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Making the beautiful game fair play

Impact case study for REF 2021: Sport and Exercise Sciences, Leisure and Tourism (UoA 24)

Hundreds of thousands more girls and boys now enjoy the fun, life lessons and all-round health and social benefits of playing football together, thanks to decades of research into mixed football.

Until 2011, Football Association (FA) rules forced girls and boys to play single-sex soccer from their tenth birthday. That led many young players to drop out of the game, often because local communities simply didn’t have enough players to form single-sex teams.

For the girls, that cut short many a promising sporting career and denied many the health and social benefits playing football brings. Boys meanwhile missed out on friendship, the chance to develop different technical skills and strategies, teamwork and learning to listen to other players on pitch.

Now there is no national age limit for mixed-gender youth football. And as social attitudes shift, the FA is beginning to rethink its ideas about adult mixed football, and international football bodies are paying attention.

Brunel sports sociologist Dr Laura Hills’ research into mixed-gender football directly set up five far-reaching changes in national policy, lifting the age limit for girls and boys to play together from U11 to U18

The project has had a massive effect on the way our sport is played in this country. It wasn’t that long ago that girls could not play with boys over the age of 11, and now we are seeing girls have a choice to play up to 18. This has helped players develop in both our grass-roots and talent programmes, way beyond our expectations.

Rachel Pavlou, National Women’s Football Development Manager

When 10-year-old Minnie Cruttwell in 2006 wrote to then Sports Minister Tessa Jowell, complaining how the ‘sexist rules’ were about to kick her out of Balham Blazers and Battersea Youth Centre, things started to happen that would change UK football forever. 

After Jowell met Minnie with the FA, the FA in 2007/8 asked Dr Laura Hills and her team to study its U12-U14 mixed-gender football trials. Between then and 2019, Dr Hills completed seven funded research projects, totalling £198,000.

Both boys and girls took a lot from the friendships they made playing together and gained respect for each other as team-mates, the research showed. Researchers of girls playing in mixed teams in boys’ leagues spoke to players, parents, coaches and officials, and found these girls had more chance to develop their skills, challenge themselves, and ultimately enjoy playing the game.

Mixed teams offer girls a choice in the environment that they want to play. They are of particular value for talented players in areas where girl’s football is still emerging or played to at a less competitive level. So if they are going to be better tested in mixed football, then why not?

Rachel Brown-Finnis, former England goalkeeper

This research led to a string of far-reaching changes in the FA’s mixed-gender policy, which brought positive, lasting change, not only to hundreds of thousands of young players, but to the face of UK football itself. Besides policy change, these studies brought broader social changes in attitudes to girls and sport and to relationships between boys and girls. Support for mixed-gender football for young people has risen hugely, and on transgender issues, meaning that young people now don’t need to identify their gender to play football.

Mixed adult football also made great strides through this research. In 2019, the FA funded a team of Brunel researchers to study its ground-breaking first mixed Soccer Aid match, broadcast live on ITV to 5.7 million TV viewers. Playing to a stadium crowd of 40,000, four English and Brazilian veteran women players were among the football legends and celebrities playing in the match, which raised £6.7million on the night for UNICEF’s Defending Play campaign.

Meet the Principal Investigator(s) for the project

Dr Laura Hills
Dr Laura Hills - Laura is the Division Lead for Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences.

Partnering with confidence

Organisations interested in our research can partner with us with confidence backed by an external and independent benchmark: The Knowledge Exchange Framework. Read more.

Project last modified 21/11/2023