Happy International Women’s Day.
I want to tell you something: something I learned at a young age that’s always stayed with me and helped me to become the person and player I am today.
‘Never ever let what other people think affect what you want to do.’
Today is a good day to tell you this. International Women’s Day. Twenty four hours where our issues are put in the spotlight. Women around the world have been repressed for years, and even today, we’re still lightyears away from where we want – and deserve – to be.
In 2021, we shouldn’t be sat talking about the differences between men and women but here we are. People need to talk about it – about how young girls are still being told they can’t play football, how life is so much easier if you’re a white male…
We have to talk. We have to push these stories into the limelight. We want to get to the stage where everybody is treated the same. By telling these stories, we can inspire the next generation and help spark that change.
As I talk to you now, you’re around ten years old, playing for a boys’ team as the only girl. (You won’t see another girl playing football for another two years, by the way!) You’re about to play a game in Wallsend – an area everyone in Newcastle knows as a proper Geordie, football-loving place and although you don’t know it now, this game will be remembered. The events that are about to take place will become a legendary story told time and time again in the Bronze household…
Your love of football comes from your brother, Jorge. He’s two years older and you’ve always wanted to do everything he does. You want to be like him – you even let him cut your hair when you’re three because mum didn’t take you to the hairdressers! Every time she takes you clothes shopping or asks you what you want for Christmas, you just say: ‘I’ll just have what Jorge has got’ and she makes fun of you because he would have the longest Christmas list – and she says you would be just happy to share with him!
He plays football, so you play football. You’ve always loved sport and have always been active, always playing in the garden – and mum, dad and your little sister Sophie would join in too. You’d play every single sport and over the summer holidays, you’d go off to different sports camps – football, wind-surfing, tennis, badminton, rugby, tag rugby… absolutely everything!
You’d enjoyed football, tennis and athletics the most – and you were really good at them – but there reached a point where you realised you don’t like playing sport on your own. You were playing a game of tennis and found the opponent was cheating – but you didn’t have the courage to stand up for yourself and there were no teammates to back you up.
So, after the game, you told mum: ‘I don’t want to play tennis anymore. I want to play football and play with my friends.’ You felt the same way about athletics – you were the best and won all of the races, but you missed the interaction with your friends. Looking back now, let’s be honest, you were quite an unsociable little child! But you do have friends – those friends are your football teammates, and they still are to this day.
So, football it is. You continued to play with the boys – and it stands you in good stead. Even when you were young, Jorge never let you win because he’s so competitive! Although you’re the only girl in your team, your teammates don’t have any problem with you playing with them, and boys who are seeing you playing for the first time soon realise you’re just as good – if not better or strong or faster than they are. Then, once they realise that, as far as they’re concerned, there’s no difference.
However, on one occasion, one lad needs a little more convincing – and this is where this story begins. As you’re walking from the car park to the pitch at Wallsend, eager to get running with the ball, your auntie notices a little boy. He’s stood on the sidelines, pointing and laughing, shouting: “You’ve got a girl on your team!”
If you hear it, you don’t react. It doesn’t bother you. You’re fully focused on the game – you just want to get out there and play – but Auntie Julie has to stop herself from saying something to him. No-one else appears to be listening to him though or taking any notice, and you and your teammates just focus on getting ready for the game.
Even at your age, you play rough. You’re always barging into people, doing everything you can to win – and there’s a point in this game where that desire and toughness stands out, helping you to win more than just the game: you win the respect of all around you – because you win your personal battle with that little boy who laughed.
It’s not intentional – you don’t even realise it’s him at first. The ball is there to be won and you go in hard on a tackle. He’s going in just as hard but you get there first, winning the ball cleanly and fairly. You get up, dust your knees off and carry on running… but he doesn’t. He’s down on the ground… and he’s crying!
Of course, you didn’t mean to hurt him – you don’t even realise who he is until Auntie Julie tells you after the game: “That’s the boy who was laughing at you!” She always says now that when it happened, she had a little smile on the inside. She didn’t want him to be hurt of course, but in her eyes, it served him right. He got what he deserved.
As for you, you’re none the wiser! You just get up and carry on playing, as does everybody else. To this day, you can’t be sure you remember hearing him saying what he said about you but maybe there was something… No-one had ever had a problem with you playing before and the one time something was said, that person got on the wrong side of a Lucy Bronze tackle and ended up crying on the floor!
He’s crying because he’s hurt – not because he gets tackled by a girl, although he probably has to try and hold his tears back a bit when he finds out it was a girl who’d tackled him. He doesn’t say anything again. You never will find out who that boy was, but you will always wonder if he regrets what he said or whether that tackle changes his perception on things.
What could he have said though? Once you show on the pitch how good you are, people just have to accept it and get on with it. Look at Jorge… most older brothers would kick their little sisters out if they wanted to join in but he knows how good you are. He wants to play with you because you’re a good player and he wants you to play on his team – not to make mum happy by looking after his little sister.
