England women are superb but they are all white: Why? And should this be ‘fixed’?

Ian King
England women during the thrashing of Norway

England have just had arguably their greatest ever result in the women’s game, but why was their team entirely white, and will this change?


It seems almost churlish to mention it at this precise moment in time. England have, after all, just recorded what is probably their finest ever result. Although not quite the royalty of women’s football that they once were – they were Olympic gold medallists, World Cup winners and European champions between between 1993 and 2000 – Norway remain a strong team and one that England had been expected to find their most difficult group game at this summer’s European Championship.

In a blistering display reminiscent of the Germany men’s team swatting aside of Brazil in the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup, England ran up six goals by half-time to ensure their qualification to the quarter-finals with a game to spare by winning 8-0. The concerns that followed a slightly sluggish performance in their 1-0 opening win against Austria already seem like a distant memory.

But while the performances of the England team at this tournament have been obviously impressive, questions have been asked about the ethnic make-up of this team. The England team that started the Norway match was entirely white. This was the same against Austria, with all three of the substitutes introduced during that match also Caucasian. But why should this be, and what can be done about it?


1) This is not just a blip or a statistical anomaly
It is tempting to think that this could be little more than a generational fluke, that the best players are being selected and that this should really be the end of the matter, but the statistics back up the fact that this isn’t the case, and never really has been. The men’s England squad for Euro 2020 featured 11 players out of 26 (42%) of black or mixed heritage, while in the decade from 2010 to 2020, out of 67 men’s international players, 33 of them have been black (49%). In the current England women’s squad there are just three players of black or mixed heritage – Nikita Parris, Demi Stokes and Jess Carter – while over that period from 2010 to 2020, of the 72 players selected to play for the national team just 14 (19%) were black.


2) The gentrification of elite football has had unintended consequences for representation
The obvious explanation for such poor ethnic representation is that there are so few black players in the Women’s Super League. At present in the Premier League, 43% of players are black, but in the Women’s Super League that number falls to just under 10%, just 29 players out of 300. Since England are heavily dependent on the WSL for players, it follows that low representation at club level will be replicated at international level.

One problem that has been identified for young players in the women’s game has been the relocation of training facilities in recent years, increasingly to suburban or rural areas. This makes access difficult for players from less well-off areas, where families might not have the capacity to make either time or financial commitments to get girls training and playing in the first place. In the men’s game, the overwhelming majority of black players have come from urban areas, particularly in big cities. Women’s football has become a ‘middle-class’ sport, and that demographic is, well, whiter.


3) The level of support for young players is not the same within the women’s game
It remains the case that the women’s game lacks many of the resources available to their male counterparts to both attract and keep young talent. Speaking to women’s football website She Kicks in 2020, both former manager Hope Powell and 70-times former international Anita Asante both identified a major issue with players dropping out of the game between 14 and 16 years old.

This, of course, is the age which youngsters become increasingly open to spending their free time doing something else, and the stretched resources of women’s teams may not be able retain talent in the same way that men’s teams can. For example, it’s not uncommon for young male players (and their families) to be moved to live near a club or its training ground. This doesn’t tend to happen in women’s football, and the drop-out rate is consequently higher.

4) This is not unique to England
Tempting though it might be to tie this in with the UK’s current ‘culture wars’, this lack of racial diversity is nothing new, and it’s certainly not unique to England. Germany have just two ethnically diverse footballers in their squad, Iceland and Belgium both reported one player while Austria do not have any non-white players in their squad at all. Even the Netherlands, whose men’s national team benefitted significantly from an influx of immigrants from Surinam following that country’s independence in 1975, has an almost completely white squad, while the USA – a considerably more successful team from a considerably more ethnically diverse country than England – have had to face similar questions. Whatever the problems are with this in England, they’re certainly not unique in this respect. The big outlier in Euro 2022 is France, who are amongst the favourites to win this tournament.


5) The Sampson affair may have had a disastrous effect on persuading young black women to get involved in the game
It’s certainly not that there have not been black female role models within English women’s football before. Eni Aluko, Alex Scott and Rachel Yankey all won more than 100 caps, while Hope Powell was the first black manager of an England football team. But these are all names from the past, and it’s not difficult to see how the Mark Sampson affair, in which, after three Football Association enquiries, it was confirmed that the former England manager Mark Sampson made comments to Aluko that were ‘discriminatory on the grounds of race’, could have had a negative impact upon young black players thinking of getting involved in the game.

The players of the time didn’t help matters by ostentatiously celebrating a goal with him during his final game in charge, a day before he was sacked over a separate incident involving ‘inappropriate and unacceptable’ behaviour with female players in a previous position. Nikita Parris has already apologised to Aluko for her involvement in it. All those black role models within the game are retired now – even Hope Powell is now the manager of Brighton rather than England – and there aren’t many coming through at the moment.


6) Work has started on fixing this, but the results could take years to bear fruit
This issue has been acknowledged for some time. There’s nothing new here. Almost a year and a half ago, Suzanne Wrack in the Guardian was making similar points to those raised here. But there won’t be any quick answers to this. It’s not difficult to see the work on this matter that is now being carried out by the FA taking at least a decade to bear any fruit. But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done.

None of this is about ‘tokenism’ and none of it is criticism of the current England team, whose performance against Norway was, regardless of whatever else now happens to them in this tournament, one for the ages. It’s about giving equal opportunity to young black players which has clearly been denied them for a long time, and which could improve the team still further. Tapping into a potential pool of previously undiscovered players could be to the benefit of everybody, which is surely what everybody who wishes this team well should want, isn’t it?