“The history of the club, both the men’s and the women’s first team, has a very proud history of players coming from diverse backgrounds and the club are very proud of that. Us not having that diversity in the women’s first team squad today, of course, that is a problem. Women’s football has a diversity problem in getting people of colour involved in football. Not only at the top level but also at grassroots level, we have to work with that and so do the FA and other clubs.”
These were the words of Arsenal Women boss Jonas Eidevall a couple of weeks ago when quizzed on the lack of visible ethnic diversity in the current first team women’s squad, which has no visible women of colour. (We should be careful to use the word ‘visible’ too because sometimes players can be of mixed heritage in ways that are not immediately visible).
Our 2023/24 squad. pic.twitter.com/PCUHZdFGEh
— Arsenal Women (@ArsenalWFC) October 13, 2023
When Arsenal published the official image of their first team squad on Twitter, it provoked a backlash given the lack of women of colour in the photo. Arsenal defender Lotte Wubben-Moy told the Stadio podcast last week, “I’m glad there was uproar. We are a London club and there is by no means any visibility or any encouragement for young girls who are of a Black and minority ethnic group to look up to the Arsenal team and say, ‘there is a possibility for me here.”
Arsenal have shown a willingness to address the issue publicly, releasing a statement that read, “We acknowledge our current women’s first-team squad does not reflect the diversity that exists across the club and the communities we represent. Increasing participation among young women and girls from diverse backgrounds is a key priority for us at academy level, with specific measures in place to improve pathways and accessibility.
“Across all our teams, including our men’s and women’s academies, we’re proud of our players from diverse backgrounds who have contributed to our history, success and culture. It’s a priority for the club to continue to drive greater diversity and inclusion and create a sense of belonging for everyone connected to the club.”
Lotte is not the only player to publicly address the issue, Vivianne Miedema wrote about it in her column in Dutch publication AD and Jen Beattie talked about it on Sky Sports’ 3 players and a podcast podcast. Allowing Arseblog News to talk to Academy Manager James Honeyman, who we will hear from later in the piece, is part of the club being open about this issue. When James McNicholas and Art de Roche wrote about this issue for The Athletic, four of the 12 WSL clubs they contacted did not respond to a request for comment.
So how has this situation happened? The club that proudly displays women’s team legends like Rachel Yankey, Alex Scott, Mary Philip and Anita Asante (who we will hear from later in this piece) on the side of its stadium. The team that arguably did more than any other British club to welcome Black players and fans of colour at a time when English football stadia were exceptionally difficult and dangerous places to be for those communities. The club whose men’s squad currently boasts Black London talent like Bukayo Saka, Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson.
Arseblog News spoke to fans, former player Anita Asante and current Women’s Academy Manager James Honeyman to get to the root of the issue, why we have gone backwards in terms of racial diversity in English women’s football and at Arsenal, what is being done to solve the issue and why it is important, it is a problem and it does need addressing.
Why is it important?
Many clack their tongues and ask ‘why does it matter? We don’t want quotas; we just want the best players regardless of their race,’ when presented with this issue. The last part of that rebuttal actually illustrates a big part of the problem, when you lack diversity it means you are not getting the best talent. English women’s football has been hemorrhaging Black and Asian talent for many years now.
I mentioned Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah earlier in the piece. If those players were girls, there is almost no chance that they would have had the pathways available to become professional footballers. At least one, probably two, maybe even all three would be lost to the game as girls. In our chat, Anita Asante points out that the women’s team scoured the globe for a top class left-footed centre-half this summer to replace outgoing Brazilian defender Rafaelle and couldn’t find one, instead opting to sign two right-footed centre-halves.
“There is probably a 25 or 26-year-old Black girl out there who could have been that player for Arsenal or anyone else, but has been lost to the game,” Asante, herself a top-class defender, offers. This has become an even bigger issue across women’s football over the last 15 years or so and not just for Black and Asian girls but for White working-class girls too.
