Ask anyone what they enjoy about attending professional women’s football and the answers will be similar: they are reeled in not only by the quality but the atmosphere, friendliness and inclusivity. With the women’s game growing, the toxicity around men’s football, especially for travelling supporters, is an even more glaring contrast. As the season ends, the Guardian spoke to fans of clubs across the Premier League and EFL who reported offensive chants, language, behaviour and sexual assaults. For women, families, black, Asian and minority ethnic and LGBTQ+ fans, following their team on the road can be difficult and uncomfortable.
One female supporter spoke of experiencing sexual assaults regularly when following her team and going to other games with friends. “I’ve normalised it,” she said. “You’d think I’d turn around and call them out, but I didn’t. Last time, it was only [when] walking back to the car I said to my husband: ‘Oh yeah, that’s happened again.’ I should have been more horrified, but it happens all the time, particularly at away games where people have been drinking all day. They think that’s acceptable. I don’t accept that.”
Other supporters say physical threats are the exception rather than the rule. “You can absolutely have a horrible experience and feel massively uncomfortable but at no point feel that your personal safety is under threat. They are two very different things,” says a female supporter of a Premier League club.
But she adds: “The number of times women are expected to ‘put up and shut up’ in an uncomfortable scenario, or get told: ‘Don’t be soft, you need to harden up – this is football.’ ‘If you want to come to football, you’ve got to grow a pair.’ What? You must be kidding?”
The link between away games and unacceptable behaviour is striking. A fan of a northern club said that whereas she loves to go to away games with her father, she would not do so alone. Another said that solo home games are fine but she would not consider an away fixture without a companion. The Women of Watford group is designed to address this by allowing like-minded fans to travel and sit together. The club works alongside them to ensure this happens.
Many away fans travel by coach, whether unofficial or laid on by clubs. An LGBTQ+ supporter of a north-west team said she and her partner would never take their children on either. “You see tweets like: ‘We’re going hounding’, which basically means to pick up women,” she said. She is almost self-critical when adding that in all other areas of life she stands up to homophobic discrimination but accepts it at football.
Some fixtures – usually derbies – are designated as “bubble games”, with police dictating that away fans must use designated transport methods. A female supporter who recently took a mandatory coach to one such match spoke of feeling extremely uncomfortable at men urinating in bottles and the casual use of racist and homophobic language. At the same derby, away fans with disabilities were housed directly beneath home fans.
The longer the expectation-cum-acceptance of unhealthy norms in fan behaviour remains unchallenged, the deeper rooted they become. But the next generation of fans can bring about change.
Obtaining a ticket for an away game can be tricky, though. Football historically rewards supporter loyalty, a practice that reflects the wider business world but acts as a barrier to entry. How can one accrue credit without opportunity?
The female fan who travels with her dad relies on his friend not using his booking reference. Given the high demand for away tickets she will, without change, never be eligible of her own accord.
Manchester City addressed this a few seasons ago. Five percent of away tickets are reserved for supporters aged between 18 and 25, and loyalty points are no longer awarded for purchasing away tickets. Further, a randomly selected set of fans must collect their ticket on the day from the away club. The aim here was to close the “buy-to-sell” market. All simple steps but ones that can make a real difference.
Most clubs have posters in stadiums encouraging supporters to text a helpline if they hear foul and abusive language or discrimination. However, the way this is dealt with remains problematic.
A fan ambassador at one Premier League club has received complaints that the stewards would openly ask the complainant to identify the perpetrator. A similar story was told about a lower-league club. That instantly removes the cloak of anonymity, discouraging people from coming forward.
Another top-flight club promises zero tolerance on foul and abusive language. But one away supporter said that after reporting a home fan who spent an hour screaming obscenities at away fans, the stewards did not initially remove the offender. Only when pushed on the club’s zero-tolerance approach was the individual ejected. This behaviour is typical of those buying tickets at the barrier between home and away supporters.
Steward inertia can be problematic. “When they say zero tolerance, it isn’t zero tolerance,” says another female supporter. “Anything that crosses the line – violence, potentially something like racism – they’ll do something about that. But it’s not zero tolerance against aggressive language. It’s almost like it’s expected.”
No one suggested a blanket ban on offensive language at football, but when the primary aim of attending is to scream abuse, surely that crosses the line?
Several contributors also believed that clubs who receive pushback from banned fans do not want the hassle of resisting, or do not investigate actively enough. A supporter at a Championship club reported a fan for racially abusing a player. Despite several witnesses being present, that fan is still allowed to attend matches.
Then there are the songs. At their best, football chants can be witty, heart-filling cries. But at their worst, they are hate crimes. Post-pandemic, the trivialisation of sex offences is commonplace. Homophobia and racism, too.
The difficulty, clubs say, is in how hard to approach these issues: active cease-and-desist requests can have the opposite effect. Take, for example, a black player who asked his supporters not to sing about his genitals. Instead, his own fans sang louder. For parents, such chants can lead to difficult questions and conversations.
Clubs can only do so much. Everyone attending men’s football must play their part. But easy wins are not being recognised, initiatives such as those run by Manchester City or supported by Watford that other clubs could follow.
Clubs could ensure zero tolerance really does mean zero tolerance. The men’s game is lagging behind and must catch up.