Leah the lioness... football’s game changer
ANYONE would think they hadn’t a care in the world as they celebrated their historic Euro 2022 final triumph in style.
More than 7,000 fans roared their names in Trafalgar Square after their 2-1 victory over Germany.
But with England’s first major trophy still warm in their hands, the Lionesses were already focused on how to improve opportunities to play the game for the next generation of women.
Captain Leah Williamson’s Arsenal teammate Lotte Wubben-moy suggested to her they should write a letter straight away calling on the Government to provide equal access to football for boys and girls in schools.
Leah, 25, said: “On the way back from Trafalgar Square, Lotte came to me at the back of the bus and said, ‘I think this is 100% the moment, this is what we need to do’.
“She was the inspiration behind it all and once she said it out loud all the girls were completely on board.”
They drafted the open letter there and then on August 1.
Seven months on, thanks to their activism, schools in England will be required to offer girls and boys equal access to sports, including football, and deliver a minimum of two hours of PE per week.
The scheme, backed by £600million in funding over the next two academic years, comes as a result of all 23 members of Sarina Wiegman’s squad calling on then prime ministerial candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to ensure football is offered as part of PE to all girls at school.
While Leah labels the move a game changer, she admits more needs to be done to ensure the Lionesses’ legacy has an impact on generations of girls to come.
She said: “The most important thing is that girls get equal access because you are then giving them the opportunity to choose to play football.
“That’s the biggest barrier – that was the biggest barrier for me. Accessibility is the first step and the funding gives us that but we can’t just throw money at things and see what happens. It needs continuous investment.
“I want young girls to see football as an option.
“And we’re still at that stage where girls need to be convinced sometimes.”
Now Leah is hoping to encourage them to follow their dreams in all walks of life with her first children’s book, You Have the Power, which aims to show youngsters how to believe in themselves and that they can be leaders at any age.
Leah counts herself lucky that her mum Amanda inspired her to play “so there was never a question in my mind that women played football”.
But there were still big obstacles. The Gunners centre-back was threatened by parents who told their sons playing against her to “get the girl” and even had to wear a gum shield because everybody “wanted to kick lumps” out of her when she played as the only girl on her grassroots team.
And when Leah was growing up in Milton Keynes, Bucks, she pretended to be a boy in order to play football because there was no girls’ team.
Leah said: “When I was growing up there were plenty of boys’ teams around. But the problem was that not many of the coaches wanted a girl playing in their teams.
“Some would make up an excuse by saying that their teams were full and there was no space for me. While no one told me ‘no’ to my face, it felt like I wasn’t entirely welcome.
“I want the women footballers of tomorrow to not have to fight. That’s the goal. There are no limits to what I think the game can achieve in the UK.”