Around 15 years ago, the Football Association shut down a number of Regional Talent Centres (RTCs) for girls in urban, more diverse areas. It means women’s football has been far more accessible to girls in whiter boroughs like Surrey (where Chelsea are based) and Hertfordshire (where Arsenal are based). England’s own training base at St. George’s Park is buried in the secluded Burton-on-Trent countryside and requires a car to reach.
England’s 2011 World Cup squad had six players of colour. England’s Euro 2022 winning squad had three, two of whom did not make an appearance in the tournament. England has been losing Black female talent and, arguably, has never really had a grip of South Asian female talent. While Arsenal and Everton Women currently have no visible POC in their first team squads, on most WSL squads you won’t need more than one hand to count the number of POC in each roster. When it comes to South Asian Women, you probably won’t need more than one hand to count the number across the league.
But there are other reasons this is important. Representation. Whilst not an end in itself, representation is a means that becomes self-perpetuating. That is what Wubben-Moy meant when she talked about young Black and Asian girls looking at Arsenal and not seeing a pathway for themselves. Pippa Monique is a regular on the Arsenal Women Arsecast as well as having her own highly successful YouTube channel on women’s football.
In our first Arsenal Women Arsecast together back in 2019, Pippa explained how Rachel Yankey, an Arsenal and England legend, was her gateway into supporting the women’s team. Pippa has a young son playing grassroots football and says she sees a lot of biases around girls’ football in her local area. “I know a young Mixed-Race girl who plays with my son’s team, she is so, so good. I talk to her parents and ask why she hasn’t been picked up by a club.
“They tell me she has been to train with clubs and they say they really like her but then they just never hear back. I asked out of interest what the make up of these trials look like and they said their daughter is normally the only girl there who isn’t White. This is a very normal story.” Arsenal Women fan Miles Giscombe is Mixed Race and from London and he says the diversity of nationalities in the men’s and women’s squads has such a positive impact that the lack of ethnic diversity jars.
“Having players from multiple countries absolutely has a positive impact on the team dynamic, playstyle and shows children, young adults and even adults that they can achieve their own success,” says Miles. “I’d also argue it increases the fanbase as people are able to find a place where they see themselves represented with the players. With London being such a diverse place, it also feels odd to see a team that hardly reflects the area they represent.
“The lack of racial diversity runs the risk of making POC fans feel like they don’t belong. I’ve spoken to several people who have told me they were hesitant to start supporting Arsenal Women as they were unsure they would be welcome due to the lack of POC in the team.” I would add that it’s probably not a coincidence that women’s football has such a large gay female fan base when there are so many out gay players- it creates an environment of acceptance and comfort.
A wider issue
A lack of ethnic diversity is, as the Jonas Eidevall quote at the head of this article suggests, a problem for women’s football overall. Arsenal are not the only team in the WSL to have no POC in their first team squad. Everton also have no POC. (They lost left-back Gabby George to Manchester United somewhat against their will on transfer deadline day when her release clause was triggered).
Yes, team based in North London should never look like that. Yes, that is wider problem in women’s football in England. No, that’s excuse isn’t good enough, because no other WSL team is that extreme, specially richer teams who have resources to recruit top talent from anywhere. https://t.co/38lcAUU1p3
— Eelleen (@EelleenEST) October 13, 2023
Everton fan and broadcaster Marva Kreel hails from Tottenham and spent time in the Spurs girls’ academy when she was a teenager. Marva has Indian and Jewish heritage. “When I played for Spurs as a kid, my mum used to make jokes about the amount of blonde ponytails back in 2005! In my first year there, me, one British-Greek girl and one British-Jewish girl were the only people with different backgrounds on the whole team. And this was in Tottenham!
