“I’m A Convert”
Emily Spiller had no interest whatsoever in women’s football, but the Women’s Euros have opened her eyes to the beautiful game and she explains how she became hooked and why her support won’t stop
By Emily Spiller
Photography by Glorious & BOXPARK
I used to be the girl who begrudgingly followed the guy I fancied to watch football in the local pub. I’d nobly offer to take the awkward seat not facing the screen and mutter, “Yeah, he was definitely offside,” whilst counting the minutes until the final whistle. This doesn’t apply to all sports: I scream at Wimbledon every year, I have inherited my dad’s love for the Six Nations Rugby, but the ‘beautiful game’ has always seemed, well, ugly to me.
I’ve never played football, it wasn’t an option at my all-girls’ school, but my brother seemed to spend more time playing football than in lessons. Weirdly, we were allowed to play dodgeball, I broke my finger playing netball and almost monthly got through gumshields when playing hockey, so why wasn’t football encouraged? My exposure was limited to watching the Euro 1996 final, standing on a chair at a Spanish holiday resort and a pitiful collection of the previous season’s shiny Panini stickers that my brother didn’t deem swappable.
I can’t even remember having any female sporting role models, other than admiring the sheer talent and professionalism exuded from the Williams sisters as they won title after title. Was this my lack of interest, or can I neatly place blame on a lack of publicity? At that time social media was non-existent, so maybe campaigns like this year’s International Women’s Day, #BreakTheBias, would’ve influenced my decision to give up hockey aged 14.
But perhaps I’m biased against football. In my 20s I had to battle my way through fans congregating near the Emirates Stadium when I was desperate to get home, or simply wanting to go for a quiet drink and this initiated a pledge to avoid live football screenings wherever possible. Cut to 2022 and I’ve well and truly caught the fever (Euro, not Covid), and have watched several Women’s Euro matches.
“I was disappointed by the fact that I couldn’t name one female football player.”
So, what changed? A couple of weeks ago, as I was serenaded by Barry from EastEnders at BOXPARK Wembley, waiting for the England v Austria game, I had an epiphany. Okay, that’s a real exaggeration, but it was the day I became more conscious of gender equality in football. I remember half-watching the first men’s Euro 2020 match and my friend said, “‘Do you think the stadium would be full if women were playing?” My first thought was,“Is women’s football even televised?” I was then disappointed by the fact that I was unable to name one female football player, but it appears that I was not alone in my thoughts.
In 2021 the RunRepeat survey confirmed that if women’s football was easily accessible on TV, then viewership could increase by 300%-350%. More viewers would undoubtedly mean better pay for the players. Women’s football needs to be taken seriously by media broadcasters to give it the recognition it deserves. The government announced this year that they want to add the Women’s World Cup and the Women’s Euros to the list of protected sports events when it comes to TV coverage. The list has shockingly excluded any women’s events until now. This proposed change is essential to keep women’s sports visible to as big an audience as possible and to support gender equality.
Apparently, in 4 out of 5 EU countries women’s sport makes up less than 10% of all sports coverage. Interestingly, UK male football fans form 61.9% of the viewership for women’s football leagues in the country, which makes me wonder if it is actually women who need to be encouraged to support the sisterhood.
Despite showing live screenings since the World Cup in 2018, this is the first year that BOXPARK has launched a campaign for a women’s football tournament. Tashia Cameron, BOXPARK PR & Marketing Manager tells me that they wanted to go as big for the Women’s Euros as they did for the men’s last year and that taking the risk is already paying off. “The Euros are a critical part of our #WOMXNWHOPLAY campaign which seeks to champion women in sport and inspire the next generation of female athletes and sports enthusiasts,” says Tashia.
Boasting some of the best places to eat in London, it wasn’t difficult for me to entice my friends to join me at the final group match, England v Northern Ireland at BOXPARK Shoreditch. As we were a big group, I booked in advance, and I’m glad I did, as the venue was sold out and full of eager football fans. BOXPARK made an evening of each game, with a DJ and pre and half-time analysis from former England football players such as Rachel Yankey OBE (the most capped England player) and Faye White MBE (the longest serving England women’s team captain.) It was a brilliant evening, the vibe was relaxed, inclusive and friendly, and I’ve now seen football in a completely different light. I definitely noticed fewer egos and theatrics on the pitch from the female players. They play purely for the love of the game. As the crowd became more lively, there was no hostility despite the competing strips, but a common goal – support the players, support women, as Tashia says: “We’ve had a surprisingly diverse crowd with both men and women coming together to celebrate, it’s been a beautiful thing to witness.”
