All posts by Aina Villares-Vila

Harriet Stallard: combining football with a new passion – cheerleading

Although its inclusion at Tokyo 2020 is not yet guaranteed, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has given cheerleading provisional status as an Olympic sport.

In this video, Harriet Stallard – who recently joined UAL’s cheer team – tells Elephant Sport why people should give cheerleading a chance to establish itself as a sport. Stallard, who plays football as well, also talks about how cheer has given her the opportunity to meet new people and improve her fitness.

 

 

Excitement, stress and fear: El Clásico day in Barcelona

Barcelona is a busy, noisy city. On a normal day, thousands of people walk in Las Ramblas (or Les Rambles in Catalan), while hundreds of black and yellow taxis drive up from the Tibidabo down to the sea.

The centre of the Catalan capital becomes even more vibrant on an FC Barcelona match day, but when Barça are facing Real Madrid, stress and nervousness also hang in the air.

Barça is a national symbol for Catalans, so there is huge pressure and expectation when they play against bitter rivals Real.

El Clásico brings the whole city to fever pitch. It is impossible to sleep the night before – anxiety takes over your body and brain.

With itchy and tired eyes, fans wake up on the morning of the match already stressed. There is a feeling you don’t know how to deal with that walks with you as the hours building up to the game drag by really slowly.

As kick-off approaches, your heartbeat rises. Everybody talks about what is going to happen that night, planning where to watch it, with whom, and even betting on the result.

Intense

When Barça are playing away at the Bernabéu, that feeling of nervousness goes up another notch.

In the past, they have returned from one of the most intimidating stadia in the world with notable victories. Just thinking about their famous 6-2 win at Real in 2009 makes every Barça fan smile.

However, two different – and almost opposite – sensations take over culés’ brains. Confidence and excitement when thinking about the possibility of  a ‘manita’ (or ‘little hand’ – which refers to scoring five goals) – because nothing beat smashing Madrid on their home turf.

On the other hand, a fear stalks every Blaugrana supporter that the opposite might happen. Many prefer to fear the worst and be pleasantly surprised if Barça win at Real, as opposed to being too confident and then feeling shattered by a bad defeat.

So, it’s either we are going to win 5-0 away, or they are going to smash us. There is nothing in between. That’s how intense El Clásico day is.

Celebrate or commiserate

Of course, just a few thousand travelling Barcelona fans will be at the Bernabéu for the game. For the rest, it is a case of watching it on TV – although the Camp Nou is still busy.

The club board gives fans the option to watch this most magical of matches on the big screens at their home stadium, and the atmosphere is still special even though the match is being played more than 600km away.

Many supporters will also make their way to the famous fountain or canaletes in Las Ramblas, where all of Barcelona’s most famous  triumphs are celebrated, to voice their warm and unconditional support for their beloved team.

The most recent fixtures in El Clásico series came in quick succession, with Barça beating Real 3-0 at the Bernabéu after a 1-1 draw at the Nou Camp in the Copa de Rey semi-finals.

The two sides were then due to meet again just a few days later at the Bernabéu in La Liga. Did that fantastic win at the same stadium in the Spanish Cup less than a week ago fill me with a calm confidence? In truth, it made me feel anything but serene.

Now my sweaty hands must stop writing as I get ready to turn on the TV – just six hours of build-up to go before the latest encounter. This is getting serious again…

Halftime London’s goal is empowering women in sport

It has been a long time since sport was considered just a ‘men’s thing’. However, there is still a lot to do in terms of giving voice to women and respecting them as athletes, without having to talk about sexism or gender inequality.

Kelly Mackay is one of co-founders of Halftime London, a community built by women in sport for women in sport with the intention of empowering females to become and remain active.

“The name Halftime came about because it’s a moment for reflection in a game, and that’s essentially what we want to be known for – a project that makes you think.”

Since meeting Kelly for the first time some years ago, she has always shown me how important it is to speak up and demonstrate the importance of females in our society and, even more, in sport.

So why create a platform about women in sport? She explains: “As a children’s football coach I’ve watched kids from as young as two playing football together, boys and girls.

“They have no problems with a mixed-gendered game until around the age of five. At this point, the girls get shyer and the boys get more confident. Why is that? Is this their education? Is this their environment?”