“The demographics of my local school in Tottenham could not have been more different. But our matches were all in Hertfordshire, our training was on the edge of Enfield, so if you didn’t have a car, you couldn’t go.” Like Arsenal, Everton have a Scandinavian Head Coach in Dane Brian Sorensen and they recruit heavily from that region, where the make up of women’s football is largely White.
Kreel semi accepts that as an explanation for the lack of ethnic diversity in the Everton squad, as well as the wider issues around girl’s football in the UK that she experienced first-hand. “One of the few things that is more unique to Everton (and Arsenal) is having a Scandinavian manager who has picked players he knows from that area.
“But even that has the wider context of Scandinavian countries being some of the few countries in the world who put a lot into the infrastructure of women’s football over the last few decades while most other countries we see highly represented in men’s football, did not. But I hope Everton recognise the importance of role models too.
“While most of the issues aren’t their fault, the world of football can already be a very exclusionary place for young girls, let alone young POC girls. And it can just take one player who looks a bit like you, reminds you a bit of you and your mates, to make you believe all is possible.” Miles acknowledges the wider issues around talent from Black and Asian communities but still wants to see Arsenal cast the net further in their external recruitment.
“This recruiting method has absolutely hindered us in my opinion,” Miles says. “For example, even after the World Cup where we saw so much talent from players across the world, we still only ended up signing a very specific type of player. I don’t think this is purposeful or done with malicious intent. In fact, I’d go so far as to say there could be a lack of diversity in the staff which could result in no one picking up on the biases when recruiting players.
“No one wants Arsenal to only focus on the colour of a player’s skin when deciding on whether or not they want to pursue them, but I think that players of colour may be being overlooked. I definitely think that Arsenal have to do better with recruitment, moreso internationally than domestically.”
Under Jonas Eidevall, Arsenal came very close to signing current Manchester United forward Geyse, a deal was virtually agreed until Barcelona stole in in the summer of 2022. My information is that they had interest in Malawian forward Temwa Chawinga, a deal that would have been complicated for work permit reasons. They also had an interest in current Real Madrid forward Naomi Feller.
At the same time, in her recent autobiography, Alex Scott says there were occasions during her time at the club where she felt racially profiled in discussions over her ‘conduct.’ There are several current WSL players of colour who came through Arsenal’s academy. Spurs striker Jessica Naz and goalkeeper Rebecca Spencer. Liverpool captain Taylor Hinds and, perhaps most notably, Chelsea star Lauren James.
Do we give Arsenal credit for producing Black and Mixed Race talent? (again, there is a separate issue around South Asian players that also exists in the men’s game) Or do we question why a talent like Lauren James left the club at the age of 16 to join Manchester United? Lauren’s father, Nigel, recently recounted a story about James training with the first team at the age of 14 but reportedly, the environment proved difficult for her and she trained with the U16 boys instead.
🚨🚨Nigel James opens up about how Arsenal Women’s team treated Lauren James
“She was too good to train with the Arsenal girls so they tried to move her to train with the women.
— The Beautiful Game Podcast (@Podcast_TBG) July 10, 2023
Again, do we give Arsenal credit for trying to promote a clearly talented young player and coming up with a strong interim solution of training with older boys when the women’s first team felt a bridge too far? Is it just normal that it might have been too early for a 14-year-old to thrive around seasoned internationals? (Arsenal gave James her first team debut aged 16).
Or do alarm bells sound that a young Black girl didn’t quite fit? At the time, Vyan Sampson, Danielle Carter, Alex Scott, Asisat Oshoala and Chiomu Ubogagu were part of the Arsenal first team setup but that doesn’t entirely explain why James felt she needed to move on in 2018 when only Carter remained.
Drop in representation
While we shouldn’t pretend the past was a utopia, it wasn’t always like this in women’s football in the UK. Arsenal’s quadruple winning team of 2006-07 featured several Black and Mixed-Race players (again, there were no South Asian players) Rachel Yankey, Mary Philip, Alex Scott, Lianne Sanderson, Rebecca Spencer and Anita Asante.
