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“You have to see it to believe it”

Eartha PondContributor

On Sunday we all witnessed a historic moment that many didn’t even believe was possible let alone dream about it…with Football coming home thanks to the Lionesses!   

Home is where the heart is

For millions of people up and down the country, the lionesses demanded their attention through their performances. For once we were able to see the results of meaningful investment and our talent were allowed to perform rather than be micro-managed.

For many who could envisage themselves following in the footsteps of our new lioness household names.

There were many who asked, why is the England team so white? How comes I can’t see anyone who looks like me? Is football even a career pathway for black or ethnic minority girls?     

You have to see it to believe it, is what they said. But even at 6-0 up against Norway with the game done and dusted, not one player of black heritage entered the field of play. From a technical and tactical point of view,

I raise no eyebrows in regards to Serina’s team selection. From a strategic point and in terms of impact, that score line and performance catches the eye of the nation. But who is on display for the nation to see?

What do aspiring girls and boys strike a similarity with outside of the skill and talent attributes on their screens? These are the questions I am asking and always trying to find solutions to.

There is no doubt this is the most talented in form squad England has ever had. Not just technically, but physiologically and psychologically most importantly.

For the first time watching the Lionesses, I could see an identity of how they wanted to play alongside players trusting the process.

For the first time we saw the personalities of players and the Lionesses took the nation with them on their journey. But what happens next?

Before a ball had even been kicked, at the FA we were clear that the legacy work needed to begin well in advance of the tournament.

The interventions in and around the host cities were embedded, learning clear lessons from key moments such as London 2012.

Access to football in and out of school was crucial. With opportunities to play football much more readily available for boys, we needed to ensure this was also the case for girls in the cohort too.

As an educator, I wanted to go even further than that in terms of prioritizing physical well-being.

Knowing the benefits of being physically active, be it in football or any other sporting activity.

I recognised the benefits for PE to be ring-fenced, with the same importance as afforded to the likes of English, Mathematics and Science. 

Be it the lack of confidence of a primary school teacher to deliver quality sports or the need of a secondary school to add an additional intervention of Maths before and exam. PE lessons are almost guaranteed to be the first subject that’s pulled to reallocate time for another form of learning.    

For me this naturally reduces the talent pipeline across all sports, with 1 in 10 primary school’s pupils overweight or obese. Back in 2019 when I petitioned the government to make core PE mandatory, they said “We have no plans to change the PE curriculum requirement but are taking a number of steps to support schools to provide PE and wider opportunities for pupils to be active”.

But with an open letter now peened by the winning Lioness Team following the Euro’s, hopefully we will see a shift. Weather we see change due to the timing or who said it, only time will tell. Most importantly is that change takes place, if we are to build on this moment embedding legacy.

Locations for opportunities to play not only in school but externally needs improving. As the squad’s hometowns demonstrated clear lack of investment in key diverse areas such as London, with elite training opportunities such as the Regional Talent Centers more than often located in rural spaces.

Unless you have access to a vehicle and funds to regularly travel long distances, participating at that level is not a viable option. Likewise, if the resources to spot talent is also close to these facilities, the diamonds remain in the rough.

Environment is such an important factor that has not been championed enough in my opinion. When you have a hybrid of characters coming together from all walks of life, how do you ensure you get the best version of them.

For the first time we got to know the players, through content created alongside media opportunities. Serina and her team created an environment where player not only felt part of, but where they could be themselves therefore perform at their best. Some of the key ingredients to a thriving environment is transparency, lived experience, accountability and togetherness.

It felt as though players and staff had equal expectations of what they wanted to deliver at this tournament and beyond. With managements lived experience of being successful at international competitions, to players who have played on the world stage for both club and country. 

The lens in which the world saw them and they saw the world, was pretty much identical for almost everyone.

With the only mother in the squad not playing a single minute and the other two players of black heritage not completing even 30min combined between them throughout the tournament. It can be very easy to simply point the finger and say “It’s just not good enough”.

When in actual fact there is just not a pipeline of diverse players, due to the historical lack of investment to provide the necessary equity to access the sport at an elite level.

That is why at grassroots, it is much less of a problem. However, it’s that next level of stretch and challenge which seem to be riddled with stumbling blocks.

As I watched in the stands as local girl and fellow QPR Fan Chloe Kelly caused what felt like the whole borough of Brent to roar in celebration of her goal. No one more than me was shocked to see her reveal one of the most important equipment items which facilitates females to move effectively.

The sports bra of course! Another drum I have been banging, like the ever-present band in the stands getting the crowds going all Euros. This item can impact the way some girls think, feel and perform. Like anything if you are not equipped to perform, the likelihood is you cannot produce your best. So it’s simple – No bra, no sport! There are exceptions to this e.g. Swimming, but in general fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

The new emerging talent centers being created will begin to fill that ever-present void and hopefully begin to bear fruit in the next five years. Not just internationally, but across our domestic leagues ensuing the whole football pyramid benefits from the talent nurtured.

This is not just as a player, but similar work is required across coaching, refereeing and most definitely in the boardroom.

So hopefully we don’t have to wait another 50+ years for football to come home and we can make football sure England is a regular adobe across all competions.

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