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Euro 2024: women need safer fan spaces at big football tournaments to stamp out hostility and abuse

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With millions of people attending matches and enjoying Euro 2024 in Germany’s fan zones, the issue of supporter safety is paramount. Yet how secure women feel at big tournaments, and what can be done to create safer spaces for female fans, receives less focus. Not feeling safe is a particular concern for women at high-profile men’s tournaments, including the Euros.

Crowd disturbances and violence at men’s international matches have always received widespread media coverage. In the aftermath of the Euro 2020 final against Italy, English football faced questions around the mob mentality on display, yet this ignored the problem of misogyny that included sexist chanting, sexual harassment and even sexual assault.

The ensuing Netflix documentary The Final: Attack on Wembley, which examines the scenes of chaos at England’s national football stadium, did not examine how this hyper-masculine behaviour affected women as fans, police officers and stewards. Instead, it focused on the usual headlines: ticketless fans, cocaine and alcohol consumption.

This is a real oversight, especially given that men’s professional football in England remains one of the last bastions of male domination and has a significant problem with sexism and misogyny.

In the research for my book The Feminization of Sports Fandom – which examines the opening up of opportunities for women to become fans over the past three decades – I discovered that this embracing of sport by women has not led to greater equality, nor resolved issues around their safety.

A recent survey of 1,950 male football fans revealed that openly misogynistic attitudes still dominate football fandom in the UK. For this study, my colleagues and I identified three groups of fans.

First, those with progressive attitudes who support gender equality and wider coverage of women’s sports. Second, fans with openly misogynistic attitudes who saw women’s sports as inferior – effectively, an anti-feminist backlash against women invading the traditionally male-only space of football, whether as fans or players. And finally, fans with covert misogynistic attitudes who manoeuvred between progressive and misogynistic attitudes – publicly expressing support for gender equality, but revealing more misogynistic attitudes in other spaces.

Attitudes of male fans to women in football:

Although progressive attitudes were represented, the most dominant group by far was the one that openly demonstrated misogyny. This was shown to be the case regardless of age. These findings are supported by my research examining the experiences of women football fans. Various strategies have been used by male fans to undermine the status of female fans as “real” or “authentic”.

Women are routinely required to prove themselves as real fans in ways that are not applied to men. Some reported comments like: “Shut up, you’re a woman, what would you know?” or were told they should be “at home, washing the pots”. This is supported by recent statistics from football’s anti-discrimination campaigning organisation Kick it Out, which showed a 400% rise in reports of sexism and misogyny across the professional and grassroots game and on social media.

My research shows there are consequences for women who enter the traditionally male space of a football ground. They can be seen to be encroaching on male territory, causing some men to feel “threatened” or “intimidated”. This has resulted in cases of extreme hostility to women as they watch a match.

Making women feel safe and welcome

Concerns around sexism, misogyny and safety are amplified at men’s international tournaments such as the Euros. At the Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s Safety at Major Sporting Events committee, I explained how many women avoid going to men’s matches, especially international events, because they do not feel safe.

Issues around female fans’ safety are not purely restricted to the stadium. Women report feeling unsafe walking to and from venues, on public transport and in pubs. They have encountered violence and abuse, ranging from misogynistic comments to sexual harassment and assault.

Our research into fans of women’s football shows that these matches and tournaments are often seen as offering a safer environment, with less vulgarity, drunkenness and physical aggression than is sometimes experienced at men’s football. Some female fans described the UK men’s football culture as “daunting” because of “hooligans” and saw the atmosphere as “angry” and “hostile”.

There are some mechanisms in place for fans to report incidents of discrimination at the Euros. Uefa has launched a reporting channel for anyone who has witnessed or been affected by an “incident or risky situation”. And the Football Supporters Europe network has launched a SaferSpaces app for those who feel harassed, discriminated against or threatened, which can provide on-site assistance and support.

In my report Women and Football Fandom, I call for the introduction of a mechanism to report, respond to and remedy sexism and misogyny in football. This could take the form of a national hotline that adopts a consistent approach across every football stadium in the UK.

At present, many women are not confident that stewards and clubs can deal with complaints appropriately. A national reporting mechanism would ensure consistency in how women can report violence and abuse, and that measures are taken in response through match-day policing and stewarding.

This was endorsed by the recent House of Common’s Safety at Major Sporting Events report, with the recommendation to introduce “a centralised system to report and record discrimination and antisocial behaviour at sporting events”.

Tackling sexism and misogyny in British society needs to be a key priority for the new Labour government, which must now take the election-delayed Football Governance Bill forward.

Finding solutions to violence and abuse against women at men’s football will also require urgent academic research. There should be collaboration with police, government, football governing bodies, clubs and anti-discrimination organisations. Clearly, making positive changes to address sexism and misogyny in football will have huge benefits for society as a whole.

The Conversation

Stacey Pope receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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