Words and photography by Harriet Duffy.
Let’s talk about women’s football.
You’ve probably noticed it more in the past year than ever before, seen the headlines recounting the Lionesses’ European glory on home soil or even flicked over TV channels and stumbled across a game being broadcast. There's been record breaking attendances at all levels and uncanny murals of players popping up wherever you look. No matter what your interests are, women’s football will have floated across your periphery and cemented its being in the back of your mind. There's just no escaping that feel-good feeling of when something succeeds and in this case, that success story belongs to the women's game.
As the FIFA Women’s World Cup waits patiently around the corner in Australia and New Zealand, now is as good a time as ever to begin immersing yourself in the culture of the game. A culture that has been slowly brewing for some time, kept alive by die-hard fans who pride themselves on inclusivity and a pure love for the sport. A culture that, once you come across it, you’ll just simply never want to leave. And, whether it’s international or domestic football, this culture doesn’t waiver, if anything, it just gets more tribal. On matchdays you’ll find yourself in a sea of team colours, shirts and bootleg merchandise littered all around you. It’s an environment you’ll get addicted to. I know I have.
Take last summer when England hosted the UEFA Women’s Euros: a month of football fuelled ecstasy, fleeting encounters and hours spent on public transport. From pregame marches to bucket hats bought, new cities explored and a heatwave endured. It was a month like no other. Full of supporters’ groups sharing stories of Euros past and making stories of Euros present. My part in it all? To document the inclusive fan culture that goes hand in hand with the women’s game. To drink enough alcohol and consume enough pie that I probably helped UEFA make a profit and, ultimately, to have the opportunity to watch some of the best football I’ve ever seen.
From Rotherham to Brighton, Manchester to Southampton; England basked in the beauty of the game and created the perfect environment for a summer tournament. A tournament that started off with a new competition attendance record when 68,871 fans filtered through Old Trafford’s turnstiles for the opening game between England and Austria. Start as you mean to go on, right?
On the pitch we had creativity in midfield, battles in defence and flair up front and, off the pitch we had an array of different European football cultures mixing together to create a vibrant community of fans celebrating the women’s game and backing their country no matter what. If you were in England last July, you may recall snippets of the Dutch in head-to-toe orange or the Swedish with their yellow shirts and blue IKEA bucket hats. They brought over traditions old and new, pregaming together for hours in the fan zones and then going on to chant for the full ninety minutes. Their antics became one of the key stories of the tournament with people flocking to games to take part in the celebrations, marching in unison towards the stadiums choreographed by a mixture of drums and megaphones. There were open top buses blaring out dance tunes that seemed to hypnotise all those that walked behind, setting the atmosphere for the games ahead. Positivity doused the occasion and as ticket sales kept rolling in, there seemed to be some sort of attendance record being broken at every game. Matches were end to end, stadiums were buzzing and people were obsessed.
For many, the Women’s Euros was a true ‘welcome to women’s football’ moment and it was just magic.
And then you look at European domestic women’s football this season and the story is very much the same, a thriving community of fans following the game as if their lives depend on it. After all, the Euros wasn’t just a one-off tournament that put women’s football on the map for a month, it was a tournament that brought in new fans, created idols and gave the game the platform it deserved.
The result of it? Well, there’s been countless attendance records broken, a fan online presence like never before and an ever-growing interest in the game at every level. And so, inevitably, the tribalism that comes with football has never been more present as fans have become louder and are now fully relishing in club rivalries. Pubs are now regularly filled before and after games with supporters coming together to hype each other up and draft new chants. Yes, there may be the odd family friendly marketing campaign by clubs selling matches as being fun day outs instead of sporting events but, the majority of people going to games aren’t lining the barriers with ‘can i have your shirt signs?’ or asking for photos.
No, the majority of fans will be there giving their undivided attention to the ninety minutes of football played, calling out refs and disagreeing with tactics. Because women’s football isn’t something that comes around whenever a major tournament is on. No, women’s football is part of peoples’ existence, their DNA. It’s something to look forward to and dread week-in-week out.
And so, the World Cup might be played on the other side of the globe this summer but don’t let that stop you from indulging in it all and getting behind your country. Ask your local to put on a game, join up with others for watch parties and start your Panini sticker collection. Embrace women’s football because trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
Harriet Duffy is photographer and writer from Worcester specialising in the history and fan culture of the women’s game.