As we prepare to welcome the Women’s Euros to England this summer, Surrey FA have reached out to inspirational people in Surrey who are involved in the women’s game. First up, we spoke to Samira Ali who co-founded Smart Sport FC, a youth grassroots club in Croydon.
For those that may not know you, can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about you?
My name is Samira Ali, I am the co-founder, treasurer, and lead coach of the girls’ section at SMART SPORT FC. I am also a mum of two young children who inspired myself and my husband to start the club.
What got you started in the work you are currently doing?
We started the club in April 2021, after lockdown had eased. We ran a session for boys and girls in a local park, for children of our friends in the local community.
Word soon spread and numbers grew! For many of the kids it was their first time playing organised sport. Others joined having left more established clubs in search of a more inclusive club culture.
We also found girls in particular felt more comfortable in sessions with female coaches, which initially was just me, so we made a concerted effort to try and develop more female coaches from our local community and demographic. We contacted the FA for support with this and they were immensely helpful. Rachel Pavlou connected us to Sharon Muxworthy, who in conjunction with Yasmin Hussain from Frenford Clubs delivered a fantastic coaching workshop in October 2021 encouraging women in the community to get involved in coaching. On the back of this event 5 other female coaches joined our team.
Has there been any struggles along the way?
Several parents have told us if it wasn’t for SMART SPORT FC, their children would not be playing football.
Their experiences with other more established clubs have been negative, whereby their children felt ignored / alienated by the coaches. From simple things like mispronouncing names and not taking the time to get to know their players and their needs.
For example, Ramadan is an important time of the year for Muslims, yet many clubs lack the awareness means players are made to feel awkward when asking for a break when it’s time to open their fast or to even pray.
I also coach with our U8s league team and have found some away grounds unwelcoming. Generally, the grassroots football scene is not a diverse environment, and I can see how this would be off putting for other women who look like me. But I haven’t let this to stop me, if anything I feel like I need to make this pathway for the benefit of others.
What are the main benefits that you have seen from your work?
We love seeing the growth of confidence in the girls. From a social aspect, they have formed great friendships from the sessions, especially after lockdown.
Our girls are motivated by having coaches that look like them. Growing up I didn’t have this, so I understand the importance of having representation. My 6-year-old daughter has already expressed an interest in coaching!
We are more than just coaches. I’m extremely proud of our team - Aishah, Faridah, Fatima, Meryem and Redwana! They are role models and mentors to the girls. Parents often tell us their kids wake up at the crack of dawn on session days due to excitement - we love hearing this (not so great for their parents though).
We are all volunteers and are thoroughly enjoying our coaching journey. We have had girls starting with zero experience, and now they are getting stuck in and are absolutely fearless!
What would be your advice be to anyone who felt intimidated to ‘break the bias’ in the footballing community?
I would encourage them to go for it! Have the confidence and go forth. Having amazing mentors like Sharon and Yasmin has really helped. It was really beneficial to have someone to ask questions and provide feedback.
For women, in particular those from underrepresented groups, be the change you want to see. Pave the way so it’s easier for the girls in the future.
Have you felt as though attitudes in football is starting to change? Or is this still more work to be done?
Though there has been a positive shift in attitudes to women and girls in football, there is still a lot to do when it comes to minority groups.
Football should be accessible to everyone, so people can bring their whole self to the game. A good start would be by holding events in comfortable spaces which do not make women choose between their faith and the game, or more training provided to clubs to ensure they are educated in inclusion.
If you wish to know more about how you can get involved in the female game, please contact our Football Development Officer for Women and Girls Emma Eaton at firstname.lastname@example.org or head to our Women & Girls section.
WOMEN & GIRLS