Beautiful game,
ugly problem

Everton and Rochdale are just two of the football clubs to get behind a campaign to stamp out sexism aimed at their female fans – but can its success extend to social media abuse?

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On FA Cup final day in May 2021, a video was released on Twitter in which 12 football fans from across the country held up pieces of paper that silently detailed the abuse they had received at matches and on social media – just for being women.

From “Women’s opinions on football = Invalid” to “Get back to the kitchen” and a myriad of misogyny in between, the video, tagged #HerGameToo was a shocking glimpse into the experience of football fandom for many women. And it was a call to action by Her Game Too founder, Bristol Rovers supporter Caz May.

The video, which received one million views in 24 hours, was soundtracked by Destiny’s Child anthem Survivor. But the campaign has done more than survive, growing in size and scope over the past two years. Her Game Too is a community interest company created to highlight the problems facing women football fans and that first Twitter post has proven a catalyst for change across the professional and grassroots games.

Liverpool fan Roopa Vyas, one of the many women who found the initial video resonated with her own experiences, is now a director of the company.

“It was something that I knew I wanted to be a part of immediately,” says Vyas. “I know what it’s like to be the only woman in a group of male supporters. It’s the constant passing of comments that makes things uncomfortable.

“Saying I’m ‘only there for one reason’ and other chat like that, which they think is banter but really is just very degrading – people seem to accept that this is what the behaviour at a football match is, which is just ridiculous.”

Vyas grew up idolising Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen. Such was the extent of her blood running Merseyside red, she swapped her South Wales home for three years at university in Liverpool, becoming a regular at both Anfield and at away games.

“Away games were probably worse but I did finally meet some other girls to go to games with,” she recalls. “It was a bit more comfortable but as there were still only two or three of us, we were still the targets.

“I think men have always seen football as a bit of a lads’ environment, where they are away from their homes, their girlfriends and wives, so they feel that they can say what they want and act how they want. Sometimes it’s like they’ve never seen or spoken to a girl before in their lives and it’s just beyond me why anyone would want to act like that.”

Her Game Too’s ambassadors have established working relationships with football clubs to improve the fan experience for women. Among the campaign’s initiatives has been the establishment of new communities of supporters who can attend matches together, as well as a central reporting line for sexist abuse.

“It’s going to take time for people to gain the confidence necessary to call out discrimination and I understand it could even be dangerous in some situations, causing more hassle and distress,” Vyas says. “It’s not easy but our ambassadors have become familiar faces at their clubs and if there are people behind you, you feel more emboldened to challenge discrimination.”

Liverpool has not yet become an official Her Game Too partner but across Stanley Park, rivals Everton were among the earliest champions of the campaign. On International Women’s Day 2023, Everton became the first Premier League club to appoint dedicated player advocates for Her Game Too: men’s captain Seamus Coleman and England defender Gabby George.

“Women’s football has come a long way but unfortunately unhelpful and unwelcome attitudes towards women at all levels still exist – be that towards those watching as fans, pundits on TV or us as players,” George says. “I want to continue to push forward inclusion in our sport and being part of Her Game Too and working alongside the brilliant women who are driving the campaign will help me do that.”

Everton’s involvement was powered by their own supporters, who presented the idea of partnering with Her Game Too at the club’s fans’ forum in 2021. It aligned with Everton’s own all-encompassing anti-discrimination campaign All Together Now.

“It was clear that the campaign was being driven by fans – fans who had sadly had to endure sexist abuse while trying to enjoy the game they love – and we wanted to show them they had our support,” says Scott McLeod, Everton’s director of communications and engagement.

The other Premier League and Football League clubs that have now followed can use the Merseyside outfit’s strong blueprint for an effective partnership.

The club has promoted its channels for reporting incidents of abuse, created regular content about the campaign and surveyed its female fans to better understand their match-day experiences and concerns. Vyas has been impressed.

“It is important that we ensure that clubs get involved for the right reasons. What we really want to see is visibility in terms of what support is being offered to the fans. Clubs might be promoting Her Game Too but for us it’s not about the brand – it’s about the message.

“That’s why Everton are doing really well. I think the people that they’ve got working on it behind the scenes are very passionate about the message.”

Further down the football pyramid there have been even longer associations with the campaign. League Two club Rochdale first lent their backing in October 2021 and it was their club ambassador Charlotte Cromarty who suggested the idea of a player advocate.

“Before Seamus Coleman, there was [Rochdale goalkeeper] Richard O’Donnell,” Cromarty says. “I was really proud that Rochdale was the first club to have a professional player officially support Her Game Too. It’s been amazing to see other clubs and players follow that.

“Honestly, I love being a Rochdale fan and wouldn’t change it for the world, even though I probably should have phoned ChildLine when my dad made me start supporting them! It’s an intimate club and I like the feeling that I’m able to make a real difference.”

Cromarty has a column in the match-day programme and it was through the campaign that she met fellow Rochdale fan Isabel Lewis, with whom she now co-hosts the Dale Way podcast, following the fortunes (and misfortunes) of the club.

Rochdale has also introduced a community drive to tackle period poverty – setting up a donation site for sanitary products at their Spotland stadium – and the club also hosts programmes dedicated to cultivating confidence in young girls.

“I cannot fault Rochdale one bit,” says Cromarty. “They’ve been absolutely brilliant. I’m the kind of person who when I’m passionate about something and think I have a good idea, I have to put it in PowerPoint. So they sit through my PowerPoints and let me know what is doable and how quickly we can act. They’ve been so supportive.”

Her Game Too has made significant progress in terms of fan safety on match-days and community initiatives but elsewhere the challenges appear far greater. Social media continues to be a difficult environment to police – meaning abuse continues.

Cromarty says: “It’s usually if I post any type of opinion, like about a refereeing decision or a player not performing well.

“Then the opposition fans usually pile on and it’s ‘you don’t belong here’, or ‘go make me a sandwich’ or ‘go and get your nails done’. It’s always just some anonymous guy like ‘Bob267’ who hides behind his screen and has Ronaldo or Messi as his profile picture. It’s just boring.”

With more than 70 club ambassadors now, there are plenty of potential reinforcements if required in a social media war of words, though a “kill them with kindness” approach has been generally preferred by Her Game Too.

“We are still fighting against an army of people, especially on social media, who just don’t want to listen,” Vyas says. “You can block and mute people but actually we’d rather try to engage and educate them.

“We want to offer people a chance at redemption. It’s the same with football clubs. We don’t want them to ban fans – we want them to educate those fans and make them understand what they’ve done wrong.”

Her Game Too has now moved into rugby and cricket, while a pubs initiative has seen around 500 venues approved as safe spaces for women to watch live sport. But can Her Game Too permanently eradicate sexism from football?

“I don’t think it will end in my lifetime unfortunately,” Vyas concludes. “We want to see more men join the campaign too as, sadly, their voices are louder than ours. It’ll take some time for calling out sexism to become something that’s more common but men are definitely more willing now.

“Sometimes they forget that we are Her Game Too, not just Her Game. We don’t want to take football away from anyone – we are just trying to be inclusive.”

Photo: Gabby George attends a Her Game Too session at Finch Farm

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