The Waves - An Interview With Sophie Shapter

The Waves - An Interview With Sophie Shapter by Football And The City

The Waves

An Interview With Sophie Shapter - 2018 Women's Boat Race Winning Cox & Former President Of Women's Football At Royal Holloway

I think the fact that football was seen as a boys game made me more determined to play and go against the ‘rules’ of society.
— Sophie Shapter


Life is made up of rhythms. The sun goes up and down, waves ebb and flow and the beat goes on. 

For Sophie Shapter her life, for a long time, has been made up of all of these rhythms. She would see the sun come up, feel the ebb & flow of the waves & make the beat her own. The rhythms become ritual. For Sophie was the winning cox of the 2018 women's boat race. 

The notoriously brutal training schedule & race itself is not for the faint-hearted. It means a lot of very early mornings & hard work that somehow needs to be balanced out with an equally relentless Cambridge education. It takes love, heart & passion to do it. 

It takes a certain kind of person to do this & Sophie Shapter is one of them. But before rowing came football. And Sophie loves football. 

She was formerly the President Of Women's Football at Royal Holloway & the women's game is something she is extremely passionate about. She talks to Football And The City about her love of the game & the challenges women's football faces as it continues to grow.

FATC: Do you remember what made you fall in love with the game, as a child? 

SS: When I was younger I used to play football with the boys who lived on my street. I was always the only girl - but that never phased me. We’d try and play matches on the pavement, but usually just kicked the ball against the walls or passed. At my primary and secondary school football for girls was never an option! Instead I played hockey and when I was 14 I got very involved with rowing. It wasn’t until my final year of secondary school, ten years on from the street football, that my school set up a girls football team. But even then we were only able to play for half the year. I think the fact that football was seen as a boys game made me more determined to play and go against the 'rules' of society.

When I arrived at Royal Holloway to do my undergrad, I decided to join the football club over hockey to do something different and improve the little skills I had learnt! This was when I really fell in love with the game as I was playing 11 a side full seasons. Its just the best feeling to play and score with your best mates!

FATC: What are the biggest challenges facing the women's game, as it continues to rise, over the next decade? 

SS: The biggest challenge is definitely the negativity surrounding women's football. There are still so many people in this world who don't believe women can play football or have the skills to be professional footballers. I think there is a reluctance in many to watch women's football games, especially if it's a choice between men and women. I appreciate that humans are dimorphic, and that there is a physical difference between men and women, but I  don't believe that  this makes the women's game any less entertaining to watch. In fact, women's football was incredibly popular in the early 1900s, proving that it is exciting and entertaining to watch.

I think it's this stigma that will hold back the women's game as less money is pumped into it due to the lower viewing rates, less advertising,  less ticket sales and so on. 

FATC: Do you think certain attitudes towards women in football are part of a wider societal issue or are they, perhaps, exaggerated in this industry?

SS: A lot of people don't actually know the history of women's football. In the UK, women's football was incredibly popular during and after the first world war. Even before the war there were numerous women's clubs across the country, most notably in the north of England. The most famous women's club was Dick Kerrs  ladies in Preston who often played games to raise money for charity. One of their biggest games attracted around 60,000 people in 1920.

However, the reason the womens game didnt continue to grow in popularity was because the FA banned women’s football from its clubs’ grounds in 1921. They believed that football was ‘quite unsuitable for females’. I think this decision was made due to wider societal issues around women.

Of course nowadays there is far more equality within our society regarding gender compared to the 1920s, however there are still some major issues with our society today (e.g. the recent gender pay gap reports in the UK).

I feel that the negative attitudes towards  women's football stem from the wider societal issues that were incredibly prominent in the 20's, but are to some extent still present today. Perhaps if the FA had continued to allow women to play football, women's football would be the more popular side of the sport to watch compared to the men's game. 

Sophie Shapter Interview With Football And The City

"I love the simplicity of the game. All you need is a ball."

Sophie Shapter

FATC: Do you feel that the governing bodies, of the sport, could be doing more to encourage young women to take up the game? If so - do you have any suggestions as to what they could be doing better?

SS: The FA are definitely doing a lot to push the women's side of the game. Their website makes it easy to find clubs with women's teams, gives information on coaching courses and so on. 

Moreover, UEFA has launched a strategic plan to make women's football the number one sport played by women across Europe within five years. The together #weplaystrong campaign has definitely encouraged more girls to get into football and has totally tackled a lot of the stigma and negativity that can sadly surround women's football.

There is clear evidence that Women's football is getting bigger with more interest than ever in both playing and watching. Over my three years at Royal Holloway university, the women's football club grew in numbers ever year, going from two teams to three. More schools offer football as a sports option to girls and football clubs around the country have opened up to both girls and women. I've even had female referees for some of my matches, which is an unfortunately rare thing. I hope that this will change, and I believe it will.

Furthermore, the most recent women's World cup was shown on BBC for the first time, with the aim of inspiring a new generation, and I believe it has. The This Girl Can campaign has also been a fantastic promotion of not only women's football, but women's sport in general. 

FATC:  What do you love most about football? What elements of the game make your heart sing? 

SS: I love the simplicity of the game. All you need is a ball. Some grass and some goals is ideal, but you can just as easily make do with a street and some jumpers for goal posts. You can pitch up anywhere as long as you have your friends with you. 

The team work and the friendships you make while you play are also incredibly important. It sounds so cheesy but winning, losing and training hard together automatically means you have friends for life. 

It also bring people together. It is such an awesome atmosphere to watch a game live, in a pub or just at a friends house. There aren't many other sports that can do that!

Words by J.S. Leatherbarrow - Photograph by Getty/Design by FATC - all rights reserved.

J.S. Leatherbarrow