90min are releasing a series of articles from some of women's football's leading figures, on and off the pitch, around the SheBelieves Cup in the US. Here, Chris Paouros – co-chair of Proud Lilywhites and one of its founding members – talks about LGBT inclusivity and the development of women's football.
When you walk up the steps and see that pitch for the first time, you just get that feeling. There’s that collective feeling of hope and shared will. There’s nothing like it. How do you manage to feel a collective sense of community and hope with 30, 40 – or in Spurs’ new stadium’s case – 60,000 different people? That noise of the crowd is like nothing you ever hear in any other context or any other walk of life. Everyone, together, all pulling in the same direction in unison. I’ve always understood as a supporter that my team, in whichever era, isn’t going to win every single game. I’m alright with that. Football and match days are about more than that. I’ll love my team and the community around it whatever happens.
As a kid I used to go and watch Tottenham with my uncle and his group of friends whenever they had a spare ticket, but had always said to myself, "one day, when I get my first job I’ll treat myself to a season ticket."
Since I got that first season ticket in 1996, my experience at White Hart Lane has always been very positive. I do however remember, in my late teens, around the time of my own political awakening, I slightly fell out of love with football.
I couldn’t quite reconcile what the football culture at the time meant and felt in comparison to my own feelings toward women’s equality and LGBT rights. In the 90s you didn’t ever talk about equality or LGBT rights in football...ever. I was never quite able put the two together, and I think that it’s a shame that at some point, for me, football felt limited.
When I helped start the Proud Lilywhites, Spurs’ LGBT fan group, we wanted to make it clear, "we’re football fans, like you or anybody else." I always felt as though, White Hart Lane was my house. None of us would stand for any sort of abuse or discrimination within our own home, so I certainly wasn’t going to stand for any within White Hart Lane. I think my own experience to date has played a big part in the efforts I try to make now around Women in Football, women’s inclusion and the women’s game...I do it for my 11-year-old self.
Women’s football and ‘Women in Football’ have absolutely got a place alongside men in football and the men’s game. I’m so proud at Tottenham, for example, that the women’s team is alongside the men’s team in a lot of what we do. We’re one club, under the same badge. Even through small wins such as the men’s and women’s team attending events together as one club, or even players from the men’s team being more invested in the women’s team’s results and performances, we are on a trajectory of social change and that can help changes of attitude within football and in the terraces.
I feel that one of things that’s perhaps missing in the women’s game is access points to the different personalities there. But that isn’t down to a lack of great characters, it’s because there isn’t enough coverage. If you go to a women’s game, you’ll see there are loads of young girls there inspired by the players they’re watching. The players are incredibly open to coming to spend time with supporters post match, to take time perhaps in a slightly different way to the men’s team. The more we help develop and show those personalities the better.
That’s even clearer when you consider that a lot of female footballers aren’t professional yet, and a lot of them have got full time jobs, which is phenomenal. When you talk about the characters and personalities within the women’s game, Imagine the character, commitment and dedication required to work all day long then to go and have a three hour training session in the evening. That involves not just the fitness, the tactics sessions, the time in the gym, the game sessions but also the mental character as well. It’s truly phenomenal when you consider how fine the margins are in football and what is required to make a truly successful team.
Right now there’s a will from the fans, there’s a will from the clubs, and there’s a will from the governing bodies for football to become more diverse, more equal, more tolerant and more of a cause for good. Jonathan Waite (former Spurs supporter liaison officer) said to me once, "I don’t understand why we see any sort of discrimination within football, because treating people well is just human."
Football is on the front pages and the back pages, so we’ve got to make the most of that opportunity to spread positive messages through football. We’ve got the opportunity to make real change, and there’s a will from people within the footballing world to do that. I just want there to be that will to want positive change, and a will to recognise we all are fans, supporters and players like anyone else.