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Female fans don’t want to watch the World Cup in the dark

Alcohol, testosterone and emotion: Getting home from the pub surrounded by drunk football fans will be even more dangerous for women this winter.

November 17 2022, 14.15pm

“I’ve been sexually assaulted in broad daylight, so this is a concern for women all year-round. But the dark definitely makes you feel more vulnerable,” says Alison Speechly, football coach and Spurs fan.

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be the first time the majority of the games will end, or both start and end, in darkness. 

Not only does this destroy the ‘outdoor screen, pub garden, throw your pint into the crowd’ vibe that usually makes the World Cup an emblematic feature of British summer time, but this wintry backdrop adds a new layer of danger for women who want to watch.

“It’s the travelling to and from the venues that really worries me,” Alison tells The Lead. “Getting there and back, in the dark, is really off-putting.

“This World Cup is bad vibes, for lots of reasons, but there are still going to be people who will want to watch it. We can’t stop it happening, so all we can do is try to make it as safe for women as possible.”

The buildup to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has been marred with controversy after controversy, from the allegations of Saudi ‘sports-washing’, to the human rights atrocities inflicted on the labourers building the stadiums, and the backdrop of corruption and bribery.

But, closer to home, it is the female fan-base who will be most affected by the change in schedule. There is a risk that safety fears will widen divides, chipping away at the slow but steady progress that has been made improving inclusivity in football over the last few years. Research from End Violence Against Women found that one in two women already feel unsafe going out at night, and one in five women have experienced unwanted physical attention while attending men's football matches, according to findings from a Football Supporters' Association survey last year.

This Fan Girl is trying to make a change. The platform, powered by women who love the beautiful game, has 15K followers on Instagram and they hold regular meetups across the country and in New York and Paris, with the aim of creating safe spaces for women to watch the game. Now, they are working with pubs to recommend strategies for making their venues more inclusive and appealing for women who want to watch the World Cup. 

Founder Amy Drucquer tells us she started the group in 2017 because of how intimidating it felt walking into pubs to watch a football match as a woman. Five years on, she says the need to transform football culture is just as urgent.

“The fact that this World Cup is happening at all feels really sad, to be honest,” says Amy. “The World Cup is meant to be an incredible showcase of football, and we know that this sport has the power to bring people together. The fact that it’s happening in Qatar really undermines this. A lot of fans feel really hopeless. But the reality is that it is happening, and it is going to be everywhere.”

Amy and many of the members of This Fan Girl have experienced hostility in pubs and in male-majority football crowds. To try to tackle this, she has set out a charter with clear recommendations for pubs to sign up to, committing to improving the environment for a broader spectrum of fans.

Ahead of the tournament, This Fan Girl is sharing their guidance free of charge with anyone working in the nightlife or hospitality industry. Pubs that have acknowledged the charter will then be added to the Pub Finder, a place where fans can find the This Fan Girl Charter Pub closest to them.

“Pubs can do really simple things like letting people know very explicitly that their venue is open to all fans, of all backgrounds, races, and the LGBTQ+ community,” says Amy. “They can showcase this by not only showing England games, but also games with teams from around the world.

“Flag usage is also important. The England flag doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. We know that a pub covered in England flags can be a very provocative image for fans from different nations, and it can feel overtly racist. It’s not about taking those flags down, but you could also include flags from other nations and flags from LGBTQ+ communities.”

Beyond the visual, Amy says it’s also about thinking about the venue space. Are there shadowy blind-spots where female fans could be cornered? Are there enough staff on patrol, looking out specifically for the wellbeing of female and minority spectators? Are the toilets accessible and easy to find? Does the venue have covers for drinks to prevent spiking?

The issue of getting home after a game, surrounded by drunk, male fans, is one that is compounded by darkness - but, as Alison identifies, this problem is not exclusive to winter. Female football fans have to navigate sexism, aggression, and the threat of violence all year-round.

“It's the age-old thing of having to justify your existence in a space,” she says. “Men will be like - ‘Why have you booked a table when we could have sat there?’ or ‘What do you even know about the game?’ Or they assume we’re just perving on the lads, which is always really funny for me, because I'm a qualified coach.

“But essentially, it is just about feeling uncomfortable in a space that is very male dominated, there's lots of alcohol and there's lots of testosterone and there's lots of emotion. Football is emotional. There is always the worry that it can turn ugly very quickly. The hardest thing for me is always the threat of potential violence.”

Alison says women have to navigate the world differently to men, and in a football setting she is constantly on high-alert: “I’m always asking myself - ‘Is he a threat, or not?’ I’ve been watching games before and when I get up to go to the toilet, men have made comments or leered at me as I passed. Once, a guy even physically blocked my path. This is a problem that exists regardless of the time of day or year.”

As well as sexism, homophobia, ableism and racism are also issues that can make football spaces hostile and inaccessible for many. Amy is mixed-race with Indian heritage, but says she presents as white. She has witnessed racist behaviour and has had to put her safety on the line to call it out in the past.

“I call it out not because I’m mixed, but because I’m anti-racist. White people should be calling it out too,’ she says. “It’s up to the men in these spaces to challenge their friends when they’re being sexist or racist. I think younger generations are better equipped to do that, which does make me feel hopeful for the future.

“Women’s football crowds are tribal and emotional too. I get annoyed when I hear people say the women’s game is all ‘nicey-nicey’, or they market games as a family day out where kids can get their faces painted. But there is a better way to watch football, it doesn’t have to be cocaine-fuelled, or drunken and aggressive.”

As well as This Fan Girl’s campaign to provide guidance to pubs, they’ll also be hosting a series of meetups in The Flowerhouse Pub: 21st November, 1pm ENG v IRAN and 29th November, 7pm ENG v WALES.