Karen Carney: "I hope we can talk about women's football without having to compare it to men's"

·5-min read
Photo credit: DeFodi Images - Getty Images
Photo credit: DeFodi Images - Getty Images

I was on a train this week and a little boy was reading the back page of the paper, all about the Lionesses' win. He didn't put it down or turn the page. He read it like it was a norm for there to be women's football on this page. He read it like it was a sports page, which of course it was. He didn't see anything different. They were all role models to him. That's what's changed now.

It's hard to properly put into words just how momentous this week has been for me. I've been playing football since I was eight, and my professional career began in my teens, with my first cap for England when I was 17. Being at Wembley on Sunday was a feeling I will never forget. I was just bawling my eyes out. Seeing more than 87,000 people cheering in that stadium and to see every newspaper to report about it the next day... it's all we've ever dreamed of. This used to be the stuff only little boys' dreams were made of.

I hope we get to a stage where we can talk about women's football without having to talk about it being any different to men's. But the thing is, it's been such a hard battle to get here. I think it's impossible to eradicate history right at this moment because the uphill climb here is what makes this win so joyous.

Photo credit: Future Publishing - Getty Images
Photo credit: Future Publishing - Getty Images

For me, personally, I know how many roadblocks I experienced. I first got into football through my older sister, who loved it. She's 12 years older than me, and she had no opportunity to play. So I think she inspired me. I wanted to get to do what she couldn't, but I was still the only girl. I was picked last on football days at PE; I got severely bullied for it and was told that girls shouldn't play. I was always told I was a boy, not a 'real girl' – all these horrible things. I think a lot of us were, to be honest. It's so mad to me; just because we are also obsessed with football, just because a girl also wants to kick a ball around. It was hard but it gave me resilience and mental toughness. Every female player or female fan watching on Sunday will have had some memories like that. That's why the win matters so much.

Throughout my career, there have, of course, been some incredible people. A lot of my coaches were male and so I'm really big on male allies because you need them. That's where the I think the shift happens; it's that acceptance. I see that now – in my job as a football pundit for Sky and ITV – just how much women's football is backed by men at the top. it's not just lip service or tokenism, and that really makes a huge difference. They want to make it as visible as possible.

Photo credit: Visionhaus - Getty Images
Photo credit: Visionhaus - Getty Images

The fact that so many people came to watch that game on Sunday is hugely significant, because for us to really see a visible, bold future for women's football, it needs to be commercially viable. Sunday proved women's football has commercial value because none of those tickets were free! 17 million people watched that game and we can quote that now. That means sponsorship; that means real investment in this game. These women are household names now. They have marketability, and that can only mean huge strides forward for women's football. We need to capitalise on that shift from from this tournament, so that there is momentum.

Photo credit: Richard Baker - Getty Images
Photo credit: Richard Baker - Getty Images

The fact that we've got here is amazing. I've seen such a huge shift during my career, where I've also played in the states with people like Megan Rapinoe, and I think we are on track to overtake them in terms of our investment in women's football now. A lot of that is down to the sheer explosive talent of this England team, who have all come up through the incredible Women's Super League. But they're not just talented; the Lionesses have charisma, personality, cheek. They just go and express themselves. But hopefully that early part of their journey wasn't as bad as it was for us so many years ago. Things have got so much better and I can't imagine how much better it will hopefully be in years to come.

Photo credit: Michael Regan - Getty Images
Photo credit: Michael Regan - Getty Images

This moment is magical but we still have a long way to go. I want to see equal opportunities for girls to play football in PE – something the Lionesses have been really open about. I would like to see attendance at the WSL increase significantly and for every Lionesses game to be sold out within the day, like the men's games do. And I also want tickets to remain accessible, to keep the fan base diverse and inclusive. Ultimately, if we ensure every girl has an opportunity to play, then we'll start to be able to affect on a wider scale.

For now, I just want to keep celebrating. It's not just a win for women, it's a win for us all. They are history makers. It's a dream come true.

Photo credit: JUSTIN TALLIS - Getty Images
Photo credit: JUSTIN TALLIS - Getty Images

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