Men in football get full rein to pursue their dreams while women must compromise | Women’s football

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Famously, when Emma Hayes was agonising last autumn over whether to leave Chelsea and take the US national team job, she sought the advice of her son, Harry, at bedtime. “Let’s go to the USA, Mummy!” came the reply, a moment that Hayes later described as the “endorsement” she needed. And so we must at least brook the extremely funny possibility that an entire era of modern women’s football – from this season’s enthralling WSL title race, to the trajectory of Chelsea, Lyon and their European rivals, to the fate of the next Olympic Games and World Cup – will swing on the verdict of a sleepy five-year-old child.

And, frankly, why not? When you consider some of the decisions adults have taken for the health of the game in recent years, it’s hard to make the case that children would have done a markedly inferior job. A five-year-old child would certainly not have sanctioned the introduction of VAR, because waiting is boring, and they would have been right. A five-year-old child could have devised far better World Cup venues than Qatar or Saudi Arabia, although it remains to be seen whether Pizza Express would have had the capacity to host a gathering of such magnitude.

But of course this influence cuts two ways, and it is with a certain regret that English football bids farewell – for now – to the Aston Villa coach, Carla Ward. Not sacked, or poached, or hounded out, but simply worn down. Worn down by the interminable commuting from Sheffield, by the long unsociable hours of travelling and training and transfer business, by the missed parties and parents’ evenings, by that very particular parental guilt of trying to maintain a career and a human being at once, and feeling like neither is getting the best of you.

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Ward has a four-year daughter called Hartley, and in the past has questioned how long she could carry on juggling motherhood and management. “It’s constantly pulling on your head and your heart,” she told the BBC in April. “A few months ago Hartley asked why we never have a day off together, and it’s because I work weekends. It broke my heart. It’s when I start questioning what I’m doing, and what I’m doing it for.”

Hayes, for her part, is also stepping away from club football for reasons of work-life balance. She too has spoken about the unique difficulties of her double life, the way football and family have begun to drag her in opposite directions, her regret at returning to work just eight weeks after Harry was born, a decision partly born out of a fear that she would be replaced.

So, at a stroke, half of the permanent female coaches in the Women’s Super League have decided, in effect, that the WSL is not worth the trouble. Curiously – and my mailbox is always open – I can find very few male coaches who have been forced into a similar predicament. This despite the fact that the vast majority of male managers are parents, presumably no less devoted to their offspring, presumably working just as hard to an equally unforgiving schedule.

The Aston Villa Women manager, Carla Ward, has decided to leave her role, having spoken about the difficulty of juggling motherhood and management. Photograph: Zac Goodwin/PA

But then there has always been a fundamental imbalance here: driven not just by levels of material and structural support, but ingrained cultural factors that are often specific to football. After all, men’s football has always been run on a silent and invisible army of underpaid and often unpaid female labour: the wives and girlfriends and nannies and au pairs and nursery staff and extended family members who make the show work, babysitting on away trips, administering bottles at 3am so daddy can get his recovery sleep.

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In this world, the strains and exigencies of parenthood, the agonies of finding appropriate childcare, simply do not exist. Family is only ever portrayed as an adjunct to performance: an inspiration, an escape, a support network, a heartwarming baby-themed goal celebration, a valedictory lap of honour on the final day of the season. Players and coaches are ground into the dirt by relentless fixture lists, forced to relocate to new cities and countries at the flick of a mouse, but unless your child is sick, dead or newly born, their welfare will not be allowed to impinge on the organism as a whole. As for paternity leave – a statutory right available by law to all new fathers – well, forget it.

Even those male coaches now working in the women’s game will have been raised in this world, grown up with frames of reference that have long sanctified the sociopathic, recast negative character traits as positive virtues. Obsession is good. Selfishness is good. When a male footballer or coach talks about “sacrifice”, it is invariably a sacrifice they themselves have made, and for which they will be applauded, even when its burden falls squarely on the women in their life.

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And actually, nobody wins out of this. A frequent lament of retiring coaches is the amount of time they devoted to their job at the expense of their loved ones. But these are not choices made in a vacuum. They are influenced by culture and economics, by the unspoken assumption – in both men’s and women’s football, as in wider society – that the bulk of the childcare burden will invariably fall on women. That men must be granted full rein to pursue their dreams, while women should be prepared to compromise.

Women’s football has already come a long way from the days when Katie Chapman was dropped by England for asking to spend more time with her family. And as gutting as Ward’s departure will be for Villa fans, as big a loss as she is to the league, it is also a kind of wider reckoning: a moment to reflect on what this sport demands of its people, the humans thrown into the machine. As ever, you suspect, it will be a message lost on those who most need to hear it.

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