• A.D. Stephenson

Girls Can't Play Football

“Girls can’t play football! Go back to netball, girl!”

“Come now, boys. Chloe can play too. Don’t worry if you can’t keep up, Chloe, you just try your best and enjoy it, hey?”

Chloe watched on nervously. There was nothing she could do right now, just wait in hope. The tension was rife, but she watched on intently, ready for her chance. Across the pitch, Beth had gone down. The talisman, the hero. Chloe felt her heart thumping; as Beth hobbled off, she knew that this might be her time. She steadied herself, focused her mind, blocked out the doubt.

And then it happened. Keira played that precision pass. Ella onto it in a flash, oblivious to the pressure cooker she had run into. Chloe was on her feet, her thoughts now drowning in the sea of noise. The ball would surely be rolled into the bottom corner. The stadium waited with bated breath as Ella lifted the ball. Those behind the goal held their heads in their hands, knowing it would drift over, another chance gone. From where Chloe watched, though, it was clear that this was not another moment of failure. The ball dropped into the goal, the net bulged, and the stadium erupted. Ella sprinted over to the bench; Chloe was there to greet her. The release after an hour like the breaking of a dam…

And then a forced calm. Chloe was thrust onto the pitch, asked to replace the irreplaceable. Tasked with protecting a lead that the nation so craved. Thoughts of winning and celebrations had to wait. There was a job to do. No one had read Germany the script and they pressed and pressed for an equaliser. Chloe winced as a thunderous strike rattled the post. A warning. Her heart in her mouth. Just twelve minutes to hold on.

And then the sucker punch. The equaliser. Chloe felt sick.

“Give up, Chloe. Football is for boys.”

Since she had come on, England had struggled, Germany thrived. This was not how it was supposed to be. The relief of the final whistle peeled. Extra-time. Please not penalties.

Chloe steadied herself, blocked out the crowd, the tension, the moment. She thought back to those childhood games, playing with the boys, the ridicule, the teasing, the little victories when she showed just what she could do. The begrudging respect, turning into the adulation. The girls everywhere that revered her. She thought of nothing but victory. Of what it would mean. To her. To everyone.

The game was taut, elastic ready to snap, dynamite waiting to be lit. The ball bounced into the box. Chloe was there. A wild swing, but the ball was out of reach.

“What are you doing? Girls can’t play football!”

Instantly, she stretched out again. Contact. The ball was in the net.

Chloe wheeled away, her teammates rushing her. She was unsure where to go or what to do. All she knew was that girls play football. Now everyone else knew too.

* * *

Firstly, I'm sorry for the delay in getting this out. I was fortunate enough, or perhaps foresighted enough, to get tickets to Wembley to watch the Euro 2022 final yesterday. As you can tell, this story is entirely influenced by the game.

I've been coaching girls' football in schools since I started teaching in 2010. In that time I've watched slowly increasing numbers of girls want to get involved. Some only play in school, some join the school team because they already play, and some join clubs outside of school because they realise how enjoyable football is for everyone.

Being in the stadium yesterday was an incredible and emotional experience. I don't think I've ever cried at a goal for my team before, but it happened twice yesterday. It was amazing to see an England team succeed on the biggest stage. The dedication, commitment, tenacity and skill of those women out there yesterday was elite sport at its finest.

I truly hope that this means women's football can now just become football.

Thank you Lionesses; you've made millions of people so happy.

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