Some of my fondest memories of women’s football came from the 2015 Women’s World Cup. The ridiculously late nights, the belief with each game and falling in love with women’s football and international football properly for the very first time. The heartbreak of that own goal which cut the dream short is still sore to this day, but watching that team make history and win the bronze medal truly captured my heart.
But it’s growing extremely difficult to keep your heart in something that goes against what you stand for – and that’s a growing predicament I find myself in with the England Lionesses.
Their 2017 European Championship efforts were tainted by accusations against then-manager Mark Sampson, leading to his eventual dismissal in September of that year. Sampson had allegedly made racist remarks to Eni Aluko and Drew Spence – which he has since admitted to and apologised for. Perhaps the most concerning thing on behalf of the board was that it took for allegations of him acting inappropriately during his time at Bristol for them to actually take action.
Since when was blatant racism not a good enough reason to take a course of action? Just a year earlier Sam Allardyce was effectively relieved of his position as England manager due to some ill-judged remarks recorded in an undercover operation. One scenario was dealt with efficiently, the other left to fester and damage the reputation of the women’s national team, undeservedly so.
With Sampson gone, it should have been absolutely pivotal for The FA to bring the right person in for the job – and they turned to Phil Neville. Other than the slight blip at the start of his career with some misogynistic tweets dug up, he seemed like the ideal candidate to rectify the damage done by the Sampson fiasco.
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The most prominent moment of his England career came when his side one this years She Believes Cup, warding off Brazil, Japan and the USA to become champions. This proved good stead for England coming into the 2019 Women’s World Cup, and all seemed to be going seemingly well until the Round of 16 ties against Cameroon.
The conduct of the Cameroon players during the 90 minutes has been thrown into question following spitting (albeit did not appear to have any intent) and two probable red card offences – which, by the way, you see regularly in any football game.
The incidents that most caused the most controversy was first after Ellen White’s goal. It was pulled back for an offside check but ultimately was given as the player was onside – but the reaction came after VAR showed it on screen for a few seconds, enough for the players and fans to see. They would have seen Nikita Parris offside, hence the uproar. The Cameroonian players gathered in the centre circle in what appeared to be a protest against the decision and refused to take the kick-off for a few minutes until eventually proceeding with the game.
The second came when Cameroon had a goal disallowed for offside – so fine of a margin that it seemed harsh, and the players thought so too. We saw Ajara Nchout, in particular, get incredibly emotional over the decision with tears in her eyes, as well as some others.
We get it-you’re either offside or onside, no in-between – but it’s not difficult to recognise why Cameroon may have felt hard done by. And to completely ridicule their outburst of emotion on the pitch seems ludicrously harsh. I mean, it’s not like Nike have just done an entire campaign on something similar, in support of female athletes showing their emotion unapologetically.
Ultimately, the Cameroon side will know that the way they have acted isn’t an acceptable level of sportsmanship, and in footballing terms, England was better than them. That’s all it should’ve been – but it turned into so much more than that.
The real kicker came from the certified saviour of women’s football himself, Phil Neville, in his post-match interview and then again in his press conference.
He blasted the game at FT, saying “that is not football”. It wasn’t the football he ‘fell in love with’ 18 months ago. Because, you know, there are two types of football and this definitely wasn’t the one he played his whole life.
But it wouldn’t really be women’s football if we didn’t bring up little girls at home watching.
Is it just me, or is anyone else growing tired of the narrative that these players exist only to inspire the next generation? This is the World Cup – the biggest stage of them all. These players have worked their entire lives to get here – why can’t we just let them play for themselves, for their families? As Eni Aluko so rightly said, they are not here to sell the game for you. But if we’re going to hold them under a microscope in the eyes of young girls, it’d be grand if we evaded from teaching them it’s not ok to show emotion.
Neville’s post-match press conference was filled with comments that, quite frankly, were fueled by racial stereotypes and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of anyone who has any morality on what is right and what is wrong.
