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  • Writer's pictureSuzy Lycett

Should women's football stay "family friendly" and avoid rivalries?

"Family friendly." Those two words have long been associated with women's football. As more and more fans go to games, this has become a divisive moniker, splitting opinions across the board. The debate jumped into the spotlight over Women's Football Weekend.

A weekend of the Merseyside and North London derbies, the essence of rivalry in football.

Liverpool Manager Matt Beard shared his view that rivalries shouldn't be encouraged in the women's game, as this may become "unsettling for the kids" if it reaches the same levels as in the men's game.

"Hopefully the fanbases will continue to grow but we have to be careful talking about rivalries, I don't think it's right," he says.

His Everton counterpart in the weekend's Merseyside derby disagrees. "I've been here for many of the men's games and it's the same vibe," said Brian Sorensen. "This is what we want, that's why we play and hopefully we can have more of these."

Before the exponential growth post-Euros, it was a logical strategy to market around the "family friendly" theme.

Tickets are cheap, which make it easier for families to give their children a football experience without paying the price of the men's game. Children that want that more personal connection with their footballing heroes can get that at the women's game, not the men's.

Rather than competing for the attention of regular men's football supporters and promoting rivalries, promoting to families and showcasing the fan zones with activities for children is an easier route to start to build out the game.

However, the demographic associated with those strategies will naturally change as the game grows.

The game will get more expensive - could that deter families? Players will no longer be able to meet fans after the game - will that make it less interesting to some that attend now?

New fans - young and old - that have never been to games before have the chance to experience football for the first time through the big games at Emirates. It's cheap and tickets are more accessible, so it can attract those that aren't lifelong supporters.

On the other hand, a focus on the one club mentality has grown over time, and will likely continue to feed into the narrative, particularly for the Emirates games. More long-term fans of the men's game may start to attend, to see what the fuss is all about.

This audience knows all about rivalries - so that will overflow into the women's game.

It's already happening. It's partly what drove groups like the Red and White AWFC and AWFC Home & Away to put effort into building an atmosphere at Arsenal. They know that sense of camaraderie and tribalism - to quote the Arsenal Women Arsecast - and wanted to replicate it, in the inclusive environment of the women's game.

All of this will all change the demographic of the game into something not seen before. Combine this with the fact that the women's game is already moving in a new direction with rivalries, and we're in uncharted waters.

The fans aren't the only stakeholders in this. The players and the club are too.

Arsenal defender and England captain Leah Williamson has spoken about the atmosphere at the games - particularly recently - and said "that's what football's all about".

Defender Lotte Wubben-Moy said it felt like playing at home with the noise at the game versus Spurs - and that's what we want the players to hear.

We want them to feel like they're at home. They're also adults, and they don't want an infantilised atmosphere. They want to feel our support as well as hear it.

A full yet silent stadium is not something that fans should strive for. We channel our passion into vocal support, to help carry the players. Players and fans want an atmosphere. You can't have that without that passion, and rivalries drive it all to greater heights.

The players swear and get fired up, as rivalries develop on the pitch.

Sport is all about wanting one team or person to win over another. The players obviously feel that too, and clash on the pitch - even if they're friends off it. It's natural to see that passion reflected in the stands too, and between the fans and the players.

"When we played Arsenal, I was having a bit of banter with their fans," Ellie Roebuck, Manchester City's keeper, shared. " They were singing 'England's number three'. It actually helps my game and keeps me engaged."

As much as I'd prefer not to give the opposition a boost, it's good that the players recognise that the chants are not intended with malice - and shows that you can have rivalry without full blown animosity.

Finally, let's talk about what children might want from the football experience.

At the March North London Derby, a lot of the chants were based on the traditional rivalry that Arsenal has with Spurs. There were plenty of young children around who were joining in with the chants, or avidly watching what our group of singers were doing.

Some of those children have come out of their shell by being involved. It's even helped adults, like me. It's a safe space to do it and so we feel comfortable to get involved.

Swearing at football matches is often a point of contention when it comes to rivalries and football in general, with children around.

Some are against it; some use it as an opportunity to teach children about boundaries and understanding what's acceptable or not according to the situation.

But swearing doesn't mean unsafe. In the women's game, a line tends to be drawn, so that the swearing doesn't become abusive, and systems are in place to call it out through official channels.

At the end of the day, we can't easily control how this develops.

We can't put restrictions on whether there are rivalries in the game and how "family friendly" the game stays. I personally feel we'll move away from that label and simply be known as "inclusive".

We've so far managed to combine the best parts of the men's game with the best part of the women's. We're creating a sense of camaraderie, community, and safe tribalism in an inclusive environment.

No one person can dictate how the game will grow, how the rivalries will develop. Collectively, we're creating something new.

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