Twenty years after Bend It Like Beckham, women’s football makes its own legends

THE FILM Bend it Like Beckham was historic for English football.

It left its mark as sure as a muddy boot on a goalpost.

Chelsea manager Emma Hayes is leading the revolution in women's football


Chelsea manager Emma Hayes is leading the revolution in women’s footballCredit: EPA

Two decades ago, it told the story of “Jess” Bhamra, a Manchester United-loving young girl from a traditional Sikh family who plays football against her parents’ wishes, and highlighted the misogyny in the sport.

It has sparked women’s interest in our game – so much so that 20 years after the film’s release in April 2002, 3.4 million women are now playing football, according to the FA.

The growth is phenomenal.

The Bend It phenomenon freed women’s imaginations in a way the Beatles might have done 40 years earlier, although the impact was very different.

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Rather than screaming hysteria, the girls were drawn to team competition, camaraderie, fitness, and the skills they found just as easily as the boys.

The FA and other agencies, driven by the sudden, overwhelming interest in schools and in classes run by good coaches, are doing an excellent job.

A few men may still laugh at women playing what they call “our game,” and that prejudice lingers among men who should know better.

Kenny Shiels, the coach of the Northern Ireland women’s team, just this week described women footballers as “more emotional” than men – a comment made even more absurd by Atletico Madrid’s antics against Manchester City on Wednesday.

Leading clubs have gradually, albeit reluctantly, accepted that they have an important role to play in the advancement of women’s football. They’re on like floodlights now.

It’s an expensive business at the moment. I don’t know of a single WSL team that breaks even, let alone makes money, but it’s not always about money.

At West Ham we call ourselves United Women and that’s just perfect. Unity is everything.

There are rewards too. We reached the final of the Women’s FA Cup three years ago and today we’re in the televised semi-final against City.


Bend It Like Beckham inspired major changes and developments in football


Bend It Like Beckham inspired major changes and developments in footballCredit: Alamy

Professional football is constantly expanding and while women have struggled to be taken seriously, the mass prejudice towards ethnic players has been and continues to be shocking. Bend It was also important because the star is Sikh. That made it a double coup.

In the five years since Bend It first aired, the proportion of black, Asian and ethnic minorities in England has increased from 22 percent to 33 percent, and today that figure is 50 percent.

However, there are only ten British Asians, making up no less than 7.5 percent of the population.

West Ham vice-chairman Karren Brady insists women's football is reaching new heights


West Ham vice-chairman Karren Brady insists women’s football is reaching new heightsPhoto credit: Getty

That’s a big big hole in the canvas. The other is the lack of black managers.

I’m sure that will change. It starts with women because several clubs have appointed top managers in women’s football.

One of them, Emma Hayes, has won four leagues and four FA Cups, was runner-up in the Champions League and was voted best FIFA coach during her time at Chelsea.

Women’s football makes its own modern legends. I hope that the next 20 years will progress as well as the last 20. Twenty years after Bend It Like Beckham, women’s football makes its own legends


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