Asante, now a coach and TV pundit, explains her route into the Arsenal academy to Arseblog News. “It started where I grew up in Stonegrove Estate (in Edgware). I started playing in the tennis and basketball courts that were free to play in, then I played at school and my head of PE put a girls’ team together. She got a fax from Arsenal saying they were holding trials in Burnt Oak.
“I went along with some mates but it shows you the connection there was between clubs and schools. The first session I had was with Clare Wheatley and Rachel Yankey. Before that I didn’t even know women’s football existed. Arsenal invited me to a Centre of Excellence in Hackney, in an indoor facility. I went there and trained and it went from there. It started with a fax to my school.”
Asante pinpoints the importance of community spaces within her estate and wonders whether a reduction in those spaces over the years has contributed to the talent drain, “There are far fewer public football courts in these areas where kids can go and play now. I think that makes it harder to find Black and Asian girls who are playing in those areas.” For Asante, the picture, while not totally perfect, was certainly more representative than the current situation in women’s football and at Arsenal.
Asante came through at a time when Hope Powell was the England manager. Powell, a Black woman, coached the National Team for 15 years. Her successor, Mark Sampson, was embroiled in a scandal after he was accused of allegedly making a series of racially insensitive comments to Black and Mixed-Race players. “I had the privilege of growing up and being around Rachel Yankey and Mary Philip,” Asante explains.
“I grew up playing with Alex Scott, who was from Poplar, I could name a lot of players from that demographic that I don’t see coming through. Maybe there was a closer connection with grassroots football in inner city communities to scout talent.” Anita believes that women’s football at the grassroots level has been guilty of overlooking or excluding young people due to the challenges some of them face.
“We are missing whole demographics of young people, including White working-class kids, when we don’t look at some of the challenges that these kids face. If, for example, you come from a family with lots of siblings, in these communities, there is a lot of responsibility to look after younger siblings because maybe their parents are working during times when there is training and that stops kids. That is one challenge we have to try to support.” Raheem Sterling recently talked about how his older sister took him to training every day as a teenager.
Asante was a member of the 2006-07 quadruple winning team, starting both legs of the UEFA Cup Final against Umea. As a result, Asante’s face is daubed onto the side of Emirates Stadium, it’s the first part of Emirates Stadium you see as you exit Holloway Road tube station. Alex Scott, Lianne Sanderson, Mary Philip and Rachel Yankey all feature on the new stadium wrap too.
Asante believes that level of visibility is vital for girls of colour in the local area. “I feel very honoured that we came through at the time we did and have that legacy within the history of the club. We want young girls from Islington to look at that and say, ‘wow, that’s where the club was and I want to be part of that and I can see myself being part of that journey in the future.’ It is important that young people see that pathway and that platform to step onto.”
Growing up in London in the late 90s and early 2000s, Asante says that Arsenal was a club that she identified with, “Even before I came to Arsenal, as a Londoner, there was a great attraction to Arsenal for me on the men’s side because of Vieira, Ian Wright, Thierry Henry and a number of players. A lot of us could really identify with that so now you don’t see it (in the women’s team) it does make you think ‘what’s happened?’
“I have a close family friend and she is in her 70s, she is a Black woman and she has always gone to Arsenal men’s games alone. That is quite unique in my culture; but she loves the representation, with the players and the team, she feels a connection and she feels welcome and safe.” Anita, known to her friends as ‘Neetz’, also points to the marketing work Adidas and Arsenal have done in recent years in advertising club merchandise.
“One of the things I have loved seeing as a Londoner is the marketing and it’s so linked to the local culture, the fashion, the music, the slang- a lot of that is coming from Afro-Caribbean culture. They are utilising that to market Arsenal but there is none of that visibility in the women’s side. If I am a young Black girl looking at those adverts, I am thinking, ‘that’s really cool but where is that in the women’s team?’”
