Industry professional Radha Balani was one of the latest guests on the new season of The Game Changers podcast.
As it is a lifelong passion of hers, she described sport as “the fundamental core” of her life — something that has been with her since she was a child and remains present now.
Balani delved into how the landscape of women’s sport, particularly football, has evolved over the years while also creating an environment different to that of the men’s game.
The light and dark of sport
Balani works in the area of sport development and is currently the co-Managing Director of Think Beyond — a social impact and sustainability consultancy that supports organisations in helping to make a positive impact on the world.
Sport has given great joy to millions of people around the world and remains a safe space for many. While Balani has also enjoyed some of her best memories in a sporting setting, she has stressed how it can sometimes be very much the opposite.
“[Sport is] the way that I have navigated being in a world that doesn’t necessarily feel like it was for me. It’s where I’ve had the best experiences and the worst experiences of my life.
“I think there is sport for sport’s sake that offers a place where you can either feel really included or really excluded.
“I’ve absolutely felt a part of sports and I’ve absolutely felt entirely alienated by it. It’s available to give people a load of things that it will automatically do, you will learn a set of skills, but I don’t subscribe to it being magic. I really don’t.
“I subscribe to the intentional use of it being utterly remarkable, and when done well, I have had the privilege of seeing it change lives. But I don’t think that should take away from the pure joy of just playing and I don’t necessarily mean putting on a full kit and going and playing.
“I mean being in the park, shooting hoops and hearing the swish of the ball go through. I mean doing keep ups on the driveway and you get a new number. The joy of that is also just that stuff still gives me goosebumps.”
Growth of women’s sport
Balani highlighted the notion that supporting English football “comes with baggage.”
Whether that is about which team you support or which area of the country you live in, football can often be more problematic than other sports.
Balani described herself as “sport agnostic” — not tying herself down to one or two sports in particular, but rather embracing all of it as a whole.
“I feel like it’s anything and everything, and I can get completely taken in by dance and snooker and tiddlywinks and sitting and seeing how many times I can throw a playing card into a bucket as I can by the Champions League Final and everything in between.”
She then discussed the growth of women’s football and how the tide is beginning to turn. It has been accepted by more fans since Euro 2022, including those who perhaps would have never thought to watch a game of women’s football before.
With matches now being shown on the BBC and Sky Sports, as well as an increasing number of fixtures played at main stadia, it is more accessible than ever.
Balani described it as a sport that families can enjoy together and reflected on a milestone moment when she realised just how much the women’s game has flourished.
“One of my colleagues, he’s a big Arsenal fan and he was at the last game of the season, and they were playing Arsenal Women’s match live in the bar in the back of the stands before the [men’s] game.
“He sent me a little video of hundreds of men watching this game, rapt at the quality of it. And he just sent ‘love to see it.’”
Game-changing Euro 2022
This episode of The Game Changers was released prior to Euro 2022, where England made history by winning their first ever major tournament.
The Lionesses ended the country’s 56-year wait for silverware by thwarting eight-time champions Germany in front of packed out Wembley Stadium.
England wrote several new records during Euro 2022, including several new performance amounts, which they continuously smashed.
The final at Wembley saw a 87,192 strong crowd fill the rows to watch England’s fairytale triumph. It is the highest ever record in both the women’s and men’s editions of the European Championships.
“I think with the Women’s Euros, we are going to see something really different to the men’s,” Balani said, not knowing at the time of recording that England would go on to make history and change the landscape of women’s football forever.
“We might see an equally powerful set of performances that take us to the final and hopefully win, but I think that the atmosphere and the tenor and the tone of things will be different, and that’s just because it is different and doesn’t need to be the same [as the men’s].”
Balani then admitted she loved to hear pundits discussing and criticising the performances of female players. Indeed, with broadcasting giants like the BBC and Sky Sports showing Women’s Super League fixtures, more in-depth conversations about player performances are taking place on live television.
The technology used to analyse men’s players is finally being shared and debates are ongoing about who is the best in certain positions and how they handle their game.
“We are talking about them as athletes and their performance is being criticised in the same way that the men’s Premier League performances are criticised. I like that we are there.”
Balani then reflected on how much she has witnessed the profile of women’s football grow during her lifetime. Something so many others can also vouch for.
“I remember going to see a [women’s] FA Cup final at, I think it was at Oxford United’s ground. And I remember that Channel 4 were there and they’d taken some footage and there was a 30 minute piece on Channel 4 about it.
“And — this is showing my age — I VHS recorded it, and watched it over and over again. Because that was all we got, you know? And, and so it’s changed at the grassroots level all the way through. And I think it’s great.”
Women’s football is constantly growing and the dream is, of course, to make it as popular as their male counterparts. But it does not need to sacrifice its unique environment in order to get there — that is the beauty of the women’s game.
This article was produced in partnership with The Game Changers podcast, which is supported by Sport England. You can listen to the full episode with Radha Balani here.