“I wanted to find out what was the true reason behind the sudden slip in confidence, which is why I started Halftime and why I believe that by empowering women and girls we will level the playing field across all sports.”

Beginnings

The idea was well thought-through and analysed before being realised.  “I was sitting having a cigarette with my friend Marissa in her kitchen in Glasgow. We were talking about the importance of confidence when it comes to trying something new.

“This triggered a question for me about why women and girls feel held back from trying new sports. Fast forward a few months, I was sitting in a pub with Cari, Halftime’s other founder, and we were discussing who are the real women of sport.

“We realised that the everyday sportswomen – whether that’s someone running for the first time or a committed footballer – are the real women of sport.”

Halftime London began as a way of showcasing the women and girls they know and respect through their commitment to a sport.

“We started by taking photographs of them in a studio environment and interviewing them. It has now grown into a project which is entirely dedicated to empowering as many women and girls to become and remain active in any way that interests them through many different mediums.”

Empowering women

Although empowering females was the main intention why this platform and community was built, Mackay emphasizes that the real fight is against inequality. Empowering females in sport is as important as it is empowering men, being equality the outcome and only achievement Halftime London is after.

‘I still remember when the 17-year-old girl living in me some years ago was asked to share my relationship with sport to help them start this project’

Consequently, she tells me that “sexism is a strong place to start, but it shouldn’t be the only thing discussed. Yes, we all face challenges, but the most important topic is discussing and sharing the way we overcome them.”

A look through their Instagram account highlights loads of different types of women and stories.

Mackay says: “The difficulty is not in finding the stories, it’s in finding the time to cover them all. I find stories everywhere I go, so I usually have a pen and notebook on me to try and write them all down. Most females are very open with their experiences because they believe in the mission of our project.”

And that is absolutely true. I still remember when the 17-year-old girl living in me some years ago was asked to share my relationship with sport to help them start this project.

Every time I have met her since then, she has been with the notebook or paying attention to every single story surrounding her. When meeting her, I have sometimes doubted if it was me or her the journalist there, as she keeps asking questions and seeking stories.

Sportswomen’s success

“It’s incredibly important to acknowledge the difference between work and play. We all have our passions which are external to our business, and it’s important to feed both sides of our lives.”

Empowering women through their successes in sport, and not their personal lives, is what makes the difference. Why do we consider the personal aspects of successful women’s lives when they are not considered in men? Here, the media has a lot to do.

“Now that women are slowly entering the limelight, the media is trying to figure out the best way to cover these stories. So, unfortunately, pro-athletes get asked to twerk on stage, or articles are written which refer to a sportswoman as the wife of someone rather than giving them their own autonomy.

“This is changing, but it only exists because the media has been built with the tools of the patriarchy. We’ll get there, we’ve just got to grit our teeth and keep fighting.

“Acknowledging the irrelevance of someone’s personal life with regards to their successes is something that allows us to take success at face value, rather than looking for deeper meaning into why it happened.”

Personal challenge

On Halftime’s Instagram account we can see posts from a solo-motorcycle road trip Kelly did from London to Lisbon, via Spain’s northern coast. She tells me it was a way to prove herself that she could do it.

“Many people told me that a 125cc motorcycle wouldn’t make it, but it did and so did I.  Many problems faced, but overcome just as efficiently. That trip proved to me and everyone I know that anything is possible, regardless of doubt and fear.”

Moreover, this perfectly reflects Halftime’s principles. As one of the project’s co-creators, Mackay says she would love this trip to be an example for other women who don’t think they can achieve things through sport.

“I want Halftime to be a place to find stories, to feel both inspired and challenged to do something you’ve always wanted to try.

“Anything which involves travelling and meeting new people is beneficial to Halftime. It challenges me to ask questions and get out there, and it makes people feel heard and valued. Both important factors indeed.”

Next step

Moving on to the wave of feminism that has impacted our society, there is hope in Kelly’s eyes.

“Certainly in the past year or so, projects like This Girl Can and initiatives such as Women In Sport have had a huge impact on how we see and interact with women’s sport. The challenge now is to keep it all going until we see a completely equal outcome- financially and socially.”

Moreover, she claims that the most important thing for women is to realise that improving confidence is the best way to reach an active lifestyle.

“It’s all about showing people that they’re capable of any sport the minute they set their mind to it.”

