Fitness: She Shoots, She Scores! How women's football has captured the imagination this summer...
“Maybe we should practice penalties. . . I think the England team might need some new penalty takers!”
It’s a sunny Thursday evening in July and England have just crashed out at the semi-final stage of the Women’s World Cup following a penalty miss by captain Steph Houghton. I’m at St Albans Recreation Ground in Cambridge, at a Kickstart Football Fitness session for women, and the conversation turns to the World Cup and a rather familiar scenario: England, semi-finals and penalty misery.
What’s not so familiar is the passion, support and genuine interest for this England team and the women’s game as a whole. We’re used to the men’s game dominating conversations during a balmy summer. We’re used to the what-ifs and near-misses of Beckham, Rooney and co. The bittersweet evenings spent with family and friends cheering on a side who deep down inside you know won’t break the 30 (or is it 53 now?) years of hurt. But this is women’s football. The unpopular and considerably poorer little sister of the global juggernaut that is the men’s game. Well, that’s what we’ve been led to believe anyway.
This summer feels like a changing of the guard. 11.7 million people watched England’s defeat to the USA in the semi-final, that’s the highest peak television audience of year so far. Names like Toni Duggun and Ellen White are no longer met with a blank look and a ‘Who?’. And here we are, a group of ladies, all different ages, many of whom haven’t touched a football in years, if ever, discussing ‘last night’s game’ while limbering up for a kickabout.
Over the last couple of years participation in the women’s game has been steadily rising, and it’s more than likely there will be a spike following this summer’s tournament. But for many women, myself included, the idea of joining a proper team can feel more than a little daunting. That’s what’s so great about the Kickstart Football Fitness concept. It promises a gentle, slightly less intimidating introduction to some basic football skills, while also incorporating a variety of fitness exercises, so you can get a great workout too. Think squats AND squads.
It’s a Cambridge City Council and Cambs FA initiative and is part of a programme of activities led by the council which aims to get more women and girls into sport. It’s a six-week course, suitable for all football and fitness abilities, with no prior experience required or expected. If there’s a thirst for it, the council hope to make it a regular fixture come the autumn.
The session is run by Matt, a coach with experience in both personal training and football, and he’s brilliant. There are 10 ladies in the group and the majority of us are total beginners. I ask what attracted people to the session. One lady tells me that she grew up in India, where “nobody cares about football, they just play cricket”. She wanted something with a little bit more running involved, so decided to give it a go. She’s got the bug. There’s a mother and daughter there too (“That’s you doing the dishes later,” the mum laughs at one point after a game gets rather competitive). Another lady tells me she used to play, but “hasn’t touched a ball in years”. The mazy runs, swerving shots, and general air of football know-how prove she’s still got it.
As for me, I definitely don’t have ‘it’. My dad is a former footballer. I’ve grown up in a football-mad family. I love watching football and I like to think I know a lot about it. The odds were definitely in my favour. Unfortunately, though, this didn’t quite translate into any natural ability. I tripped over the ball more times than I care to remember, made an art out of toe-punting, and probably still wouldn’t have scored a goal even if I’d been there all night.
But as the organisers are keen to emphasise, it’s not about ability, it’s about having fun and keeping fit, and I can definitely give those two things a tick. The different drills focus on things like dribbling, passing and controlling the ball, but there’s also star jumps, squats, sprints and lunges thrown into the mix too, and it’s all done to dance music. We attempt the drills with varying levels of success, one in particular turns into a bit of farce, and there’s a joke about women and multi-tasking.
The atmosphere is supportive and a lot of fun. There’s plenty of laughter, chat and ‘well dones’. The hour goes by in a flash and we’re left red-faced and breathless by the end. As a workout, it’s fast paced and varied; you feel like you’ve worked your body physically, but because it’s such a laugh, it doesn’t really feel like exercise at all.
We finish the session with a 5-a-side game, and things get a little bit more competitive. All good-natured, of course (“REEFFFF, THAT’S A FOUL! COME ON!”). My team lose, but hey, it’s the taking part that counts, right England? There’s handshakes and cheers at the end as we congratulate the victors, and vow to do better next time.
We’ve got another four years to practice those penalties. . .
To find out more about sport and fitness opportunities in Cambridge, visit facebook.com/getmovingcam or the Cambridge City Council website at cambridge.gov.uk. You can also get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org
Pictures by Keith Heppell