It’s not just bars that have shown the Women’s Euro matches. All nine host cities have staged a Fan Festival with free entertainment throughout July. With concerts, exhibitions, parties, screenings, workshops and booze, it sounds like a recipe for disaster when combined with football, but there’s been no front-page news of revellers trashing the streets afterwards. From diehard football fans, or those just enjoying their first tournament, everyone seems to be fuelling the momentum of this sporting event.
In London, the Trafalgar Square Fan Party included a live screening of the England v Sweden semi-final and a celebratory viewing for the 20th anniversary of the box-office hit Bend It Like Beckham. Alongside the screening, free football coaching was on offer, freestyle players showed off their skills and a panel of female legends spoke of their experiences. I hope those who didn’t see this trailblazing flick the first time around took something away from it, other than Jonathan Rhys Meyer’s incredible cheekbones. The film not only tackles racism, sexism and sexuality, but it really puts women’s football on the map, and is as relevant today as it was when it was released twenty years ago.
Despite the success of campaigns such as #thisgirlcan, reports suggest 68% of young girls are prevented from taking part in sports because of a fear of being judged. With positive fictional or real-life role models, this anxiety would decrease. The only thing I can hope is that young girls are ripping down their Harry Styles posters (or clearing a space amongst them) to stick up a snap of their favourite female football player. “Millie Bright is my favourite player,” says Nadia, an excited fan at BOXPARK Wembley. She adds, “She’s really underrated, she’s the heart of this team and I love her.”
After all, these world-class athletes are, in my opinion, the ultimate role models – they possess determination, athleticism and incredible teamwork. So, whether young fans grow up to be athletes or set off in a different direction, one thing is certain – this group of female footballers can teach women of any age the skills needed to succeed in society. If women have the opportunity to see athletic female role models across all media, then undeniably this will encourage them to watch and participate in women’s sports.
For the quarter final, England v Spain, I headed back to BOXPARK Shoreditch and this venue along with Croydon and Wembley almost reached full capacity with just under a 1,000 people in attendance. I chatted to a few spectators including Nicola who had never watched women’s football before “I think it’s great to see these equal communities. Coming here tonight to see everyone enjoying it as much as they would a men’s game is great,” she said. Once again it was clear that the underlying thread was to support women and drive equality within the sport and this was acknowledged by amateur footballer Emily Auld. “There is much more emphasis now on women footballers being actual athletes, and women’s football is respected way more than it ever has been.”
“So many more women are getting into it.”
Emily also made a crucial nod to the growing media frenzy around the players. Despite the inevitable critical minority, commentary has been largely positive for the Lionesses. “I love the sport, meeting new people and playing as a team,” she says. Emily’s comment resonated with me because as much as I enjoy HiiT classes and Pilates, I haven’t participated in a team sport as an adult. A sense of belonging and community with people who share your passion must feel extremely empowering. Astonishingly, nearly half of British women have not done any vigorous exercise in the past year, largely because they lacked motivation.
It goes without saying that I jumped at the chance to return to BOXPARK Shoreditch with the same group of equally excited friends to watch England’s semi-final match against Sweden. I have come to realise that having a group of people that you look forward to seeing is a great incentive, whether it is to play or watch a match together. Maybe that’s the secret sauce – grab your girlfriends and get out the door, not just for this tournament, but other women’s sporting events.
Whatever the result on Sunday, the future of women’s football is exceptionally bright and like the players, fierce and deserving of the widespread media coverage the Lionesses have received since their stunning 4-0 win over Sweden. Official viewing figures show that this match became one of the most watched events on television this year with 9.3m people tuning into BBC and an additional 2m streaming the match through BBC apps.
Of course, where else would I watch the final? Over the last couple of weeks, BOXPARK has become my second home, it’s an ultra safe place to celebrate or commiserate, (plus I’ve developed an obsession with Rudie’s Jerk Shack chicken). The energy in BOXPARK is what the game needs, as sports broadcaster Pippa Monique highlights: “I’ve been watching women’s football for years, but this is the best it has been, I’m loving the crowd, loving the atmosphere, loving the coverage, and loving the fact that more people are getting on board.”
I couldn’t agree more with Pippa. I’m a women’s football convert, but whether you are a newbie supporter like myself, or a die-hard fan, this tournament has taken women’s football to a whole new level. From what I have witnessed, it’s clear that there is newfound respect from men and women alike for these superb athletes and role models, not just at social venues like BOXPARK, but across the whole nation. Let’s hope the gap in gender equality in football continues to narrow – it might take a while, but judging by the success of the Women’s Euros, hopefully it will be sooner than we might think.