Women's Sports: How Football Beyond Borders is inspiring young women to take up space in the football world

Football Beyond Borders

Founded in 2009, Football Beyond Borders (FBB) began as a global engagement project that used football to help tackle wider issues within the community.

Following international programmes, the organisation adjusted its focus to the U.K. in 2013 and began delivering projects in South London to help address issues of disadvantage and inequality. Becoming a registered charity in 2014, FBB now rolls out bespoke school programmes across the country that help engage and support young people through football. 

In more recent times, FBB has been working with young girls across London to support them as they move through school into adulthood and have used football as the motivator to engage them with society.

Ceylon Andi Hickman joined FBB as their first Head of Female Participation and has since gone onto becoming Head of Impact at the charity. Having specialised in the sociology of education and politics and gender, Ceylon has always known she wanted to work within education and alongside that has spent the majority of her life playing football.

Earlier this month, GiveMeSportWomen's Eleanor Lee spoke to her about working for Football Beyond Borders and how the organisation supports young women.

What is Football Beyond Borders all about?

Ceylon: "FBB is an education charity which uses the power of football to support young people who are passionate about football but disengaged in education to achieve their Level 4 English and Maths at GCSE as well as the social and emotional skills necessary for a successful transition to adulthood.

"[FBB] go into schools and we’re a long-term intensive provision all based around relationships. It’s about helping the young person develop those core social and emotional skills, like self-management, regulating your emotions, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making. We teach them quite explicitly, and the research shows that if you develop those [skills] in young people, that also helps them to be better in school," Ceylon explains.

Why has FBB been so successful? What makes it unique?

Ceylon: We go in [to schools], and we’re a team of relatable role models for the young people. We use football as the trojan horse, so football is the way we go in, and we’re like ‘look, we’re here in Nike tracksuits and we’re here to do football with you but we’re doing an hour in the classroom and then an hour on the football pitch.'"

"We’re about long-term sustained intervention, so we work with young people for four years and we start working with them when they’re in year eight, and that means we also become very embedded in their lives. 

FBB

"We work with whoever’s at home, parents and carers, very closely as well as the school. We’re all about a holistic approach so we become deeply embedded, and the people who deliver our programmes are the sort of people that are from the communities that the [young people] are from, so they’re able to relate to them. They sit in a space where they’re like a football coach, but more than that. Like a mentor, not a teacher, not really a youth worker but somewhere kind of in-between," she added.

"There’s a hierarchy of culture, and girl culture is at the bottom"

How do you specifically work to support young girls in the community?

Ceylon: "[FBB] exist to prevent school exclusions and to support young people, and ultimately, boys are more likely to be excluded from school, so, FBB had always worked with boys and in short, tried to work with girls but there wasn’t a business model to do it.

"They’d done various iterations of girls programmes with varying success but they never had an official approach, so my task was to come in and pilot programmes and then design a programme with the idea of rolling it out. I just knew that you can’t pick up the same model for boys and assume that it’s going to work for girls. [They’ve got] different needs, different starting points, so I designed the girls programme, secured investment and we are now running ten programmes this year," she explains.

How enjoyable is it, being able to help support young girls alongside encouraging them to enjoy football?

Ceylon: "You can create amazing relationships with these young people, and know [you're] being able to play a part in allowing them to have a space where they feel like they belong and like they can be the best versions of themselves, whoever that is, and that they can be loved and understood and appreciated for exactly who they are and they don’t have to be something else.

"I can go into a session and I can have one girl who absolutely loves football and I can be that person in her life who’s confirming that football is cool. I never had that in my life when I was younger, someone I could look up to, who’s a woman, who was like ‘yeah, football’s sick! Keep doing it, keep loving it!’" 

"We’ve been told for so long that football isn’t feminine, but no! We’ll use football however we want!"

Ceylon adds, "I’ve got a girl who runs an Aaron Wan-Bissaka fan page, who goes to Palace. She’s 12 years old. And she still runs the fan page even though he’s gone to United. But she had no-one before who rated that she liked football, it was almost something that she was shy of. So it’s things like that [that I love]."

She goes onto explain her three main aims for the girls' that she works with.

"[Firstly], for girls to understand and love themselves for who they are. Then [for them to] understand and support one another because I think that’s a massive thing that girls struggle with. And [finally], that they make a positive contribution to society. You have to do it in that order, if they don’t love themselves for who they are, why are they going to relate to their peers in a positive way?"

