Experiences of a Female Futsal Player in England by Joe Hutton
The second edition of the Sir Isaac Newton futsal tournament took place on Sunday 7th July in Grantham. 12 teams competed over the whole day in what is hoped to be the ignition of amateur futsal competitions nation-wide. Seca Peli were victorious after a sudden-death penalty shoot-out over Grimsby Futsal Club.
When I heard about this tournament in the run up to its cancelled 2018 edition, I contacted the organiser to see if they would accept a female player competing in my team. My team Salbaka United was co-founded by my partner Mamiko Tanabe, who has been playing futsal for many years, mostly with and against men. I always need to ask this question to any futsal competition in England, as her inclusion in the team is non-negotiable for our participation. So far, the majority of answers have been ‘no’. However, on this occasion, without hesitation the answer was yes – they would have absolutely no problem with her competing. This approach was continued to the 2019 edition allowing us to take part where most competitions have been closed off to us, including most local leagues, the national leagues and the FA cup preliminary round.
As expected, Mamiko was the only female player in the tournament, and probably the first female player to play competitively against national league sides in England. She was not just a squad player, but started every game as captain, and was integral to our game plan. Unfortunately our performances were mixed, losing out on the first two games in narrow 2-1 defeats to both of the eventual finalists, and we could not progress to the knock out stages. However, she has proven that she is capable of competing at this level against men by creating the two goals scored in the games against the finalists. The first through a volleyed assist, and the second through defensive work to win the ball in a high press. The atmosphere was welcoming and Mamiko was positively accepted as a deserving player with no issue made by any of the opposition before, during or after playing us, or by any of the referees.
I was introduced to futsal by Mamiko while we were living in Japan. She had already been involved in the sport for a number of years so was far more experienced, and would explain plays and tactics while we trained in an ‘enjoy’ level mixed futsal team and as we watched our home team Bardral Urayasu in the F-League (top tier national league). In Japan, any female player is eligible to play across all of the three categories of futsal – open, mixed and women’s (open being predominantly men but women are not barred from taking part). Every week, competitions and one day tournaments take place across the country providing a lot of opportunity for players at all levels, as well as eight tiers of official competitive leagues. Mamiko was playing up to eight times a week for a few different competitive teams as the only female in addition to the ‘enjoy’ mixed sessions I played in.
Since coming back to the UK we have found futsal opportunities far more limited, particularly for Mamiko. As the attempt to create a local team in Milton Keynes didn’t get off the ground, we decided to create our own team and entered the Hemel Hempstead league as the closest one to us. When we turned up for our first game, the league organiser tried to prevent Mamiko from playing due to the FA’s segregation regulation of men and women above the age of 18. Eventually we convinced the organiser to allow us to play the fixture as a friendly, and this arrangement continued for the next year and a half, with us sacrificing our points in order to include Mamiko in the team. Following our experience at our first game, we started to contact people within the FA to try and overturn the rule. In spring 2017 the FA introduced a pilot scheme which allowed local level futsal and small sided football leagues to apply for permission to open up and include both male and female players together. Our league applied and got this status. Since then we have been officially competing with Mamiko as an eligible team member. We contacted other leagues in our area to see if they would consider doing the same, but were told they would not. A second mixed league opened in Reading very recently and these two leagues are the only options for Mamiko to play in competitively each week.
While we managed to open the league, as an experienced player used to playing with higher level male players, the local futsal fives was not satisfying enough for Mamiko’s tactical mind, and she started to contact national league clubs to find one to train with. The first team ignored her request, the second team allowed her to join in following a successful trial but then changed their mind and closed the sessions to non-eligible players. The third team initially allowed her to join the training, but eventually excluded her when the number of players grew. The fourth team invited her to a trial after hearing her playing experience, but then cancelled the invite after she revealed her gender. The fifth allowed me to join in a training session, but wouldn’t let Mamiko in even though I explained she was a better player and far more experienced than I. It was heart-breaking to see Mamiko go through all of these rejections in my country purely due to her gender, not least because I was responsible for bringing her away from an environment where there was nothing to stop her from pursuing her passion in a way that suited her.
Finally she found a team that accepted her into their training sessions without question and valued her, and she has been training with Oxford City Lions ever since. She has never been excluded from anything the team has done. She is taken along to all of the games, home and away and is even treated as someone who is more important than the players within the team structure. She enjoys learning from the players and coach and looks happier and is easier to deal with!
Despite a huge improvement in her training environment, her competitive playing opportunities are still limited to two local leagues. I find it unfair that higher opportunities are open to me despite my lack of ability and experience, whereas someone as committed, experienced and tactically aware as Mamiko is denied. Our next mission is to open up the national league structure and FA Cup to allow Mamiko to play as she has demonstrated against current and future national league sides at the Sir Isaac Newton Cup. She will soon be a part of an academic project seeking to change gender segregation in sport. I and the academic researchers in the project believe that Mamiko deserves the opportunity to play at a level most suited to her, which is the ‘men’s’ national leagues. I hope that people will recognise that, for Mamiko, playing in a women’s league is not a viable option.
However, this continues to be the advice given to her which is frustrating for us both to hear. Mamiko is a product of her challenging environment, and we fear it would be impossible for an English female player to develop as Mamiko has, if they have a lid placed on them by the FA. We hope we can count on your support for the future of female futsal players in England.
Link for some tournament photos - https://photos.google.com/share/AF1QipML3Zkio5AUMA58Nbiq6FRBTTQAzmbVNSmjPYbTvv3SeES370nqZC91AgkEE4eIQA?key=RmRDT214SGVsRUdWVk9JX21CTGU4SlA2Z05tOU53 (copyright Paulo Pires!)