the wages on offer are on average below the UK’s national average.

Those women with University educations and professional backgrounds are able to combine playing with working, often with great success, as are those who are fortunate enough to have families or partners can support them with living costs. This is, essentially, the basis upon which Sunderland Women’s part-time model currently operates.

It’s inclusive in some respects, allowing the players to have the best of both worlds, but the official statistics show that mixed white and black Caribbean women have the lowest median average hourly wage in the UK of any group, so for those players from similar backgrounds to Stokes, attempting to rise up through the ranks, life is particularly difficult.

It’s important to highlight the success of the FA and the England set up in inclusion. Interpersonal racism and discrimination is, thankfully, rare. The Lionesses have had many black players and a black manager - the reasons for the current lack of diversity in England’s current squad is, as described in Alex Scott’s documentary, structural and systemic.

It cannot be divorced from the overall degradation of the social sphere in the UK that has hit already every disadvantaged groups and area hardest. But it’s also important to acknowledge that racism in the dressing room and on the pitch has been an issue in the past and is still likely to be present today.

Eni Aluko’s experience of racism, which prematurely ended her England career, was less than a decade ago. Stokes described how she received racial abuse in her very first competitive football match as an eight-year-old girl, and that thankfully it was dealt with by the referee. She also said that the experience made her stronger and more determined.

England Women Camp - FIFA Women’s World Cup Qualifiers Photo by Lynne Cameron - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Racism is an issue that white girls and boys simply do not face, an additional challenge on top of the economic barriers all working class kids have and the gender-based discrimination that white girls also experience when starting out in the game. The psychological scars can be deep and enduring.

Tackling racism - structural and interpersonal - is important for the individuals directly affected, but the impact is also felt by the whole of English football. If it means that there are players who could have great careers at our club and for our country - fans are are also missing out. Addressing the problem should be a unifying mission for everyone who loves the game.

Stokes is yet to feature at Euro 2022, having picked up a niggle which kept her out of the Northern Ireland game on Friday night. Her reflections on this topic, and the voices of other current and former black, female, working class players, are what really matters.

...Winning trophies is everything you dream of as a footballer, but there’s a bigger pictures, and I think we lose sight of that sometimes ...and that’s the community, the community who you represent, the opportunities you’re creating for other people - that’s bigger, bigger than football.

The bigger picture is creating opportunites for people with struggles, with less opportunity... Kids are good at visualising, good at imagination, and if all kids are seeing is the same types of people, they’re all going to become one type, and that’s not what we want, we want everyone to be themselves, and embrace who they are, and where they’ve come from.

This summer, we have seen the English footballing public united behind the Lionesses like never before. We want every kid up and down this land to know that, if they have the talent, they can play at Wembley in front of 90,000 people.

It’s about providing opportunities to all, it would be foolish to let these shrill voices of division undermine that now.

England v Austria: Group A - UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 Photo by Lynne Cameron - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

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