It’s a warm summer day in Yorkshire, England. I’m running through the house, kitted out in a brand-new England shirt, the name Rooney embossed across my back in big gold letters. “Is he playing?” “Are they winning?” “What’s the score?”, I shout at my dad as I enter the room.
It’s 2006 and a bad day for England’s World Cup bid, but the news won’t dampen my spirit, I’m nine years old and sure that at some point football will ‘come home’ …eventually.
For now, my passion for the game would pull us through.
Like many girls in football, I started playing in the back garden with my dad, using the side wall of our house as a makeshift goal, much to my mum’s annoyance. Eventually I began playing for a local girls’ team in a neighbouring town. Sunday practice was the highlight of my week. The team gave me a sense of community and belonging, especially having recently moved to the UK. I loved playing with girls who shared the same interests as me, and who loved the sport as much as I did. And, while I often tried to kick the ball around at school with some of the boys, they rarely gave me – or other girls – permission to join.
Searching for role models
Up until this point my only experience of women’s football had come from the film Bend It Like Beckham. While the comedy-drama changed my perspective of what women’s football could look like, I still lacked real-world role models – not because they didn’t exist, but because I had never seen them. In this, I was no exception, even the film’s protagonist, Jess, admires David Beckham as her footballing hero, no female professional insight.
At the time, it didn’t seem to matter to me what my heroes looked like. I loved football, I loved my team, and I loved how it made me feel. The game was part of my identity and I was proud to be a footballer.
Fast forward four years and the whole country was gearing up for the World Cup again. I was excited too, but this year I no longer consider myself a footballer. Instead, I was just a spectator watching from the sidelines. Now thirteen years old, I had started a new school and the realities of what it meant to be a teenage girl had started to wear on me.
A girl (almost) all grown up
Self-conscious, lacking body confidence, and missing role models to look up to, like many girls in football, I dropped out.
Now, not only was I comparing my sporting abilities to the girls around me, I was comparing my body too. All this made me demotivated and afraid to pursue football, I no longer felt good enough.
As puberty hit there were times when I felt my body was no longer mine. So different to what it was before, I found it hard to understand how the ‘new me’ fit into sports and the male dominated spaces I had previously been a part of.
And I’m not the only one to have felt these feelings. A lack of self-confidence, body image issues, and dealing with periods are just some of the reasons girls drop out of sport at a faster rate than boys.
According to one 2022 British survey, more than one million girls who considered themselves to be talented in sports before high school, lose interest in physical activity as teenagers. For 68%, fear of being judged stopped them from taking part in sport and 61% said it was due to a lack of confidence. Overall, seven out of ten girls avoided taking sport when they were on their period, due to self-consciousness, fatigue, or pain.
Tactics to keep girls in football
Looking back, the lack of visibility of the women’s game fueled my sense of not belonging. Without women to look up to and the belief that as a girl, I too, could take up space on the pitch, I lost my love for the sport. But things are changing.
Initiatives such as adidas’ Breaking Barriers Project partner up with nonprofit organizations to foster positive role models, and shape mindsets to keep girls engaged in sport. But there is still more to do, including spotlighting women’s sport with the same enthusiasm as men’s, and allowing teenage girls to see women getting fully involved in sport at the highest level.
With the Women’s EURO 2022, attention on the game and its stars is hotter than ever, with brands like adidas centering female football stars across their channels. From Wendie Renard to Millie Bright, finally seeing these role models take centre stage is a step in the right direction for providing greater visibility into the sport, especially for young girls.
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As the year’s rolled by I did find my way back to the beautiful game when I started playing for a college team at university. It had been so long since I’d been part of a team and the energy was infectious. Made up of women from different backgrounds and nationalities, many of whom had never given up playing football, I began to see that the game I loved so much when I was younger, could still be part of my life all these years later. And this time it was even sweeter.
The casual atmosphere, peer coaching, and welcoming mindset of the whole team made me feel at ease. All levels were welcome to join, grow, and develop in a safe environment.
That focus on fun was what stood out to me the most, since amateur team sport opportunities for women are often limited, finding a team that is not at a semi-professional level, can be tricky. But for the women out there who do want to kick a ball around, have some fun, and meet new people, team sport is still an option for you, you just have to be proactive!
The adidas women’s football club
Nobody embraces this proactive, fun-first mindset more than Maggie Devlin, who recently started the first women’s football club here at our adidas World of Sports campus in Germany. The club came just at the right time in my footballing journey, as like many adult women I was desperate to get back to playing the sport I had enjoyed as a child.
Luckily, Maggie is determined to make football a safe and enjoyable space for women, catering for women who don’t feel comfortable playing for a club that focuses exclusively on elite players:
“Growing up in the U.S. I was fortunate enough to play various sports. Playing football was a massive part of my upbringing, and I as a girl in football I always felt like I had just as much access to the sport as the boys. However, as I’ve grown older, I found playing football more challenging to access on a recreational level.
Since starting my career in the Football business unit at adidas, I recognized that while many of my male colleagues were playing weekly, only a few female colleagues were too. I thought about all the women on campus who would love an opportunity to play, but just didn’t know where to start.
Having created a woman’s team on campus, we now have roughly 80 women interested in getting involved and about 30 actively participating in just a few short months. I am absolutely thrilled with the outcome. I love meeting women from all parts of the brand (and world) to play a sport we all love!”
Finding shared experiences
The atmosphere in the team is filled with positivity, kinship, and shared experiences as we all recall the same barriers that kept us off the pitch when we were younger. Take Tori Giannoulis for example, now a skilled player she was late to the game when she took up football in her twenties due to the lack of opportunities to play when she was younger:
“I never had the opportunity to play when I was younger. Football wasn’t offered to girls. It was never something I thought was for me and I never saw any other girls playing the sport. It was only in my twenties when I found a women’s teams in London that I started playing and I absolutely fell in love. I set up my own team and played 11-a-side and 6-a-side. I’ve not looked back since!”
The path to the goal
Both Maggie and Tori’s stories highlight the need for a proactive approach to women’s sports. If you want to start your own game, well, you’ve got to get out there and make it happen. And when you do, make sure you bring the women and girls around you along on the ride!
Our teammate Sofia Scur is one example of how providing a space for girls in can keep them in sports and help build their confidence both on and off the pitch. Sofia began playing in her local girls’ team in 2011 and has continued to pursue her footballing passion ever since:
“Through football, I have found a passion for sport and I have learned that through hard, dedicated, and continuous training and practice anything is possible.
I have realized to focus on my goals and be patient as success and achievement take time but with enough effort, you eventually get there in the long run. The path is important not how fast you get there at the end”.
And Sofia is right, it is the journey, not the final destination, that shapes us and who we become. For me, the winding path I’ve taken has been filled with many obstacles, but it is this path that makes me feel even more passionate about the game I first came to love as a child.
So, this is a thank you to the women at all levels of the game, the pros who act as role models, the women at adidas, and the team that brought me back into the sport at 18, you’re the reason I play today, and you will be the reason young girls continue to play.