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A Woman’s Game by Suzanne Wreck Review – Reclaim the Pitch | sports and leisure books

Suzanne Wrack argues that for women, just playing football is a feminist act, a form of activism. Your book begins as a historical overview but ends as a manifesto.

Wrack is the women’s football correspondent for the Guardian and Observer. It follows the rise of football through the suffrage movement and World War I as the influx of women into the workforce took them to the football pitch – at its peak the famous Dick, Kerr Ladies FC drew 53,000 spectators. Wrack believes it was partly that success and phenomenal box office fees that drew the ire of the Football Association. In 1921, she declared football “unsuitable for women” and banned the sport from the pitches of all affiliated clubs. Fifty Years in the Wilderness followed, during which the sport went underground. The ban was finally lifted in 1971, which still sounds far too new.

Fascinating connections emerge from this story. Wrack draws a line between Nettie Honeyball, the self-proclaimed founder of the British Ladies’ Football Club in 1894, who championed gender-neutral clothing, and US star Megan Rapinoe, who was named the best Fifa player in the world in 2019 and described herself as “walking protest”. (During Donald Trump’s presidency, she refused to go to the White House.) Both footballers have seen the pitch as an opportunity to bring about social change, and Wreck diligently weaves social and historical strands to show how women’s football is changing far outperforms men in terms of inclusivity and activism. Check out Jake Daniels, who last month became the first male professional footballer in the UK to come out as gay in over 30 years.

However, women’s football occupies a difficult position in relation to men’s football and this unease is at the root of the sport’s faltering professionalisation. Wrack also puts it at the heart of her book: how far should the sport push its independence from men’s football and celebrate its differences? And to what extent does it depend on men’s football to achieve sustainable professionalism? Wrack’s own language is mired in this conundrum: women’s football is “catching up,” and Wrack says they’re not yet “a sustainable, indispensable arm of [men’s] Clubs,” which makes her sound like a limb belonging to a stronger body. Wrack pleads for more independence, but also for women’s teams to “piggyback on a men’s tournament every now and then”.

Interestingly, Wrack says she too “found a home” in women’s football, and this book bears a faint shadow of memories. She alludes to her own exile from sport as a child, the discomfort she felt about her body that seemed repulsive to school football – ideas that could have carried development. But this is a comprehensive and detailed historical overview of women’s football at a pivotal point in its growth, one that raises probing questions about what football should do next.

A Women’s Game: The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of Women’s Football by Susanne Wrack is published by Guardian Faber (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, buy a copy guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply.

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