The Balls to Play

By Maggie Murphy
Under reported and financed in theWest, women’s football is nevertheless a powerful and empowering force for women in many parts of the world.
‘How does it feel to be a woman playing a man’s game?’ I have received many much more intrusive questions about my sport of choice over the past 15 years.This time, however, it was less the question than the questioner that left me a little surprised. Over a canapé at the annual reception for St Anne’s Blues players and college sports captains in 2003, Ruth Deech had just – in my eyes – casually accepted a premise that I had rejected at the age of ten in the back garden. 
Casual discrimination is rife within women’s football and always has been. It ranges from simply not being included on the club website and being persistently allocated substandard training facilities, pitches and changing rooms,to rarely enjoying more than a literal square inch of any local newspaper column or the tiniest sliver of any financial cake. 
Things aren’t as bad as they used to be; at the time, women’s football was the fastest growing sport in the UK and I was battling with my own jealousy at seeing new girls’ clubs and academies springing up all around the country. Football seemed to be losing its gender – it didn’t feel like the right time to take the question too seriously. However, as much as I was slightly irked by the question back then,the words found themselves in my own mouth several years later when I was least expecting it.
In 2009, I travelled to Iraq as part of a small election observation team,there to observe polling stations in an area populated by ethnic and religious minorities who were feverishly afraid that their ballot boxes would be the first to go missing and the last to be looked for.The evening before election day, an unexpected night-time travel ban was imposed, which only exacerbated the atmosphere of nervous anticipation.We raced against the dusk and the curfew to get to the first village on our itinerary the next day.My eyes flitted across the darkening outlines of buildings and shadowy shapes of figures hurrying home.My feet were resting gently on
two AK47s in the back of the jeep. Nobody had spoken for a while. As we sped along, a snapshot scene suddenly caught my eye and I let out a cry. 
‘Look!’ In the gloom,my eyes had picked out two young women, one in a headscarf the other bare-headed, walking side by side along the makeshift road.They were chatting,totally at ease. Both were wearing tracksuits and football shirts, one carried a football.We sped away,the driver not willing to be distracted. But until this day, I have always regretted not stopping the car and asking those girls, ‘Really – what does it feel like to be a woman playing a man’s game?’ Their challenges surely went beyond playing on the dog-eared pitches. 
In September last year,the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution with the wonderfully stern title ‘Promoting awareness, understanding and the application of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights through sport and the Olympic ideal.’ Suddenly sport is getting serious. Brazil and the UK have been key players, both bearing the solemn burden of hosting what will be the two most watched global sporting events in the