Why are young girls unable to play football in lockdown when boys of same age can?

The pandemic has exposed the inequalities that lie beneath the shiny veneer of the Women’s Super League

Pernille Harder after scoring for Chelsea against Everton in the WSL
Pernille Harder after scoring for Chelsea against Everton in the WSL. Her annual salary of about £300,000 is equivalent to the combined wages of the Bristol City squad. Photograph: Harriet Lander/Chelsea FC/Getty Images

There has rightly been outrage and confusion about the suspension of girls’ academies and regional talent clubs during the latest lockdown while at the same time boys in Premier League and Football League clubs’ pathways can continue to train.

There should never be a situation where a young female footballer is being told she cannot play while her male equivalent can continue. It shatters the illusion of equality and could actively hinder the “be whatever you want to be” message that women’s football is trying to instil in girls.

How, then, have we reached a point where that message is being undermined less than a month after the Football Association unveiled its new four-year strategy for women’s football, which includes ensuring that every primary-aged girl has “equal access to football in schools and clubs” and every girl has “equal access to participate for fun, competition and excellence”?

Has there been a sea change at the FA? Does the governing body no longer care about the aspirations of girls? You would be forgiven for forming that impression following Greg Clarke’s terrible comments on Tuesday – the now former FA chairman telling MPs the lack of women goalkeepers was because girls do not like the ball being kicked at them – but of course that is not the case. So what has happened?

It would be wrong to say that women’s football in England is still embryonic but it is safe to say it is still developing while, to continue the analogy, men’s football is an adult in the prime of life. Ultimately the pandemic has exposed, and is still exposing, what lies beneath the shiny veneer of the Women’s Super League.

In the WSL, being a full-time professional since the league launched under that banner for the 2018-19 season meant a minimum 16 contact hours per week for players, rising to 20 hours by 2020-21. In the semi-professional Championship a minimum of eight contact hours per week, plus matches, was required. These numbers are a world away from the government’s information on working hours that states that while “there is no specific number of hours that makes someone full or part-time, a full-time worker will usually work 35 hours or more a week”.

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It would be fine if those hours came with salaries that enabled players to comfortably live off football and as part of longer-term contracts to provide more stability, but the overwhelming majority do not have contracts of more than 12 months and live off very modest salaries, often supplemented by other ventures.

The arrival of World Cup winners from the US and investments from the clubs at the very top of the league help maintain the illusion of ongoing progress, but in fact it is extremely uneven. For example, Chelsea’s Pernille Harder is believed to have an annual salary of about £300,000, equivalent to the combined wages of the entire Bristol City squad.

Calling the WSL a full-time fully professional league is not a lie, but it is a stretching of the truth, and the media are as guilty as the FA in doing so because by hyping it you can help to grow it to the point where it becomes more real. You help attract sponsors, you help attract the best players, you help attract the biggest audiences. The downside is that when the boat is rocked – by an unprecedented global pandemic, say – suddenly the temporary half-truths are fairly brutally exposed.

When Covid-19 halted professional football its return became complicated, and the return of women’s professional football was even more so. Not because of the will to bring it back but because the base level of what professionalism means is a whole lot lower and is interpreted by clubs in different ways.

We are having the same conversation now. No one wants to see academies closed, but when the government announces a lockdown and the exemptions within days of the shut-out beginning, there is little wriggle room for clubs to redress the inequities in their academy systems and for the FA to redress the rules that allowed those inequalities to stand.

So far, one club has managed to announce an intent to reopen – Brighton said on Wednesday that they believe their girls’ Duel Career Academy will be able to resume as it operates under the same protocols as their boys’ academy. The Manchester United manager, Casey Stoney, meanwhile, said the club were discussing “how and when we can reopen”.

Once again the pandemic has exposed inequalities – such as the use of non-club pitches, poorer facilities generally, fewer staff, less access to medical facilities – that have, to some extent, been hushed up because progress is being made.

Should that progress happen faster? No doubt. There is a lot of money swilling around for clubs to be able to provide mirroring pathways and contracts for boys and girls, pandemic or no pandemic. Boys can earn scholarship wages until they are 16 and sign a professional contract while girls are currently unable to be be contracted to a WSL club until they are 18 and are considered grassroots players until then.

The money exists in the game for equal access, facilities and conditions, just as the money is there to support the return and longevity of WSL clubs, men’s EFL clubs and more. Now the pandemic has thrust some important home truths into the spotlight hopefully the will to make the necessary changes can begin to match the increased demand for better.

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