Traditionally, men’s and women’s soccer has been treated as very different beasts. But interest in the women’s game is soaring. A combined 1.12 billion people tuned in to watch the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup – a record audience for the competition.
As awareness increases, so too do comparisons between men’s and women’s soccer. Which, in turn, prompts discussions around whether boys and girls should be playing together more often. With that in mind, we’ve taken a look at the approaches and recommendations made by experts from around the world, plus some of the benefits of mixed-gender soccer.
What do the experts say?
In the sporting realm, girls and boys have tended to be separated from a relatively early age, often due to concerns that girls are unable to compete with more physically developed boys. But increasingly, the experts are disagreeing with this viewpoint:
The English Football Association
From the start of the 2015-16 season, the FA decided to raise the age limit at which girls and boys can play in the same teams from 16 to 18. The same limit remains in place today.
Other European countries
England’s decision to raise the age limit on mixed teams was hardly groundbreaking. Several other European associations already had higher limits in place – or even none at all.
In Germany and Italy, boys and girls are prevented from playing on the same team at the age of 17, while in the Netherlands and Switzerland, this rule comes into effect at the age of 19. And in Denmark, there is no age limit whatsoever on mixed teams.
Speaking in the wake of the FA’s decision to raise the mixed-gender soccer age limit, former Everton and England goalkeeper Rachel Brown-Finnis said mixed teams offer girls a choice over the environment in which they want to play. “They are of particular value for talented players in areas where girls’ football is still emerging or played at a less competitive level. So if they are going to be better tested in mixed football, then why not?”
Tottenham Hotspur winger Gemma Davidson agrees. She feels that male and female players can learn a lot by playing on the same teams: “The boys bring out the physicality in the girls and the girls bring out the ‘when are you going to listen?’,” she explained. “Secretly, for a long time, I used to play with my [male] friends on the local Astro. You can’t just sprint past a guy, because he’s quicker. That moulded me as a player, beating people with trickery and not just speed.”
The benefits of mixed-gender soccer teams
As any Director of Coaching at a mixed-gender soccer club will be able to tell you, the benefits of girls and boys playing alongside one another are numerous and wide-ranging. Although not intended to be an exhaustive list, we’ll take a look at some of the biggest benefits here:
Outside the classroom or the schoolyard, girls may have little opportunity to socialise with boys at an early age. The soccer field is, therefore, a fantastic environment for mixed-gender friendships to thrive when they may not otherwise have existed.
Improving player skills
It’s widely accepted that at a junior level, playing against boys can be of major benefit to the most talented girls, who are forced to raise their game against players who are often stronger, taller and faster – not to mention well-versed in playing at a higher level. For girls, awareness, reactions and positioning can all be improved by playing with and against boys.
Several clubs and academies are already taking advantage of this. For instance, Arsenal Women routinely allow their best players to train alongside boys of the same age, while the majority of professional female players – including Arsenal forward Vivianne Miedema, the reigning PFA Player of the Year – cut their teeth in boys’ leagues.
For girls, playing alongside boys may improve their chances of being picked up by an academy. Indeed, Arsenal defender Leah Williamson – England’s youth player of the year in 2015 – was only scouted by the Gunners at the age of nine because she was playing in her local boys’ team at the time.
“From playing with boys when they’re younger, girls develop an understanding of football – we can’t rely on our physical attributes when playing with boys so we have to be clever, and I think that transfers when you get older and you see the women’s game,” Williamson explained. “It’s different – it’s not just pace power, there is a lot of skill.”
Despite fears that boys are simply too physical to play with girls, the fact remains that some girls develop at a faster rate than boys, and may be able to compete with them until well into puberty.
But it’s not just about physical attributes like speed and strength. Just as playing against an older team forces players to concentrate on their technical skills – precisely because they’re unlikely to be able to simply run straight through the opposition – girls are forced to dramatically improve their technique to remain competitive.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember here is that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to mixed-gender soccer. Some girls will thrive in a mixed-gender environment, relishing the challenge of teaming up with – and taking on – players who might be physically stronger. Others would simply rather play against other girls. And the same goes for boys. It’s not about imposing our views on young players; it’s about allowing them to make their own decisions and do what makes them feel comfortable.