I didn’t see a lot of girl footballers at our school, and I wondered why. So I tried it. Now I play every day – at break, lunch and at home.
“It’s about making girls’ football the norm”
While much has changed since the start of Smith’s career, there is still plenty of work to be done. Currently, less than half of schools offer extracurricular football to girls – and only 63% offer girls’ football through physical education lessons.
“It’s 2022,” says Jayla-Rae. “Everyone should be able to play without being scared of what people will say.”
With a record-breaking investment, the bank has committed to making a change. The recognition of major brands like Barclays has played an important role in making sure that women’s football is part of the conversation, says Smith. “It’s brilliant to have them on board. They have seen the value of women’s football, and to have their name associated with it just brings more attention and more media to the game. It’s about making girls’ football the norm – showing that it’s a sport for everyone, not just boys.”
While she was “fortunate” to be accepted on boys’ teams growing up, she’s conscious that the same might not be true for all girls who want to play today.
More than 90,000 students, including Asiyah Salloo, Jayla-Rae Palmer and Liviah Boccuto, took part in the event.
“I want to play,” says Liviah, “but sometimes the boys only pick some people and say, ‘You’re not good, you should do something else’ – instead of letting us play how we want.”
Smith adds that “sessions like this give girls a safe environment to express themselves, to learn and to enjoy the game that I love – our nation’s sport. Hopefully they will get that same feeling that I did many years ago.”
As a Barclays Football Ambassador, she is passionate about promoting equal access to football by speaking at events like this one. “I faced a lot of adversity early on and I didn't give up,” she explains. “If I can be a role model for these young girls and if I can inspire someone – that's what gets me out of bed every day.”
Smith’s advice? “It's all about your drive and ambition. Believe in yourself, and dream really big. If you apply yourself on a daily basis and work hard, you can achieve anything. That’s what I did in my life, and I want these girls to know that.”
The impact she’s had is clearly felt among the girls at the event. “She shows us resilience,” says Asiyah.
Today, seven years after her retirement, Smith spends time playing in a football league with “the dads from school”. “I’m the only girl again,” she laughs.
But with girls like Jayla-Rae, Asiyah and Liviah walking away from the Biggest Ever Football Session inspired by her story, the future of women’s football is bright.
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