Overall, you have great memories of playing football as a kid. You’d first kicked a ball at around three or four and you get to play football all the time – with Jorge’s friends in school, playing on boys’ teams... The only way you’re ever treated differently is when you have to get changed in a different place to the boys, like in the toilets.
You remember one occasion where you were told to go into the changing room first instead and you had this big, empty changing room all to yourself – not even the coaches were allowed in! But you never thought it was weird. Once you were ready, you just went out to the pitch to warm-up and the boys went in but they were all trying to get ready as quickly as they could so they could come out and play with you, because you were already running around, playing with the ball.
Your Auntie Julie loves telling everyone the story about the game in Wallsend! She’s always been heavily involved in our lives. She’d come and watch you play on the occasions mum was busy at work or looking after Sophie or Jorge. Auntie Julie always says that tackle is one of her proudest moments and she never gets tired of telling the story!
Our auntie is one of many strong, positive female role models in our life and you should take as much inspiration from her as you possibly can. She was one of the first females to make a high rank in the Police Service, becoming a Detective Sergeant, and fought to change the rule that women had to wear little pencil skirts. ‘I can’t scale fences in a skirt and heels! I can run around like the men too! Give me the trousers!’
When you turn 12 and you’re told you can’t play football with the boys anymore, she tells those in charge: “Don’t you dare tell my niece what she can and can’t do just because she’s a girl!” With hers and mum’s maiden name (also our middle name), she was literally ‘Detective Sergeant Tough!’
Throughout your life, she’ll give you advice and even today, she’ll send a message when I’m standing up for something. ‘You go girl! Keep doing it!’ She is a woman who has always fought for change but she always says: her biggest mistake is getting so angry that she couldn’t then put the changes into practice. I know you’re a very angry kid but she always told me: ‘You need to be able to channel the anger into making change.’
We’re lucky we have people like that in our life to share good advice. Mum was the same. She’s a teacher so she can educate people. She’s a maths teacher but she still has an effect and influence on kids. Although she probably talks about me too much in a lesson – ‘her little girl who plays for England!’ – she can inspire and teach people about all kinds of things.
At the end of the day, kids don’t know the difference about different sexes and genders, or different races, or things like that. They just take things for what they are. I think that’s why I could never understand why that boy was laughing at me just because I was a girl. Kids aren’t taught that at school – it’s something they’re taught as they grow up in an uninformed society. Somewhere along the way, you’re taught to treat women and men differently, or black and white people differently.
It’s not just girls either who experience sexism. Boys are told too that they can’t do certain things, like ballet dancing for example. That might not be considered ‘masculine enough’ but so what? He wants to do it so let him. Does it really matter whether it’s a boy or girl who’s doing it? If you enjoy it, go for it. It doesn’t matter what somebody else thinks.
Things like this will bother you more, as you get older. You hear more stories about girls being laughed at for playing football, or made to feel like they’re not wanted, but like Auntie Julie said: you have to channel that anger in the right way and you have the support around you to do that.
Dad and Jorge are great too. Dad has always been of the mindset: ‘My little girl can do whatever she wants’ and my brother never saw me as any different. We would go head-to-head on absolutely everything and if I beat him, it didn’t matter that he was beaten by his little sister – it only mattered that he’d been beaten. He wanted to be better at everything and you are just the same.
Everything carries on as normal until you’re 12 – when you’re told you can’t play with the boys anymore. ‘It’s not acceptable.’ Why? ‘I’m playing with them now and I can promise you that next year, I’m still going to be making boys cry!’
You’ll be so disappointed because you want to carry on playing against the boys, making yourself better and showing that girls can play football too. You want people to see that. You want other boys to see it… You want parents to see it… You want other little girls watching their brothers play to see it. ‘She can play. She’s just as good. She’s just as strong.’
You’ll be told the reason you can’t play is in case you get hurt. How can they say that when you’re the one who’s hurting them because you’re bigger and stronger and faster?! They haven’t hit puberty yet to you’re actually bigger than them all! It doesn’t make any sense. You literally made a boy cry and yet they’re worried about the ‘little girl’ getting hurt. Thinking about it now, I wish you’d been given those opportunities to prove a point, or change the mindset of another little boy who had been taught one thing and could learn something else.
That situation was brought about by the same thinking that was applied when women’s football was banned in England: ‘We have to protect these little girls, these little women. Football is rough and they’ll get dirty.’
That kind of thinking has been in place for a long time. Women’s football was banned for 50 years but when it was lifted, was it at the same stage as men’s football? Of course not – it was 50 years behind. And we’re still constantly trying to catch up, while men’s football is still growing and growing. Even 20 years ago, in the early nineties, the wages were higher for men than they are now for females. Things are getting better but they aren’t growing the way people think when they’re comparing the two from the outside.
For example, people want to make women’s football financially better, which is great but when they look at what sells, it’s pretty, skinny girls. That’s not what we’re trying to represent. Little girls and little boys look at that and aspire to look a certain way rather than become a top athlete.
