In the first in our three-part series on women’s football, the Chronicle talks to Linnea Gradin about her newly acquired Cambridge Blue and the future of the game at Cambridge and beyond.
Hi Linnea, and congratulations on getting your Blue!
Can you start by telling us a bit about your career in football so far?
I started playing when I was six years old, at home in Sweden. My mum forced me to go to a taster session – I really didn’t want to go, she made me, I went, and I loved it. And I never really left. I’ve played for the same club my whole life. I come from quite a small town, where football was just the main thing to do – for girls as well as boys. It’s something I’ve really noticed about being in the UK – here it seems to be more of a “lads’ game”, and that stereotype is quite persistent, whereas back home it was just never weird for girls to play football.
You’re right about the “lad” part! Actually, women’s football has been having a bit of a renaissance in the UK over the last five years or so, but the game still attracts nowhere near the sort of attention that the men’s game gets. What’s the situation in Sweden?
It’s interesting. Like I say, girls playing football is a lot more common in Sweden, but of course growing up I would have boys saying to me “well, obviously women’s football isn’t as good”, like it was a given, and that’s such a deflating experience. You feel like you’re not getting the recognition, and you’re having to put in even more effort than the guys. In Swedish women’s teams it’s pretty normal to play on the adult sides from the age of 15, and the risk of injury is much higher when you’re playing against older, more experienced players. That doesn’t tend to happen in men’s football. They have the structures in place to make sure the boys are playing in the correct age and experience groups. It just means girls have to work so much harder even to stay in the game.
And the pay gap’s still pretty enormous, right?
Right, of course. But with that said, we are making some progress. At the club I play for, the men’s team is in Division 3 and the women’s team is in Division 1. When we got that promotion two years ago, we basically demanded that we receive pay when we win games – which the men’s team has been getting for a long time – and they agreed. It’s not much, but now we get money every time we win a game, plus money for boots and kit. They wash our kits now, too, like they do the men’s. Sadly I think my club is fairly unique in doing this, but at least it’s a start.
So what about here in Cambridge? What’s the atmosphere like for the women’s game here?
I think it’s tricky for me to judge, having come from quite a professional club environment to now representing the university at Varsity level. I think a lot of it here is to do with the prestige of playing for the university, and in that sense things do seem to be moving forward. Last year we had a joint Varsity team with the men for the first time, which feels like a big step. There were definitely some teething problems – for all the talk about working towards total equality between the men’s and women’s teams I think there was a feeling from the women’s side that the men could have done more to actually put that talk into action and really show support for the women’s game. But this is definitely something we’re working on.
How do you think we can push for greater parity between the two games?
I think the college and Varsity teams need to take more responsibility for evening things out. Two years ago for example the men’s team went on a fully-funded trip to China, and the women got nothing. I mean, I could understand, maybe, if it was to do with making money, but this isn’t professional football. It’s not about how much money the respective teams bring in, because there’s no money in it! So why shouldn’t the university be promoting the women’s game equally?
So that’s one thing you’d really like to see change then – women’s football at Varsity level being promoted and given the same opportunities as the men’s game, in practice as well as in theory?
Well, yes, but it’s such a tricky thing to change. It’s cultural, isn’t it? It’s a societal issue.
If football is still seen as a “lad’s sport” this is always going to be a problem.
But with that said I think a lot of the players on the men’s teams don’t want this to be an issue either, and they are keen to work with us to overcome these sorts of problems instead of perpetuating them. A lot of it is, I think, to do with the university culture as well – if all the clubs are being run by college “old boys”, things are going to be slow to change. But I’ve been speaking to the Varsity captain over the last few weeks about trying to organise a women’s tour, which would be an important first step. I’m hopeful.
That’s great! And I imagine Lucy, as a women’s college, has an important role to play. Even as an historically sports-allergic person I feel like we have a really positive, inclusive attitude to sports here. Is that your experience?
Definitely. I’m also sports rep this year for the SU, and it’s a real focus of mine to widen participation as much as we can. My long-term plan for sport at Lucy is to run a lot more taster sessions for things like yoga and kickboxing for those people who maybe don’t define themselves as ‘sporty’, to give everyone a chance to redefine what sport means for them. I also really want to focus on finding ways to involve students with limited mobility or other disabilities in sports, in whatever way works for them.