‘Qatar World Cup is against everything I believe in, football is about inclusiveness’

England captain Leah Williamson has said she “can’t support” the men’s World Cup being held in Qatar and described the tournament as a “travesty”.

Speaking to thethe Arsenal defender urged fans who boycott the competition to follow the Women’s Super League over the coming weeks instead.

“Of course [the Qatar World Cup] goes against everything that I believe in, in terms of being as inclusive as possible,” Williamson says.

The Lionesses skipper is sitting down at the launch of an artwork celebrating Helen Hardy, the founder of Manchester Laces – a grassroots club designed to give women and non-binary people a safe space to play football. And that, Williamson says “is where we want the game to be”.

“I’m talking to you about a club that celebrates inclusivity in sport. At the same time I’m celebrating that, I can’t be in support of the World Cup being where it is and the rules that have come about from it and the travesty of how we got here and the loss of life. It’s been a real shame, I can’t stand in support of that.”

As Williamson stood on the Wembley pitch after the final whistle of the Euro 2022 final, she was trying to make herself heard into a microphone. “We want people to come to WSL games – this is the start of a journey,” was the message. She hopes fans who do boycott Qatar 2022 over human rights abusescorruption and the treatment of LGBT+ people will find a new home in women’s football, but not just between now and the return of the Premier League.

“Our fanbase, we want it to be sustainable. If anyone wants to come and be involved it’s great, it’s open doors, but I hope they stick around and it’s not just a temporary thing.

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“We have three games at the Emirates while the men are away, which is an incredible opportunity to bring people down and get involved while the men are away. It’s where you’d like the game to be, playing in those stadiums every week with that many people coming to watch, but we had to work so hard to build that fanbase up and get that many people that want to spend their Saturday afternoon with us.”

Williamson considers herself “the lucky one”, able to play for a girls’ team at school despite research from earlier this year showing that even in 2022, only 33 per cent of girls aged 11-16 said they played football in schoolcompared with 63 percent of boys.

On the streets of Newport Pagnell, on the outskirts of Milton Keynes where she grew up, there is now a mural of the Lionesses skipper – but as a child (Williamson is just about old enough to pre-date the founding of MK Dons) she had to travel to Northamptonshire to play for Rushden & Diamonds. When she wanted to play locally, she had to make do with a boys’ team.

“Luckily I was comfortable to play for a boys’ team otherwise that could change your whole experience of football,” she adds. “You’ve got parents, the boys themselves, who aren’t the nicest when a girl turns up. You shouldn’t have to bank on somebody being thick-skinned enough to deal with it, we should provide an environment where they’re not subjected to that

“I’ve seen it throughout my career. If you look back over time, a lot of the reasons people didn’t get involved in the sport – especially women, non-binary people – was because there wasn’t a safe space for them to play. So you’re stuck between choosing to do something you love and feeling comfortable enough to do it.”

It is part of the reason the Lionesses have called upon the UK Government to ensure all girls have equal access to football. Euro 2022 set the ball rolling, but political upheaval has prevented major changes from being made to the curriculum.

“It’s been terrible timing with all that’s gone on over at Parliament,” Williamson says. “I hope that’s the reason for it taking so long to materialise. But we’ve had some good conversations and we’re in the right places for our voices to be heard.”

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Williamson did not know she would be able to become a professional footballer until she was 18, when she was handed her first contract in the midst of deciding whether or not to go to university. That balancing act has never truly stopped, though, even for the most high-profile figures in women’s football – a European champion and captain of her country, she is still training to be an accountant on the side.

“Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a benefit,” she replies, when it’s pointed out that England’s men would not have to make the same considerations about their careers. “We grow up to be self-sustainable and in terms of our behavior and how we view life, we’re a lot more accessible to our fans – because we’re often enough just like them.

“When I was at school, to say I was going to be a professional footballer was an impossible thing, because it didn’t exist. Which is mad when you think about what we’ve done this summer. I just walked past somebody who said ‘you’ve got me into women’s football’. If we’ve changed one opinion then we’re on the right track.”

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