Girls need better access to grassroots football to grow the game and make the England team more racially diverse, says Mary Phillip, the first black captain of the Lionesses.
England’s women could win their first major international title on Sunday when they face Germany in the final of Euro 2022, but Phillip believes the country is still playing catch-up when it comes to encouraging widespread participation.
“On Sunday there will be a massive crowd, but they were pulling in crowds like that when the FA decided to ban the women’s game 101 years ago,” former England, Arsenal, Fulham and Millwall defender Phillip, 45, told City A.M.
“It was 50 years after that until women were allowed to start playing again. When the league became professional in 2013 they started promoting the game and putting facilities out there. That’s fantastic but you’re forgetting football at grassroots, which is where the game starts and ends for most people.
“Young girls right now will be looking to play but how many grassroots [organisations] at a level that can inspire and create are out there and available for them to start trying to live that dream? When I was a child it was different.”
Improved accessibility would also help to address the lack of diversity in an England squad of whom 20 out of 23 are white, says Phillip, which she feels is a symptom of a wider trend throughout the Women’s Super League.
“When your pool of diverse players is small, then your selection of them is going to be small. So you can’t say the manager isn’t picking them,” added Phillip, who features in Nationwide Building Society’s Where Greatness Is Made campaign.
“It’s opportunities. You need to link onto your grassroots club or local club to engage, make it easier for players to try out and not have to venture into the suburbs all the time.
Grow, learn, develop and move on
“You need inner city places where players can grow, learn, develop and move on from. There’s a lot of travel and expense involved and facilities aren’t as freely available. It’s not as easy as it once was to be selected and become an elite player.”
Phillip, who won 65 caps and played in two World Cups for England, believes the current crop can beat Germany if they stick to their swashbuckling style under Sarina Wiegman, which has reaped 20 goals in five games.
“There seems to be a real freedom in their play. They’re executing the game plan well and I think that’s down to them being allowed to express themselves,” she said.
“It’s going to be an amazing game. Both teams have come along in heaps. Each game they’ve come through they’ve shown different characteristics.
“As long as England go out and do what they’ve been doing – staying bold, sticking to that game plan given to them – anything is possible. It is theirs to take.”