The DIY group carving out space for women’s football

The DIY group carving out space for women’s football

Baller FC — With the Women’s Euros in full swing, last week saw glorious, sweaty celebrations take place in a dedicated, safe space for female and non-binary fans.

It’s 10pm inside the Stag’s Head in Hoxton, East London, and it is hot. Like, sweat pouring down your head and into your eyes hot. Despite the heat, no one dares leave their seats, or the bits of wall they’ve found to lean on. On huge screens throughout the pub, it’s the 83rd minute of the Women’s Euro 2022 quarter-final between England and Spain. It’s getting tense.

It’s been 29-long minutes since Spain scored the first and so far only goal of the match. 29 agonising minutes, as the dozens of predominantly women and non-binary people who have packed out the pub come to terms with the idea that maybe, just maybe, it might not be coming home. As England push up the field, gasps and cheers see bums off seats as the crowd lift their hands to the ceiling. Cries of, “Come on” fill the space as the ball falls to Emma Toone, who punts it into the back of the net. 

The place erupts. Hugs and shouts of joy are exchanged as the final six minutes of the match unfold. It’ll be just a few minutes into extra time before England score again – a screamer from Georgia Stanway – and the pub fills with jubilation. When the final whistle does eventually blow, someone drops Gala’s ‘Freed from Desire’ and the crowds jump up and dances in glorious, sweaty celebration.

In many ways, the heat, the noise, the beer, the joy and the jeopardy were par for the course when taking in an England game at an East End boozer. But this was different. The screening last week was part of a partnership between the Stags Head and Baller FC to show every game in the Women’s Euros.

I spoke to Rachel, one of Baller FC’s founders, earlier in the evening when the pub was empty. She told me how the group came to be. “We’re a group of friends that watch a lot of football together. None of us play football for any teams but we’ve been following England for quite a long time.” 

“We went to the last Women’s World Cup and one of the best things was meeting the fans and the other teams, celebrating with them afterwards. What we found was that, when women’s tournaments were on, it was quite hard to find anywhere to watch any game that wasn’t England. So our idea was to find a venue and come to them with a proposal to show every game of the Women’s Euros. They said, ‘We know nothing about women’s football but we love the idea.’ So we came to an agreement with them and that’s how we’re here.”

Since the beginning of July, the group has hosted screenings of each game. What started as an idea between a few like-minded friends has quickly blossomed into something much bigger. “It’s getting busier and busier,” Rachel says, breaking off momentarily to greet one of the many who have slowly started to drip through the door and fill up the venue. “The England games are the busiest, but we’re still getting a really good number of people coming down for the other games as well. We’ve had Americans down, Swedes down, we got a big group of Germans the other day, some Dutch fans. We’ve had quite a few fans from those countries who live in London, but also fans that are here for the tournament. When they]re not watching their team, they’ve heard about what we’re doing, and then they come down.”

For Selena, another of the founders, the creation of a dedicated social space around women’s football has been one of the most important parts of the project. “It can be quite intimidating to go to the pub to watch football on your own,” she says. “The idea was to create a space where you could come down and know the game would be playing and know you’d have people to watch it with. It’s actually been quite surprising that not only fans of other countries come to watch games, but they’ll come down on their own and just start chatting with other people.”

“What we’ve found both going to the games and putting on screenings is that it’s a very different atmosphere to go to watch men’s football.” Selena continues. “It’s not antagonistic. It’s not aggressive. It’s very much more welcoming and less tribalistic. Sounds a bit cheesy, but everybody started lifting each other up. I  think because it’s fans of women’s football – and so mostly like queer women – and you sort of see the importance in positive communities. That’s why we’ve done a lot of stuff like working with queer creators and female artists to try and share the platform.”

For many, the idea of walking into a pub full of screaming, braying men is the stuff of nightmares. It represents a world that often shuts women or queer people out – or actively targets them for not fitting in. They can be a place of trauma and aggression and pain that prohibits people from truly engaging with the beautiful game, and all the highs and lows that come with it. That’s why Baller FC exists – to find the joy, beauty and friendship in football that many have struggled to access.

The group commissioned local artist Emma Hayden to draw portraits of five players they believed would dominate the tournament this year. On the wall in the main events space at the pub a portrait, also by Hayden, of England manager Sarina Weigman is posted. The lustful groan that ripples through the room every time someone clocks it or, later, sees her on the big screen speaks to the overwhelming demographic of the clientele. It’s something the group are really aware of and have tried to utilise the space to uplift members of the often unrepresented or ignored community.

“We’ve had people down to DJ after the games who’ve never done it before but wanted to give it a go because it’s so hard to break into that space,” Rachel tells me. “We’ve hosted a variety of workshops too. Last Sunday we had a zine-making workshop. All the zines are going to go into the archive at the Bishopsgate Institute”.

With every passing screening, it’s clear there’s an appetite for the space Baller FC have created. They’ve already turned their gaze to the upcoming Women’s Super League season, as well as the men’s World Cup in Qatar later this year – though the latter doesn’t come without its own complications. “It’s quite problematic that they can’t guarantee the safety of LGBTQ fans who want to travel to the event,” says Selena. “So many people have died building it – it’s hard to balance. People will still want to watch it and creating a space like this to facilitate that is important, but questions still sit around whether we should be endorsing it – or whether we should try and make it into something positive”.

It’s that kind of consideration that makes Baller FC so special. More than just a group of football fans coming together to get lairy and watch England bring it home, the screenings feel more about the creation of that home – a safe space and community for people to come together via sport, unity and joy. For Rachel, it’s the culmination of years of work.

“Baller FC incorporates everything that we’re passionate about. We’ve been putting on parties for quite a long time and love that experience. It’s been so nice to throw [together] everything that we’re passionate about – art, music, football, people and creating a space that is inclusive and happy. It fills me with joy every time I see it.” 

Ben Smoke is Huck’s Politics & Activism Editor. Follow him on Twitter.

Follow Emily Jayne Nolan on Instagram

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