In the dying minutes of a nail biter of a Chelsea/Juventus match-up, Sam Kerr added a new role to her CV – matchday security, taking down a pitch invader who interrupted play to get a selfie. The body-check she delivered to the invading buffoon went viral and elicited roars of approval at Kingsmeadow Stadium and around the world, but it illustrates something troubling about the respect and care afforded to women’s sports.
When Juventus arrived in the mean streets of Norbiton, Surrey to face Chelsea in the group stage UWCL game, they almost certainly weren’t expecting to have their efforts disrupted by a goon intent on stealing the spotlight. The second half of the game, in which Chelsea and Juve were deadlocked in a goal-less battle of wills, was drawing to a close, and the stadium announcer had just reminded the audience not to expect the players to be available afterwards for selfies and autographs, due to ongoing COVID precautions.
But entitlement’s a hell of a drug, and one likely lad hopped the barrier at the South Stand and pelted into the middle of the field, circling the bemused players like an excited labrador and snapping a selfie behind an uncomfortable-looking Magda Eriksson. With no intervention from stadium security, the Australian striker and Matildas star took a run-up and shoulder-barged him firmly off his feet. The trespasser hit the grass to hearty applause from the crowd, and scrambled off the field with late-arriving officials in halfhearted pursuit. From the vantage point of the South Stand, it was hard to tell whether they were stewards or technical staff, clad in anonymous black coats. After a talking-to beneath the stadium screen, the fan was marched out of the premises, while the referee gave an unimpressed Kerr a yellow card.
The photo and video of the up-ended fan was all over the internet by the next morning: contempt for the pitch invader, fury at Kerr being carded, and delight at the sight of her decisively handing the fan his comeuppance. The referee wasn’t wrong to card her – technically her intervention could have warranted a red for violent conduct, and the yellow represented common sense in light of Kerr being the only person who actually offered any real intervention in the fan’s illegal antics.
But why did she have to? Where were the security, trained to deal with disruptions like this (unlike stewards, who are often volunteers and have limited training)? What if the trespasser had responded with violence? There was no shortage of security at the ground, identifiable in hi-vis yellow. Was it assumed that he’d have his fun and leave? While many pitch invasions are viewed with a mixture of mirth and irritation by fans, many sports fans remember the 1993 stabbing of tennis player Monica Seles by a fan during a game against Steffi Graf, which derailed her career for years and left her with PTSD and a resultant eating disorder. Matchday security exists for a reason, and it’s not just to protect fans.
We also need to talk about the pitch invader. We need to talk about the disrespect, and what it says about the way women’s sports is treated, and women more generally. We sometimes look indulgently on children hopping onto the field after a game to try to meet their favourite players, but this was not that. There were a few minutes left in the game. Kerr and Beth England, usually deadly, had skied shots on goal and were desperate to put a ball home. Lina Hurtig had haunted the top and bottom of the wings like a terrier, and Agnese Bonfantini, recently signed from AS Roma and subbed on late in the game, was working overtime to create chances for Juve, while both teams’ defences had created a tense stalemate, maintained by a string of heroic saves from Juventus keeper Pauline Peyraud-Magnin. Both sides were frantically chasing a goal – after a disallowed offside Chelsea goal, the 0-0 draw would be Chelsea’s first failure to score this season. The momentum was crucial to both teams as they fought for dominance; but as some of the world’s best female players battled it out in the freezing cold and rain, one lad decided that getting a selfie and achieving minor notoriety was more important.
We know there’s a vast ongoing history of female athletes being treated with disrespect by men who think they know better, from abusive coaches and cynical executives to know-it-all fans. We know that female players do not always have the working conditions they deserve, whether it’s inadequate resources or support staff simply not doing their jobs. We also know that, beyond the specifics of sport, many men don’t care if their behaviour in public makes women feel unsafe or obstructs them, as long as they get their kicks or amuse their mates. And unfortunately, we know that all too frequently, nothing is done about it; or women are punished for reacting to male misbehaviour; or at best, any action often represents damage limitation rather than prevention and does little to create a safer environment for women, in public or in the workplace.
A football stadium is usually a tightly controlled environment, particularly during top-flight men’s football. There was little excuse for the pitch invader making it as far onto the field as he did, or having time to clown around and provoke the woman Emma Hayes called ‘the best striker in the world’ into doing the stadium security’s jobs for them. Female players deserve to be able to focus on their sport in a safe, well-managed environment, instead of picking up yellow cards thanks to spectators’ misbehaviour.
It’s to the players’ credit that a number of them did decide to speak and take photos with fans after the game, as they often used to before the pandemic. That accessibility is something that fans of women’s football hold close to their hearts, and is instrumental in growing fanbases. But Kingsmeadow must do more to protect players, and ensure that they can do their jobs and perform unimpeded by pitch invaders or anyone else who thinks their brief moment of fun is more important than meeting a basic standard of respect for players and for the game.