Women were excluded from 1970s football world, but times have changed and a meteor is coming as the Scotland’s Women’s National Team prepares to compete in the World Cup finals in France, writes Laura Waddell.
Scotland! Clap, clap, clap. The chants of wee lassies reverberated throughout Hampden Stadium on Tuesday night as the Scotland Women’s National Team played Jamaica in a friendly match before setting off for the World Cup.
The slogan adopted by the team is “Our Girls, Our Game”. I wasn’t sure about it at first. Is “girls” a bit on the infantilising side of chummy? But if we accept good faith and just go with it, the slogan is actually quite fitting. You only had to look around at the turnout – a record upwards of 18,000 – to see whose game it really is.
Girls’ voices, lots of them cheering and singing together, lifted the crowd and set the tone. And at half time, players as young as five scattered across the pitch for a kick around, following in the footsteps of the women the crowd were roaring for moments before.
It was my first-ever football game. I’ve never felt like going to one before, but after a pint of cider I smeared a slick of blue lipstick across each cheek and draped a tartan scarf across my shoulders.
Growing up in Coatbridge and regularly seeing my share of (literal) bloodshed spilling out pubs and onto the streets during Old Firm games was enough to – almost – put me off for life, other than the novelty of being allowed to watch Scotland in the ‘98 World Cup in my primary school assembly hall, on the one boxy TV set, shoogling on its casters when we jumped around. But if I look a little deeper than an aversion to pressure-cooker macho grandstanding, it’s probably not the only thing that dissuaded me.
It’s exciting that Scotland are in the World Cup; I love a sense of occasion, even without being a football fan. I love wall charts, special edition soft drinks, and sweepstakes. But knowing that the Football Association banned women’s games on their premises in 1921, and didn’t lift it again until 1971 – yes, as recently as that – has also made it also genuinely moving to watch the nation being represented now by its excellent women.
The players of the Scottish women’s national team, who in 1972 faced England for the first ever international game played by Scottish women, were also belatedly presented with honours at Tuesday’s match by the First Minister herself, after going without recognition by the Scottish FA at the time.
I looked at the faces who waited so long to be given their due in a retro post-match photograph that is now almost 50 years old. In it they clutch drinks and cheer, grinning into the lens. Imagine winning for Scotland, but being denied proper recognition for decades afterwards. It sounds like the cursed wish from a genie; some kind of cruel conundrum. I admire them most of all, and at a gut level veer between hurt and anger for them; but take refuge in the knowledge that it takes a lot of inner strength to be such a pioneer, and that as a team they at least had one another to pay witness to their winnings.
But of course, I don’t know how it felt at all. I can only map onto it other stories and other situations that have in common ways in which women have been shut out – things I’ve experienced myself in lesser and more contemporary ways, but mostly the scorched-in pattern made by many other women’s similar stories and testimonies from all walks of life, as well as the evidence still all around us that women are less valued by society, in our history books, monuments, and as seen in recent drives towards equal pay. The 1972 team’s lack of recognition was described as “regrettable”, but there is no past tense when it comes to the bigger picture: women’s achievements are still routinely and wilfully undermined in so many ways, big and small. Studies have shown that girls are more likely to underestimate their own abilities from an early age.
This is the most exciting, engaging event in Scottish national sport in a long time. I’ve enjoyed seeing the men and women who are regular football fans welcome new attendees like me, or relish the opportunity to take their kids to a historic sporting moment. Of course, some have chips on their shoulders about women’s sport.
In searching for information about kick-off time, I found one scornful of the idea the national stadium should be used for a women’s game at all. You can’t react to every online loudmouth: it would be exhausting, it takes a little bit of extra energy to even ignore such deep disdain, or to have to brace for hostility in anticipation when taking an interest in sport played by women.
It was entirely unsurprising some boorish comments came in print, too. Professionally contrarian or not, it doesn’t stop it from being a sickening reminder the Scottish commentariat still skews male. When was the last time anyone wrote an opinion piece having a go at the men’s team for merely existing? Mostly, though, these sportswomen are being celebrated and it’s wonderful to see such positivity. All those girls and boys chanting for national heroes who happen to be women? This is their game, and the world they’ll come to inhabit as adults. Their cheering will drown out the last roar of the dinosaurs. Get out of the way, a meteor is coming.
We have the right to be angry at how women’s achievements have been treated historically. But god, do we also deserve, as we have for a very long time, to cheer. If we were to trace a line with with our finger, today’s national team are not very far from yesterday’s women who were banned from stepping out onto the pitches. There’s a real buoyancy in recognising progress has in fact been made when it comes to celebrating the nation’s women. At Tuesday’s game, children were cheering for this history in the making.
I have my Panini sticker album and a fistful of stickers, and I’ll be wearing one of the beautiful shell-pink away tops, which look sleek and cool against the green pitch, when the World Cup begins. I don’t know if my passing fad will become a habit, but I enjoyed going to my first football game and feeling at home there, among a crowd of young and old all happy to see women in the spotlight, cheering them on. Come on Scotland! If we can evolve to this point, nothing’s impossible – maybe we can even win a World Cup.