Look at tennis: Serena Williams is the face of everything – and rightly so: she is the undisputed champion, the best, no questions asked – but it wasn’t always like that. She’s won all of the trophies but back in the day, when there was a debate between her and Maria Sharapova, whose face was on the billboards? Serena Williams is the definition of a strong, powerful woman but look how many people grew up, thinking: ‘It should be the other one.’ Today, it’s more accepted to show strong, athletic women but there’s so much more that needs to be done.
Everyone always talks about female athletes inspiring young girls. Of course, we want to do that but why can’t we inspire boys as well? Males make up half of the population, they play the same sport as we do – there’s no reason why they can’t aspire to be like me or somebody else.
There’s another moment in my career that always stuck with me. It was 2015 and I’d just come back from the World Cup. Personally, I’d had a really good tournament. I’d kind of burst onto the scene and I was nominated for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.
Women’s football had exploded – it was the first big explosion of the game in England – and I remember my agent sending me an advert Vauxhall had made, which showed a little boy playing football in his garden with an England shirt on which had ‘Bronze 12’ on the back. It read underneath: ‘2015: the year boys all over England score goals in their gardens, whilst pretending they're called Lucy.’
That was a big moment – not just for me but for women’s football – because people were making that link: a female sportswoman can inspire anyone – boys and girls. I absolutely loved it and we actually had the picture framed.
That’s exactly how things should be. When I was little, there weren’t any female footballers on the television so when I was playing football with my brother, when I scored a free-kick, I would be like: “I’m David Beckham!” Now, you can say: “I’m Steph Houghton!” and it shouldn’t be frowned upon. Steph puts free-kicks into the top corner… Why wouldn’t a little boy want to do that?
I don’t think people really appreciate that the stages of men’s and women’s football are completely different. People try to put them side by side and compare them… but how can you? Women’s football was banned for 50 years. You’re comparing multi-million-pound franchises to something that’s only just been made professional in the last couple of years.
Okay, I’m a professional footballer now so someone might think they can compare me to Kevin De Bruyne… but when you look into how much time, money and resource has been put into each of our careers, you’ll see we’re not on level playing fields. I have had a great career but when I was 16, I was only training twice a week at eight o’clock at night, whilst working and studying for college and University. The funding of men’s and women’s football throughout an entire career is completely different. People take things for what they are now but these are things you need to take into account.
People are trying to raise the profile of the women’s game though, which is exactly what needs to be done. It’s a constant cycle – the more you see it (like on the tele), the more people come to the game… The more people come to the game, the more it’s on the tele and the more revenue it generates… More revenue equals more money for funding for young girls, and the young girls can get better because they have more access to coaching and facilities: better pitches, better equipment… The game gets better and it’s shown more on the tele, more people become interested and so on…
People always ask me what needs to be done and for me personally, I always say: ‘I just have to be a better player.’ That’s part of that chain and everyone has a part to play in helping the game to grow. Getting the game out there helps to normalise it. There are so many things that need to be done to do that, that sometimes things can be forgotten or missed – things aren’t always run smoothly because we’re trying to get everything right at the same time.
Looking at the short-term, I just want to see fans back in the stadiums. That’s something that was increasing with the quality of the games and the competitiveness. Particularly in England now, the quality is starting to get better and better – the coaching, the standards, everything…
Increasing that fanbase can really help to grow the game. We talk about atmospheres in stadiums and they make sport so much better – you can feel the emotion of the crowd. To experience that again would be great but at the moment, we can’t because of the pandemic. As players, we can only focus on what we can control: continuing to better ourselves as individuals and show our best, showing what we’re about to help keep people interested – so that’s what we’ll do.
In the long-term, there are a lot of things that can be done: giving the game more airtime, increasing sponsorship, more investment – not just of money but also time: for training, for coaching, for courses… Things are already in place but they just need to be magnified a bit more. Keep multiplying everything by two and eventually, we’ll get there.
There’s still a long way to go but things are changing, things are getting better… The future is brighter for women’s football and women’s sport. As you get older, you’ll experience or witness similar things to what you experienced as a kid in that game in Wallsend and you’ll learn that it’s something that’s ingrained within society – but you’ll also realise you can have an influence on the way people think.
Looking back on that day, I’m glad it happened. Although you may not realise it at the time, you learn a lot from the experience – about yourself, about others, about society – and unlike that day on the tennis court, you stand up for yourself. You prove you belong and that you’re not intimidated, weak or inferior – you’re fearless, strong and actually better… Not just equal; better.
So, I know that when someone says something nasty, the natural reaction is to feel upset – but that way, you’re letting them win. You don’t have to get angry – but whatever you do, don’t let them win. Don’t ever let what someone else thinks stop you from doing want to do. It can ruin your passion for what you’re doing, or even make you think about quitting, and no-one should ever be allowed to do that.
That’s the approach I’ve always taken – whether that’s when someone’s told me I can’t play football or whether a commentator has criticised my performance. If someone were to say: ‘Lucy Bronze is not very good,’ I’m not going to be upset – I’m going to prove that they’re stupid for saying it. It’s the only thing you can do with criticism: use it as motivation; not a deterrent.
You can do anything – and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. You can become whatever you want, and believe me when I say, you can become the best.
The strongest, the fastest, the best.