About two months ago, I moved to London to pursue my Masters in Human Rights at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Being a massive fan of soccer (or football as it is called over here), and women’s soccer in particular, I was eager to check out some of the London area teams in the FA WSL. My first choice was Chelsea, and shortly after moving to the city, I went to their season opener against Bristol City.
I knew that women’s soccer in the United Kingdom was still in its early stages. It didn’t exactly shock me that it took 90 minutes to get from my apartment in Central London to the stadium—about 45 minutes on the Underground and 45 minutes on a bus—but I could see where conversations about accessibility come into play. The match had little advertising outside of the women’s soccer circles on social media, and the team’s new stadium—officially known as the Cherry Red Records Stadium—left much to be desired. But there were over 1,000 people at the season opener, and Chelsea looked impressive in their 6-0 victory. I knew I was seeing some of the best players in the world—Ramona Bachmann, Crystal Dunn, Fran Kirby, and Hedvig Lindhal, amongst others. Even better, a ticket to the match was only £6.
I had every intention of going back to another Chelsea Ladies match. At the same time, I was starting my program at LSE. A few of the people on my program were soccer fans, although admittedly most of those soccer fans were men. I was talking to one of my classmates about it as we walked to an event. I told him that I was a women’s soccer fan and I told him he should check out some of the women’s teams in the area. I told him that I was getting ready to see Bayern Munich vs. Chelsea in Champions League and that it was only £6.
A random stranger stopped us as we were walking through the building. “I’m sorry,” this man said. “Did you say you saw Chelsea for £6?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Their women’s team.”
The stranger looked at the guy I had been talking to and laughed, as if they were sharing some personal joke.
“Oh,” he said. “I thought you meant the real Chelsea.”
He laughed again and kept walking.
I didn’t say anything to my friend about it. In fact, I had drawn this reaction to women’s soccer with such frequency that it didn’t even stand out to me until later, when I was getting ready to go to the match. I was so excited to go to my first Champions League game. I didn’t understand why some people sought to undermine it. The Chelsea Ladies had looked great in their first match—so, why were they any less worthy of this man’s respect?
When I got to the match, I was surprised. I expected a Wednesday night match to struggle for attendance, especially since Chelsea Ladies draw a lot of families. But to my surprise, there were over 2,000 fans in attendance and Bayern Munich had their own traveling supporters section.
I sat down towards the front. They had been handing out free Chelsea flags outside of the stadium and I didn’t want those waving in my face, so I sat behind one of the academy teams. These girls were probably between 8-10, but I quickly realized how well they knew their stuff. Two of the girls sat down next to me, with the rest spread out in the front row.
“There seems to be a lot of stoppage in this game,” one of the girls said during the first half.
“Yeah,” the other said. “Munich fouls a lot.”
Shortly after that, Chelsea came close to a breakaway, before a Bayern Munich player tackled her to the ground.
“Come on!” The girls moaned.
It kept going like that for most of the game. The girls argued about the calls they didn’t like, and pointed out which players they were most like.
“I’m like Fran Kirby,” the girl next to me said.
“Yeah,” another one laughed. “Cause you’re short!”
“And fast,” the girl said, swinging her legs under her seat.
It was a thrilling 1-0 win for Chelsea Ladies, with a goal scored by Drew Spence, who I met after the match. For me, the best moment of the game was when the women walked out of the tunnel. All the people around me—a lot of them families—had their flags waving in the air. They were singing the Chelsea song. And the two little boys behind me—no older than five or six—were freaking out. “CHELSEA!” They kept screaming. They went on like that for most of the game. “GO CHELSEA!”
That’s right. Chelsea. Because to those kids—those young boys who hadn’t been taught to think less of the women than the men, those young girls who thought that maybe someday they could be on that pitch—these players were the “real” Chelsea. There was no difference for them. And that was enough to give me hope.