One thing is evident when talking with Ceylon and that is her enthusiasm and eagerness to help these young women achieve their goals. Her passion is infectious.

"Over the years, how has the landscape of women's football changed?"

Ceylon: "The biggest change for me is that when I grew up there wasn't, and still isn't yet but I think we’re getting there, a separate culture that surrounded women’s football. Football is the biggest export this country has from a pure catalyst perspective, and men’s football has always had this sick culture which intersects with music, fashion, art, there is so much going on in men’s football that women’s football never has or had. So, when I grew up, I [only had] Kelly Smith in an Umbro tracksuit [to look up to].

"[Football] wasn’t cool when you were a girl. I don’t know why that was. I think we’re now getting to a point, and it’s one of my favourite things that, where we’re getting an organic culture that is separate to the men’s game. I do think there’s a problem in that it’s very, very London-centric, but just being in London for the Women’s World Cup, you had the Festival of Football with art exhibitions, you’ve then got Romance FC doing screenings which were a whole different vibe to This Fan Girl screening which was a whole different vibe to going to watch it at 1948 with Season, and just being able to access all these different communities to experience and enjoy football, exclusively for women, that is sick."

"Increased visibility is going to help girls understand that this game is for them."

Football Beyond Borders has a strong social media presence and aesthetic which is perhaps, coupled with the growth of female football culture, the reason that Ceylon is presented with so many new opportunities for the young girls she works with. 

FBB

Ceylon: "I now get approached a lot with brands or zine’s wanting to work with our girls, and I’m like ‘this is sick, absolutely!’ [I love] the fact that girls can go and feature in a Season zine shoot and then be like ‘I can see myself in Season!’ It’s now cool for women to like football, and we can make it our own, in our own way and own that.

Ceylon and I then sidetrack and discuss the emergence of designer Ancuta Sarca who has recently released a collection of Nike football boots modified into heels. "It's things like that! We’ve been told for so long that football isn’t feminine, but no! We’ll use football however we want," Ceylon says.

Earlier this year, Nike hosted their Festival of Women's Football at Hackney Marshes and the FBB staff were able to take some of the girls from their programmes.

Ceylon: "I got so emotional that day [of the Nike event]. What was so beautiful about it, was that there was so much for them there that they absolutely loved. We just took up this space, a space traditionally for men on the Hackney Marshes where women would be bumped down the pitches, and we put glitter nail painting stalls, we put hair braiding, we put t-shirt customisation, there were dance workouts if you didn’t want to play, there was free food, the girls were in their element.

"There are still so many barriers that are stopping women of colour accessing football."

It was girls engaging with and enjoying football in a way that they loved and related to. There’s a hierarchy of culture, and girl culture is at the bottom but for the first time, I was thinking you can enjoy football however you want to enjoy football. Anyone who thinks that the [Hackney Marshes tournament] wasn’t the right way to enjoy football, thinks that because they privilege masculine culture over feminine culture, that’s like internalised misogyny."  

"How important is exposure when it comes to getting young girls involved in football?"

Ceylon: "So much of it is access and exposure. For me, my dad and uncle introduced me to football, but if you’ve not got [those figures] in your house, or you don’t have someone that thinks that football is for you or you don’t have mum or dad, whatever it is, someone needs to introduce you.

"For me, a big part of the role last year was that I really wanted to make sure the girls got out to see women’s football. So, we took them to Kingsmeadow three times last season and the first time, because they could stand next to the pitch at half time and watch the subs warming up, we’d tell them to wave and shout the players' name. So they shout ‘Beth England!', and Beth comes up to them smiling and [the girls] were so excited by Beth England because she’d given them a bit of time, and now they’re her biggest fans. I went into the school the next day and they all had Beth England as their phone wallpaper, so it’s been about introducing them to that side of the game and just exposure. Increased visibility is going to help them understand that this game is for them."

"Looking to the future, what are your hopes for the women's game?"

Ceylon: "My number one hope is that the landscape in both men’s and women’s football in admin, management, press, journalism, and that the women’s game, becomes less white. You need increased visibility. If you’re a young black girl in London who is looking at the national team, you can only see two players of colour and that’s just not good enough. We need more women of colour running the game, the men’s game and women’s, writing about it, featuring on TV, otherwise it's just lazy. You have to be authentic and genuine about it and it can't be an afterthought. There are still so many barriers that are stopping women of colour accessing football."

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