Sport

‘Do something now’: inside the Lionesses’ drive to get girls playing

On Monday the England centre-back Lotte Wubben-Moy ducked down the aisle of the team bus as it wove its way from the Euro 2022 victory celebrations in Trafalgar Square. The 23-year-old was on a mission.

“I don’t know whether it was the energy of being in London, being around people out in front of the National Portrait Gallery that were screaming our names as we were dancing in front of them, but it was a catalyst for me to then go say it to everyone and go to Leah [Williamson, the captain] and Sue [Campbell, the director of women’s football at the Football Association] to say: ‘We need to do something now.’”

The result was a letter, signed by all 23 players in the squad that had won the team’s first major trophy. It was addressed to Tory leadership hopefuls Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, urging whichever becomes prime minister to ensure every girl in school has access to football in PE.

The Trafalgar Square celebrations that prompted Lotte Wubben-Moy to act.
The Trafalgar Square celebrations that prompted Lotte Wubben-Moy to act. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

It read: “Currently only 63% of girls can play football in PE lessons. The reality is we are inspiring young girls to play football, only for many to end up going to school and not being able to play. This is something that we all experienced growing up. We were often stopped from playing. So we made our own teams, we travelled across the country and despite the odds, we just kept playing football.”

Truss and Sunak have replied but neither has promised to push the figure up to 100%, with Truss committing to “investigating what prevents schools from delivering the recommended minimum two hours of PE per week” and Sunak pledging to “tighten accountability”.

Wubben-Moy’s motivation was to turn words into action. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while,” she says. “I was like: ‘Let’s go. Let’s get this going. Let’s make it tangible, make it something that we can actually feel and see, and not just words.’ ‘Make the nation proud’, ‘bring joy to the nation’, what does that actually look like? And how can we make it happen?

“There are a lot of moving parts to it. There were a lot of politicians at Wembley. They’re here in the fair weather, when everything’s going well; they’re not here at Borehamwood, they’re not here at the City Academy, when we’re playing on a Sunday night at 7pm. We want to see more brands, more partners, more people involved in the game for the long run, not just for the good times.”

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. England’s players want the next prime minister to take action. Composite: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Not being used for PR stunts by politicians is important. “We have been invited by the secretary of state for education to come to Downing Street,” says Wubben-Moy. “When I got that invitation through I was like: ‘Oh sick, people are listening.’ But are they just going to invite us, make it a PR stunt and then say they’ve made change? The reality is this isn’t going to change overnight.

“What we’ve asked for is a long-term project. It is something that is going to take a lot of development, it’s going to take a lot of investment and it’s going to take a lot of thought. That secretary of state possibly won’t be there when Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak comes in. So us meeting them is literally thin air. And in Holland Sarina [Wiegman, England’s manager] said that they call it ‘gebakken lucht’ which literally means ‘baked air’. It’s just hot air.

“In order to actually make change and actually make something that is for the future, it’s going to take more than a meeting, it’s going to take more than one conversation. We actually want it to be meaningful.”

The message is simple: “We want to remove all barriers that there are to girls playing football. Physical barriers, societal ones – culturally we need to change things – but also the psychological barriers.”

The psychological part is hugely important. According to research conducted on behalf of Venus, which has launched a Move Your Skin campaign that Wubben-Moy is an ambassador for, more than a third women do not participate in sport because they worry about the way their skin looks, almost half worry about comments on their imperfections and almost half said they would feel more confident in their bodies if they were exposed to more relatable images of women playing sport.

“A third of young girls don’t do sports, don’t move, because they’re skin conscious. To me that’s just absolutely mad,” says Wubben-Moy. “That’s societal, that’s cultural. We enhance it ourselves. If we’re going to do our young girls, or young boys, justice for the future we need to change something now. We need to make society a place for them that is worth living in.

“If we don’t change a lot of the things in society I don’t want to have kids. I worry for those with young children, because we need to make the world a place that we feel proud of. Sport is a very, very, very small facet of things but it does have a big, big impact beyond the sporting world.”

Lotte Wubben-Moy
Lotte Wubben-Moy says: ‘A third of young girls don’t do sports, don’t move, because they’re skin conscious. To me that’s just absolutely mad.’ Photograph: Venus

In women’s football in England, there has been a culture of gratitude, that players should accept the crumbs off the table and be pleased with the minimum. Has winning the Euros helped give players increased confidence in their voices?

“How English is it that we are so polite?” says the Arsenal defender, who is still trying to compute the Euros win, cannot articulate the feeling on the final whistle and has not quite got her voice back yet. “We’re so thankful. ‘Thank you so much. Thanks so much.’ Nah, rip it up, we need to rewrite that. Whether we’d won on Sunday or not, we still had the right to speak up for change, we still had the platform.

“It did take a win and OK, that’s great, but even if we hadn’t, I feel like as female footballers that go out every week, every weekend, we fight for our clubs, we fight for our country on the pitch, we’re role models. And if we, as those role models, feel empowered, then the message that sends to young girls, young women, boys and men as well, is that ‘you’re worthy, you’re worth it, and you can use whatever you have accomplished, or whatever you haven’t accomplished, to fight for something bigger, for yourself and other people as well’.”

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