This weekend I went to a football match without any fear. It was great | Women’s football

TThe first time I was molested in a Premier League match, I was 13. I was there with my dad, we had season tickets and we were skipping a line of guys in the 88th minute to beat the crowd to the tube. I didn’t say anything and that wasn’t the last time it happened that season either. The season before that, I won a contest and got the chance to be a ball girl at Wembley during a Charity Shield match. Every time I ran to collect the ball to bring it back to the field, a werewolf, whistling, and cat were called by a section of the fans. I was 12 years old.

In these experiences and many more I knew I was an intruder and in my mind I had no choice but to accept the rewards of that along with everything else. The rewards were the atmosphere and seeing my team play, everything else was the fumbling, the long glances, the cat calling; In addition to exposure to extreme and uncontrolled racism, casual homophobia and relentless aggressive abuse of players on both sides.

I was never an athlete, I wasn’t interested in playing football, and like many girls at the time, I didn’t see many examples of women playing football even if I did. My exposure to football was what I saw on TV and the excitement I saw evoked in my brother and father. Where else will I get this excitement? When I went to football I was fortunate to be there, because I suffer from the feeling of unifying love for your team and hatred towards the other team. I felt like I had entered a secret society that not many girls had experienced. I won’t spoil it with a complaint.

Just over 20 years later, last summer I visited Tottenham Hotspur for the first time. On a mild July day, I had that familiar ground walk you get when you go to any big soccer field in the country. See it from a distance and step with confidence and foyer. However, this was different. I wasn’t wearing my club colors, nor was I surrounded by cheering men, trying to intimidate locals and police horses. In fact, there were no police horses at all.

I was going to see Lady Gaga – after trying to get tickets for months, I had a stroke when a fellow Lady Gaga had one. Presentation was excellent. I cried, danced, cried, sang; I did everything I could do for a great football match. But I didn’t feel his way. I didn’t hear any racism. I saw gay people cuddling each other. I saw little girls lifting on their father’s shoulders. Last summer, I saw similar scenes in crowds when watching Euro 2022 on TV.

On Sunday I took a trip to the King Power Stadium to watch Leicester face Tottenham in the opening weekend of the Women’s Super League. I was surrounded by families in a crowd that was mostly women and girls. Although they did not offend the fans or the opposing players, they cared as deeply as any other football fan. This should go without saying – but as you grow up watching men’s football in this country, you begin to believe that you cannot have passion without aggression.

Ashley Plumptree of Leicester City battles for possession with Asmita Alli (left) and Molly Bartrip of Tottenham Hotspur. Photo: Ross Kinneard/Getty Images

On the field, Marcus Baines and his daughter Phoebe (seven, almost eight) were in their first Premier League game since buying a season ticket. “It’s dangerous for the fans [as with the men’s games] “But I don’t think there is much tension,” he said. “Some of the men’s fans are causing trouble but in the women’s match we feel they don’t, and the atmosphere is more mixed.”

It’s a sentiment shared by the Gibsons, the football family, regular visitors to the Women’s World Championship and holders of the men’s Spurs team season tickets. The differences between men’s and women’s fans are the inclusivity and the appreciation of football over competition. “You’ll find with women’s football you kind of enjoy the game and you appreciate football more,” Kim said.

Like me, Kim was taken to soccer when she was younger by her father. “I think when we went to the games at the time it was like it was, and that’s what we expected,” she said. “Personally I feel really comfortable when I come to a women’s match, I can bring the girls on my own and I feel safe.”

This sense of innate safety appeared a lot. Emily Williams, who came with her daughter Ellie, also spoke about this. “I’m more concerned about the men’s matches with the kids going on,” she said. “I take my son and they can feel a little intimidated, especially being a female, I feel like I can’t protect him if something goes wrong, but the women’s matches feel much safer.”

Eileen White of England celebrates scoring against Norway at Euro 2022.
Eileen White of England celebrates scoring against Norway at Euro 2022. Photo: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Getty Images

Many fans of the Women’s Football League at King Power Stadium go to great lengths to remind me that women’s and men’s football are very different, so making comparisons is difficult and perhaps foolish. That’s right, it’s difficult and probably unhelpful for a women’s match from a football perspective – the game is played differently and the competition is not the same. However, from a fan’s point of view, I felt a lot of them were very similar: energy bulging out from the crowd after a good pass; clap for a well-timed intervention; Exhilaration with a goal.

The audible frustrations of a bad touch or a missed pass were also present, but with a noticeable difference. Small frustrations were that they did not progress to outright hostility, nor did they turn into abuse. Tottenham’s Ashley Neville was booed as the pantomime villain for most of the second half as she fell so easily while Leicester were in the break. Was it good? Mostly not. But it never got personal, they didn’t call out her name, they didn’t chant a song about her personal life, and I hope she doesn’t get harassed on social media after the match.

Sitting at a competitive World Series of Poker match, going to a gigantic stadium show, and seeing lionesses selling Wembley, makes me think again what it means to occupy these spaces. These are the spaces that dominate the skylines of our towns and cities, and that generate some of the best moments of our lives. Those of us who watch men’s football hear a lot about the atmosphere these spaces create. It’s desirable, every fan wants to feel and it’s something that can’t be made artificially with a Mexican wave and vuvuzela. Atmosphere, as far as we were brought up to believe in this country, means aggression, means intimidation. The fact that this comes with sexual abuse, racism and homophobia? Well, that’s just a few rotten apples.

But we are wrong, we have always been wrong.

I can now say that I am very ashamed of how I have always equated the perfect atmosphere on the court with manliness. With the growing popularity of women’s football and the use of Premier League stadiums for more than just sports, we’re showing that these spaces are accessible to everyone. Toxic masculinity shouldn’t dictate what it means to create an atmosphere – because when we allow it, we let everything that includes it flourish.

Football fans like to convince ourselves that racism happens in football because racism happens everywhere. This is true. But why were there no reports of gay abuse in stadiums during Euro 2022 this year? Why were there no reports of violence from the two nights Lady Gaga sold Tottenham Hotspur? Why would a father happily take his young daughter to a WSL match in Leicester, but would he think again before taking her to a Premier League match?

Lady Gaga performs on stage during the Chromatica Ball Summer Tour at Tottenham Hotspur.
Lady Gaga performs on stage during the Chromatica Ball Summer Tour at Tottenham Hotspur. Photo: Samir Hussain/Getty Images for Live Nation

The reason is that men’s soccer has become a safe space for violence, racism, homophobia and misogyny over decades of reinforcement. By making football fields a safe space for everyone, we can really rid the game of aspects that distort the enjoyment of the vast majority of us. If putting rainbows in stadiums makes people uncomfortable, do more. If some guys feel like it’s not their “club” anymore because they can’t sing the anti-Semitic hymn they used to sing in the ’70s, let them stay home. We don’t need them. Football does not need them.

Making women, ethnic minorities, and the LGBTQ+ community feel uncomfortable on and off the field at soccer matches has been a tactic that toxic masculinity has used for decades, and governing bodies and clubs have been complicit in not doing enough to address these issues. But, if their inaction is mired in fears of a loss of climate or – more deplorably – a loss of revenue, there is no need to worry. Because it turns out 70,000 people shed a tear as Lady Gaga sat at her piano in the middle of a soccer field in July and 87,000 people sang Sweet Caroline when The lionesses won the European Championship.

We do not need aggression and hatred to create an atmosphere. In fact, it is better not to have it. In fact, it’s much better.