At least part of the explanation for Arsenal Women’s current lack of ethnic diversity is, as mentioned earlier in the piece, a proclivity towards recruiting from Scandinavia. Asante played in Sweden for five years and current Arsenal coach Jonas Eidevall signed her to play for Rosengard in 2013. Asante says that she was often the only Black player on her team during spells at Goteborg, Malmo and Rosengard.
“I think London is probably more diverse than most places in Sweden. At Goteborg I was the only Black player in the team. Most players were Swedish or from America. Initially when I joined Malmo, I was the only Black player but we signed a Cameroonian player and then some Ghanian players, then there was Marta, Ali Riley was from a mixed Asian background.”
However, Asante says she found diversity in the community, “Malmo was considered the most diverse city in Sweden, there was a big Eastern European culture and Somalian culture. I found an African hairdresser in Malmo and that was a game changer. That made me feel more settled and helped me to find a community outside the club. It was just one Ghanian woman who had African hair products and opened this shop and she talked to me about things from our culture- food and hair.”
Asante does worry that Arsenal’s current situation, especially given the public nature of it, might have unintentionally produced a vicious cycle where Black players the club wants to sign might have pause for thought. “What would it take to get that player to the club? What would they need to transition and settle in a club that isn’t the most diverse? If you need a welfare officer, or someone on the technical staff, more diversity there could be a solution.”
From an admittedly low bar, the current Arsenal U21 team looks more representative than the first team squad. Michelle Agyemang scored her first goal for the Gunners first team in January and has a pre-agreement in place for her first professional contract in February when she turns 18. Meanwhile, Araya Dennis is on loan at Crystal Palace. In the recent WSL game away at Leicester City, academy graduate Vivienne Lia made the matchday squad for the first time.
Check out Araya Dennis’ Goal of the Season contender for Crystal Palace on Sunday 😍
We’ve also got updates on Freya Godfrey, Laila Harbert and Ruby Doe 👇
— Arsenal Women (@ArsenalWFC) October 23, 2023
I chat to Arsenal Women Academy Manager James Honeyman about the club’s efforts to ensure future first-team squad photos look different and to boost participation among Black and Asian girls. While Arsenal is based in Islington, Arsenal Women has, traditionally, been quite a Hertfordshire concern. Though Honeyman says efforts have been made to reach out into inner-city London communities for female talent.
— Arsenal Women (@ArsenalWFC) November 12, 2023
“Inner city kids are under-represented in all elite sports but in women’s football especially,” he explains. “There is no hiding that our women’s academy is based in Hertfordshire. About 50% of our players come from outside the M25 and 50% from London boroughs.” I put it to James that Alex Scott was discovered by Arsenal in the 1990s playing cage football in Tower Hamlets and ask whether Arsenal potentially lost that level of connection to the inner cities.
“Someone like Alex Scott wasn’t recruited by a Talent ID strategy, it was someone walking past a cage and saying, ‘who is that?’ We have recruited a few players like that.” Honeyman says that Arsenal used to have something approaching a monopoly on young talent in London, which is no longer the case. “Now, there are three academies between us and Tower Hamlets, Leyton Orient, West Ham and Spurs.
“Maybe the route for Alex Scott to Arsenal isn’t the same but the access route is there. The FA have worked on Emerging Talent Centres for girls in the last few years which means around 99% of girls in England are within 30 minutes of a centre. That should lower that parent cost and make it easier for inner city kids.
“Now there are 32 academies and that’s why England are so successful. It’s no longer just up to Arsenal to absorb all that talent. There isn’t much point in us recruiting someone from Southeast London, which is a real hotbed, and it’s still a 1-2 hour journey and the girls are travelling past five academies to come to us. The women’s game is not at that stage yet. But we recruit equally from inner city London and then Hertfordshire and Essex.”