On her future objectives for Halftime, she concludes: “Halftime is currently having a bit of a makeover. We’re looking at what we want to physically provide this year and how we can be as present in the world of female sport as possible.”

Halftime London is on InstagramAll photos used by kind permission of Halftime London.

 

Hegerberg controversy shows how far women’s game still has to go

Ada Hegerberg, Alex Morgan, Lieke Martens, Lucy Bronze – as the fortunes of women’s football continue to rise, so does the profile of its leading players. 

In a world where calls for gender equality grow increasingly louder in all aspects of our lives, the current wave of feminism is having a big impact of sport in general, and football in particular.

More young girls now wear club shirts with the names of their favourite female stars emblazoned proudly on the back, where once it would have been their male counterparts.

As the women’s game grows, aspiring female footballers can look up to those players as role models for who and what they want to be.

Many of Europe’s leading clubs are now taking big steps forward in terms of nurturing and developing young players who can make it to the top in women’s football.

The likes of FC Barcelona’s Claudia Pina (born in 2001) and Manchester City’s Georgia Stanway (born in 1999) are part of a new generation being given opportunities to shine at the highest level.

Carlota Benet recently signed her first professional contract at Pallejà, who play in the Spanish Women’s Super League 2.

The 17-year-old told me: “Young girls now see football as a unisex game, and more of them are deciding they want to be part of a team. Little by little, women’s football is becoming a mass sport in its own right.

“When people get involved in this kind of things and society sees it, it creates a push towards investment in new projects to help its development, and this is giving women’s football the push it needs towards becoming more professional.”

Pina’s progress

The recent Under-17 Women’s World Cup, hosted by Uruguay, offered a reflection on how women’s football is improving and growing in stature on the global stage.

It showcased the talents of young players from around the world, none more so than Barcelona’a Pina, who inspired Spain to become world champions for the first time in this age category, beating Mexico 2-1 in the final, and played great football throughout the tournament.

Pina’s amazing skills and growing maturity have already seen her jump into Barca’s first team to play alongside established internationals such as Toni Duggan or Lieke Martens.

As well as skippering Spain to success in Uruguay, the 17-year-old was also crowned player of the tournament and was its second top scorer behind Mukarama Abdulai of Ghana.

Benet added: “Some years ago, when talking about the Spanish women’s national team, they could not be compared to the likes of Japan or the USA, but now the footballers here are seen as professionals with a really well-developed background, and they can make their mark on today’s game.

“To see Spain U17s beating the former world champions North Korea on their way to winning the tournament gives our football a chance to succeed.”

Improvements

She is not wrong. With France hosting the World Cup next summer, the spotlight in women’s football is now firmly on Europe.

Increasingly, the world’s best players are joining the continent’s leading clubs, and Europe’s most exciting young talents are pursuing their dreams at home, instead of heading for the United States and its well-funded college sports system.

Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg

The organisations and clubs are making big improvements, although there is still a lot left to be done.

For example, just as football finally got round to creating a Ballon d’Or award for the best female player, its first recipient, Ada Hegerberg, was left embarrassed at the ceremony.

The 23-year-old Olympique Lyon and Norway striker was asked by the host, DJ Martin Solveig, if she knew how to twerk.

His attempt at humour was widely criticised as pathetic and ridiculous, but it only served to show how that the fight against sexism in football is far from over.

After the ceremony, Hegerberg did her best to leave the controversy behind, saying: “I’m extremely proud to win this trophy. This is a reward for all the hard work the team puts in. Today is a very emotional day. It’s historic. It was a big night for women’s football.”

Potential

Surely, the 2019 Women’s World Cup is the perfect opportunity to show the world how far the women’s game has come, particularly in Europe, and why its players deserve to have the same rights and be treated with equal respect.

Benet summed things up: “Germany, England or Spain are now top national teams. Girls no longer have international players from outside Europe as their idols, but ones from here.

“It makes me so happy to see a girl wearing a Fran Kirby or Alexia Putellas shirt. But it would make me so much happier if women’s games attracted the same level of attendance as men’s, if female players could earn the same amount of money, or if they could have the same rights as all professional athletes.”

Yes, big improvements have been made, but women’s football still has some way to go to achieve its full potential as a global sport on a par with the men’s game.