Leah Williamson is latest footballer to fall victim to a sport designed for men

John Nicholson
Leah Williamson one of many women footballers injured

We live in a world created by men, largely for men. A world in which male is the default, to the detriment of women. Anyone who doubts this, even though the evidence is all around us, should read Caroline Criado-Perez’s book ‘Invisible Women’, which does a brilliant job of analysing the gender data gap and how it discriminates against women in almost every aspect of everyday life.

And this isn’t just a minor irritation; it leads to dangerous outcomes for women. For example, PPE used in the pandemic was designed to fit male faces, not women’s. And crash test dummies are a standard male size which in turn leads to women being 47% more likely to be injured in a car crash.

Similarly, women who play football do so in boots that are designed for men and consequently suffer more injuries. Or at least that is what the evidence suggests. It needs a lot of scientific study.

The consequences of this are being analysed, but the stats say women are three times more likely to get an ACL injury like the tragic one England captain and all-round superhero Leah Williamson has just suffered. The same injury that Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema have also relatively recently suffered. And while it takes men typically seven or eight months to recover, it takes women 10 or more. This is important stuff.

This systemic discrimination isn’t a surprise. We know that women have had to overcome so many obstacles to play football at all – both mental and physical – and have so often been oppressed and dismissed by men for wanting to do so.

No big boot brand has yet produced a boot designed for women, though some are said to be doing so for this summer’s World Cup. That it has taken so long is symptomatic of how the needs of women have simply been ignored, or at best were an afterthought.

Writing in a journal called Sports Engineering, sports and exercise researchers, doctors and staff involved in the elite women’s game – including, ironically, Leah Williamson – point to the need for more kit and technology tailored to women’s needs, physique and body shape.

Male boots fail to accommodate the fact that women’s heels, feet and arches are typically different to men’s, so wearing them causes blisters and lack of protection means more foot injuries occur.

Even the length of studs is controversial for women. They are designed around male weight, bulk, movement and traction, but women are physically very different, they run differently, pressure and weight is placed differently on the feet. Doctors say wearing longer studs means they get stuck in the ground and this increases the chance of twanging an ACL. Tell it to Leah.

It is ironic that sports science has grown exponentially in the last 20 years, but in reality it is male sports science, even though women have been playing sport the whole time. There have been just 32 published scientific articles on technology in women’s football compared to thousands for men. Women have been treated as second class or worse.

But in 2023, because so many of us love women’s football, the elite players are becoming expensive assets, and at long last this seems to have motivated some in the game to be more motivated to protect them.

It was the 2019 World Cup before shirts, shorts and socks were designed to fit women. Prior to that women were wearing kit that was usually just too big for them, causing ankle injuries and ankle sprains as players felt their feet were slipping inside the boots due to excessive sock material.

More research needs to be made in the fit and construction of sports bras for footballers. Some women feel their shorts are too short and thus sexualised, hence why many wear under-shorts. The industry needs to confront all of these issues and put everything through a ‘is this sexist?’ filter. Or just listen to the women who play football. They’re the important people here.

England women celebrate reaching Euro 2022 semi-finals.

There is concern that elite women players are often playing on uneven pitches, churned up by a prior men’s game and that this provokes more ACL injuries as well.

Research needs to be done into the balls that women play with, which are identical to those used in men’s football. There is some indication that they may be implicated in increased incidence and severity of concussion in women. All of this needs more work.

GPS and heart monitoring equipment comes with male settings as a default and little has been done to accommodate the smaller size of women when it comes to wearing the equipment. This means it is harder to monitor a player’s fitness, or more simply, just makes everyone’s life more difficult than it needs to be. The feeling that women are just having to ‘make do’ with equipment that isn’t appropriate for them is inescapable.

Better monitoring of the menstrual cycle and hormonal shifts needs to be a default, so as to better assess its impact on performance and recovery. There are theories that there are times in the menstrual cycle when you are more likely to suffer an injury. This needs well-funded research if players and managers are to be properly supported. Sports science needs to include women.

It is clear that the discrimination women footballers suffer is macro, micro and granular. And the further you get away from the more monied parts of the game, the worse it gets. But the game is growing and expanding exponentially, so sports science has to keep up with new demands. It is simply unfair that women’s needs have not been adequately researched nor accommodated. Women are being held back from developing to their full potential. Ever was it thus, you might feel, and that’s why we need to shout about it.

As women’s football is the number one global growth area for Association Football, there are surely huge commercial opportunities to develop proper kit, proper boots, proper GPS and fitness trackers tailored scientifically for women and girls, endorsed by some of the game’s heroes. It is a no-brainer. People are getting hurt.

If you’re male and you don’t think this situation is especially unfair, just imagine if it was reversed and men had to play in boots and wear a kit that was designed for women. How’d you feel about that? It wouldn’t be right would it? And the reason you’d give is because it doesn’t fit you properly or appropriately. Exactly. This is inarguably all a legacy of the sexism that women have had to fight for bloody ever, either deliberately or through ignorance.

As an aside, UEFA recently announced ‘a stellar line-up of players, former stars and elite coaches will assemble at UEFA HQ on Monday for the inaugural meeting of the UEFA Football Board’. But there are no women included. Nada. This is the legacy of the old thinking, the old outdated attitudes and thoughtless bigotries.

England are going into a World Cup with players missing due to these issues not being properly addressed. Women are not second best and not inferior. That we still have to state that so boldly is illustrative of the battles that still need to be fought.