At a time when there have been increasing calls for greater inclusion and diversity in institutions and organisations all over the world, a fairly unusual situation exists within the England women’s national football team. Whereas a quarter of the footballers in the men’s Premier League and Football League are Black, with just over a third of the national men’s football team in Qatar 2022, being Black, the women’s national team that won the Euros last year was predominantly White. The difference in ethnic diversity of both national squads could not be more distinct. For this reason, a few people have described the England Women’s Lionesses as ‘the England All-Whites.’ It seems, in order to change this perception, the women’s game has started to make significant steps to address this imbalance in the last few years.
It was some 40 years ago that the first Black footballer played for England, and since then, just over 100 Black men have played for the national team. The women’s game has also developed, especially in the two or three decades in terms of numbers of teams and also increased numbers of girls and women playing the game. In 2022, the national women’s football team achieved what initially seemed impossible by winning the European Championship at Wembley Stadium. However, despite this achievement, there have been criticisms about the lack of diversity. They were particularly criticised by former player Anita Asante, who argued that this lack of diversity in the England Women squad could stop many Black girls from dreaming of pulling on an England shirt. One reporter, Eilidh Barbour, received a backlash with over 200 complaints from the public for observing and declaring that the Lionesses were all-White. It cannot be denied that the vast majority of England’s Euro-winning women’s team were White. This is particularly remarkable given the fact that 20 years or so ago, the Black woman, Hope Powell, managed the national team and was a former England player.
Even before the final in 2022, there had been attempts to raise the profile of the women’s game. One claim that is made, is that players from ethnic minorities and working-class backgrounds may be less able to access out of town training facilities, and progress within the sport. The number of Black, Asian and minority ethnic players selected for England women youth teams has increased from 7 per cent to 17 per cent between the 2017-18 season. It is also claimed by the Football Association, released as part of the announcement of a revamped Women’s and Girls’ Player Pathway, that the proportion of Black, Asian and minority ethnic players selected for women’s Under-17 camps has had a seven-fold increase in two years, from 5 per cent to 36 per cent. What this might be suggesting is that just as how we saw increasing numbers of Black boys and men taking part in the game at grass roots level from the 1970s, we are seeing similar patterns now. One factor that might have also added to this momentum is the England victory at Wembley last year. Since then, we have seen record numbers of people attending women’s football matches up and down the country. Interestingly, many of the people attending these matches are girls and women. If this momentum on and off the field continues, it would be very unlikely for future England teams to consist of so few Black players. Perhaps we have reached a turning point in women’s football, where more girls and women from grassroots backgrounds are getting involved.
Dr. Tony Talburt is a senior lecturer at Birmingham City University in the UK.