However, while Arsenal Women, who train in St. Albans and have long played home games in Boreham Wood, might not have the monopoly on London talent they once had (Lianne Sanderson is from Lewisham as well as Scott being from Poplar), Honeyman says efforts are being made to recruit more girls from Islington, including a bus service the club now run for girls from North London to the club’s Colney training ground to remove the cost and time of travel from the parent(s).
Honeyman says a lot of the club’s efforts with girls from ethnic minority backgrounds are also focused on growing the game, which Arsenal believe will have future benefits when it comes to recruiting the best talent from every background. “We have a working group and we are looking at what that diversity looks like, both from the growing the game perspective to looking at the top talent.
“The average women’s academy in the UK has about 10% representation from Black and minority ethnic kids, we’re at about 32% at the moment. That 32% is more reflective of North London.” However, Honeyman is also wary of making assumptions about what a more ethnically diverse academy would look like and not assuming the experience of all ethnic minority girls is the same.
“Some of our POC are from affluent families, some aren’t. Sometimes I think the strategies too much think that every kid in the city is poor and that’s not always the case. We need to understand how we increase kids from every background, every affluence, every race, every faith.” James also thinks the rise in profile of the women’s game will lead to a natural growth in representation.
“There are potential careers in this now and that’s a huge piece. In the past, that wasn’t the case. We have only had two professional leagues for a short amount of time. In the past, maybe people couldn’t see the careers. In the boys’ game you could see it. Now these girls can see their role-models on Sky Sports and understand there could be a full-time career for them.”
🏡 Last week at Hale End…
We hosted an event for South Asian girls aged 9-16 to help grow the game and give back to our local community ❤️
130+ in attendance. We’re proud of our Strong Young Gunners ✊ pic.twitter.com/BqDV8JeLmX
— Arsenal Women (@ArsenalWFC) November 1, 2023
There are key differences between participation of Black girls, which was once stronger but has dropped off and South Asian girls, which has always been low. Arsenal have started to run events for South Asian girls in North London with a view to creating more of a pipeline into that community in the future. “Most of our diversity strategy at the moment is more around growing the game,” explains Honeyman.
“Taking the Asian community in particular, getting more girls playing team sport, getting parents and girls to understand the value of team sport is a big part. We do recruit in certain boroughs which we know are diverse but we don’t go there to look at specific ethnicities, as such. Recruiting more South Asian girls, I think, will be a by-product of all clubs growing the game in those areas.
“Our academies have around 200 players, that alone is not going to make enough of an impact to increase diversity in the women’s game. A lot of that is about putting those sessions on closer to those communities, saying ‘just come along and play and have a positive experience with the sport have a positive connection with Arsenal.’ That helps to grow the game and then you find that talent.”
Honeyman also emphasises the importance of working with Black and Asian girls in an effective way so that the focus is not just on getting them into the building, “Different ethnicities need different nutrition, different physical preparation different loading programmes. There is so much more we need to learn about maximising and managing this talent.
“I use the term ‘manage talent’ a lot because it’s great to get greater diversity into the building but then how do we bespoke programmes to Black and Asian athletes who have a different anatomical make up? There is a whole learning piece for the game. I don’t want for the academy to just look more diverse- I want that talent to go on and flourish.”
As a White man, it is not for me to make conclusions based on the experiences and opportunities of Black and Asian girls. That is why I will present you with no conclusion of my own- it is not for me to conclude. We wanted to present the information from as many angles as possible and hope that we have done that. We appreciate this is a long piece; but we think it’s an important subject and that it deserved serious interrogation. We are really thankful to Pippa, Miles, Marva, Anita and James for speaking to us as candidly as they did.
Please note for this article that we have capitalised words like ‘Asian’, ‘Black’, ‘Mixed-Race’ and ‘White’ in accordance with UK government guidelines around writing about Race. We have also been careful to use the phrase ‘visible ethnic diversity’ because sometimes one’s Race is not immediately detectable by sight, especially for those who might be from mixed heritage.