Former England and Arsenal Ladies player Faye White spoke exclusively with 90min to explain her experience of playing professionally in a time where women’s football was still considered a second-class sport. She highlighted her excitement at seeing the game grow, and discussed the future of women’s football as it enters a new era.
White stands as a nine time FA Women’s cup winner and the long serving captain of England to date. Since her international debut at the age of 19, she worked to become a commanding presence on and off the pitch. She broke records, all while breaking down the barriers and re-writing perceptions of women’s football.
What first inspired you to chase a career in football?
“I had an older brother, he played and I was quite a tomboy. I remember at school I used to pick up and play with the boys at break time, and just want to play. I don’t know where it comes from, I just grew up with football around me. My brother used to play out in the garden with his mates and I just wanted to get involved, then I realized I was just as good as them. Obviously there was a moment of ‘Oh but you’re a girl and you can’t play.’ It just spurred me on even more, really.
“I used to train with my brother’s team, quite a few years older. I was with them twice a week, but never played on a Sunday. It was really frustrating, but I was their biggest cheerleader.
“I loved it but wanted to be a part of it. I joined the girls team at age 14, the first time I ever really realised there was a girls team. Once I realised everyone was telling me I couldn’t do it, I wanted to prove them wrong.”
I’ve noticed it’s a common theme that most professional female football players started their interest in the sport by playing with a boys team, and had to prove themselves constantly. Do you think that experience shaped your competitive edge moving forward?
“Definitely. I was always playing up for a couple of years, my brother’s team was about two and a half years older than me. It physically and technically developed me, and with that it was proving to them that I was just as good as them.
“When I joined the girls team, there was a moment of ‘Oh wow, I’m not the only one now.’ There was now a whole team that wanted to play, and suddenly I could relate to them. There, I felt for the first time ever that I was supposed to be playing. But I still wanted to be challenged, so quite early I went into the seniors. I was 14 years old playing with 20 to 30 year olds. Then from then on it was the England call-up and Arsenal call-up. I never looked back.”
Speaking to Kelly Smith earlier this year, she mentioned that while playing at Arsenal, women players were treated like second class citizens to the men, I’d love to know what your experience was like with the team?
“Yeah, I think it wasn’t only at Arsenal though. I think actually Arsenal was the most forward thinking during my career, and they supported the women’s game. They gave us opportunities. We went to home and away matches on the men’s coach, when they weren’t using it. We got access to the facilities, way beyond any other club.
“But then, because women’s football wasn’t bringing as much in, there was always a limit to budget. But Arsenal was always the first to knock down those barriers, and develop options. I worked for the club. They were the first ones to put jobs in place so players could leave their other roles and focus on their football.
“I think the second-class thing comes from people’s perception in England about the women’s game. Also particularly the media. It was almost reported on, but sometimes journalists wouldn’t even get our names right. They would get us switched up, which would never be the case with the men. During my career, it was always about trying to break down that barrier, the second-class citizens and a second-class sport.
“From the moment I started with England, it was the American team that I had up there as my idols. It was just a different way in the United States, it seemed like. Athletes were respected. Yes, we’re still fighting for certain things, but so many more girls played it so it was a normally.
“It was only after England hosted the Olympics in 2012 and onward that the media began to treat us with importance. Since 2012, there has been a real shift. It’s a welcomed change to see companies now sponsoring players and media getting involved.
“It was a bit frustrating to have to play through that era, but at the time you can only challenge and get on with the circumstances.”
What would you like to see for the future of women’s soccer?
“I think it’s the consistency in the reporting about it, showing it and making it available. I remember so many interviews with the press where I said ‘We need more media, we need more coverage to get people to watch the game.’ They would only say ‘We’ll only report on it when more people come and watch it, because then it shows they want it.’ It’s a bit different now with social media and the internet, but in my day it was so frustrating that journalists would have that mindset.
“Going forward, it’s having Sky Sports and the BBC regularly putting the games on in peak viewing times on the weekend or evenings. It’s getting that equality and that perception of everyone viewing it as an equal sport. Not a second-class sport to men’s football or men’s sport in general. With that, I think sponsorships and credibility will follow. And young generations will get used to it.
“And obviously the FA Cup final this weekend, such a special trophy for the game. The fact that my team, Arsenal, is competing is even better. I’m taking the family up to Wembley. The fact that I played in the final, but it was never at Wembley and now the women are playing there in front of around 40,000 people is an amazing occasion.”
Now, in the more immediate future we have the Women’s Euro 2022, we know you were captain of England last time the country played hosts in 2005. What are you most looking forward to?
“Mostly that the whole country will know about it. When we hosted it in 2005, it was pretty much only in the North West, like Manchester, Blackburn or where the games were held. There was signage, we’d drive up to the stadiums and see ourselves, but everywhere else in the country there was nothing.
“Because of the media reach now, it will be advertised on a much larger scale. Everyone will start to follow it. We’ve seen in the last World Cup and the last Euros the kind of big following. I was all over England promoting it, and we would go into pubs and see people watching and cheering on the screens, and moaning about penalties not being given. That never happened when I played. It was pretty much only the people in the stadium that knew about it back then.
“It will be so special for those girls. The England games will be packed, they’ve already said they beat the record of the Netherlands, when they hosted it. It’s going to be big.”
Tickets for the Vitality Women’s FA Cup Final on Sunday 5th December are available from £20 for adults and £2.50 for children and fans can still purchase tickets for the Final by visiting ticketing.thefa.com.