The England manager told of Cameroonians ‘fighting in the VIP area and at the hotel’, but when asked to elaborate on that, point blank refused and said we should just stick to the football (which, honestly, if we had done we might not be in this mess now, so it’s a bit late for that).
Arguably the worst comment of the press conference was latched onto the end of a bit of a ramble after being asked if FIFA should ban Cameroon from future competitions, in which he talks of his vision of the African nations just being happy and dancing (queue Shut Up and Dance by Walk The Moon).
These are professional athletes that have worked just as hard as any other nation to get to this World Cup – if not harder than those with the backing of wealthy boards and million-pound sponsorships. To infer that they should just stick to dancing is unbelievably disrespectful so distasteful that words evade me.
The comments bought into racial stereotypes, and much like racism in Britain, remained fairly subtle. We saw that in the reaction of the English media after the game, especially with journalists taking an abrupt and confrontational tone when talking to the Cameroon manager; one in particular complaining about players not coming through mixed zones.
In their defence, if I’d just been beaten 3-0 and knocked out of the World Cup, talking to English media prepared to bombard with questions about the conduct, I’d probably avoid it too.
The way the events were described both in the game and after it just alludes to specific language that has been used by white people to dehumanise black people far too often; in saying these players had completely ‘lost control’, being referred to as ‘camerloonians’ etc. played into existing negative stereotypes. As Ashley W said: “Such stereotypes include the myth of the angry Black woman that characterizes these women as aggressive, ill-tempered, illogical, overbearing, hostile, and ignorant without provocation.” To continue to play into this trope is harmful and while the media is busy worrying about the little girls at home watching this, where is the thought for the little black girls who are seeing themselves portrayed obstructively by the media? Or does that not fit the narrative?
Apparently, nobody wants to make this into an argument about race, but the subtlety of the media’s reporting is causing the divide and not exactly boding well for their argument. But who can be too surprised? Look at the way the media ridiculed Raheem Sterling for years over things as small as getting a tattoo. Targeting and condemning black people in sports isn’t exactly new territory for the English press. Sterling himself said in an interview with the BBC that newspapers are helping to ‘fuel racism’ in their portrayal of young black players – bearing a similarity to the current treatment of the Cameroonian players.
Peggy McIntosh nails the subtlety of racism the media have successfully threaded throughout their coverage in ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’ when she says: “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.”
The fact this nonsensical uproar has already caused FIFA to debate whether a suspension is warranted or not speaks volumes itself. Would this have received the same reaction if it were a European side? The Americans? We have to be honest and say that it is unlikely, given that even as early as school black people are more likely to be punished more often and more severely than their white counterparts, as explored by the New York Times.
God forbid an underprivileged team experience hurt and discontent the game-changing calls are going against them. But it appears that white people appear to struggle to separate the emotions of black people – while they are hurting, confused etc. all the media saw was aggression – which is an all too familiar occurrence, as discussed by Maulud Sadiq in ‘Every Black Emotion is Interpreted as Aggression’.
We cannot continue to take things like this in our stride and treat them as part of life and football because it goes beyond that. The media must be held accountable for the role they play, and so should Neville.
Two years ago, I stopped supporting my country because I couldn’t, in good conscience, put my heart into something that I morally didn’t agree with. And, for as long as Neville remains in charge, I don’t think this is something I can do once again. While that means not being able to support some of my absolute favourite players internationally, it’s the right thing for me to do.
I do not believe that The FA think enough of the women’s side to take disciplinary action where necessary and seek a worthy replacement for a side that deserves it. Come to whatever conclusion you wish, but I know that it wouldn’t be tolerated for the men’s side and that’s evidence in how Sampson and Allardyce were handled after their respective mess-ups.
My heart goes out to the Cameroon players – while acknowledging the way in which they acted was unacceptable – they have fallen victim to the media’s subtle yet ever-present racism.