The story of the ex-Academy star using football to empower young women
“That’s the one thing I’m most excited about”, says Francesca Brown, founder and CEO of Goals4Girls. “Everybody who is about to set foot back on that football pitch is going to realise how much they appreciate sport.
“I think the whole of the nation has really understood that whether it’s in your living room, your back garden or on that pitch, sport brings society together. You meet new people, you have new friendship circles, you create dialogues.”
It was these dialogues – idle conversations between girls in boots and shin pads – that drew Brown’s attention to the principle that is now at the heart of Goals4Girls: that in non-pressurised environments, young people express themselves more freely.
In the world of Goals4Girls, the football pitch is at once a sanctuary and an agent for change. Through the provision of fun and safe spaces, Brown’s organisation helps young women and girls explore a whole range of youth issues and barriers such as identity and careers, right through to body image and periods.
By nurturing these conversations and setting goals on and off the pitch, G4G creates meaningful long-term outcomes for girls aged 11-16 in marginalised communities, helping them to build social and emotional skills which ensure a successful transition into adulthood.
Brown’s G4G journey is rooted in her own teenage experience: aged 16, a groin injury curtailed her semi-professional playing career, forcing her to turn down a scholarship to play football in America. At 18, she left Manchester – where she had played for both United and City’s youth teams – and made for the south with just £10 in her pocket.
Arriving in London – “London I felt was the city of opportunity” – she began a new career in youth work, soon discovering a crucial opportunity was being denied to girls in low-income communities: sports participation.
Starting out in 2011 as a small group of just seven young women honing their skills at Canning Town youth centre, the organisation has now impacted the lives of over 1,600 girls through its school programmes and development centres, from which some girls graduated to partner academies at Crystal Palace and Spurs, with others currently playing in Milan and America, grasping with both hands the chance Brown’s injury denied her.
“I do sometimes go to games, and I’ll look on the pitch and think ‘that could have been me!’
“But I wouldn’t change it for the world, because I am a true believer in the fact everyone is given a purpose. And my purpose in life was to give back to young women and girls.”
Changing lives through football
Goals4Girls is part of the adidas Football Collective, launched in October 2020 to support local community initiatives, bringing together individuals, organisations and club partners around the world that share the brand’s belief that football has the power to change lives.
Through the aFC, adidas aims to break down barriers and create opportunities, opening up the game for everyone, everywhere. To that end, one example of G4G’s many focuses is addressing the fact that half of schools in the UK don’t offer girls’ football – “that’s just diabolical,” Brown says – not even as an extra-curricular activity.
“When you see the girls on the pitch, they’re completely different from when you see them walking around the school.
“They just let go – they completely let go. They’re having a laugh, they’re talking. Learning new skills and supporting one another in a fun and safe environment, that’s the beauty of sport and grassroots football.”
Driven by this belief, Brown goes into schools across London to provide positive sporting and educational experiences through workshops, mentoring and coaching, as well as inspiring introductions to role models that are recognisable to programme participants, 80% of whom are Black or Asian and don’t see themselves in advertising, on television or at award ceremonies.
“If they can see it, they can believe it, and if they believe it, then they can break down those barriers,” Brown says, stressing that the programmes follow participants’ own vision – designed “by the girls, for the girls”. A proudly female-led operation, G4G is making strides towards levelling the playing field, promoting female leadership across sport, education and employment.
Participants look up to Brown as a positive example of this. “I think it’s a blessing for a young person to get to that point of trusting you,” she says.
“It is important to support young women and girls in navigating their emotions, raising their aspirations and to be praised for their achievements”
“Some of these girls come from families or communities where they don’t get any of that. There’s a lack of direction or opportunity, that then dims the light to a young person believing that they can achieve their full potential”
“Goals 4 Girls brings balance for a lot of the girls we work with, and it brings them hope as well.”
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It’s been challenging, then, for access to this vital community provided by G4G to have been limited by lockdown, creating yet another barrier facing these girls as COVID restrictions disproportionately affect people in areas of high deprivation.
Increasing dependence on the web, for instance, is a key factor in widening inequality as those with limited laptop access struggle not to get left behind.
Over the period of lockdown, G4G moved their programmes online, providing therapeutic mentoring support, virtual football – ball mastery sessions – and workshops with inspiring leaders globally such as Julia Simic. Working with 300+ participants weekly and its wider Goals4Girls community, they were able to provide a service that impacted hundreds of young women and girls nationally.
“It’s not nice to see the girls who’ve left the programme on cloud nine then returning with a reduced sense of self-motivation and confidence,” Brown says. “You’re having to build them back up again.”
The girls on the programmes expressed in the build-up to grassroots returning a reduced sense of motivation and confidence when returning to sports, and a loss of trust in the education system. Mental health issues and societal barriers were already immense prior to the lockdown and these have only heightened since the pandemic. It is evident the correlation between sports, mental health and well-being is important to the young women and girls’ development as they transition into adolescence.
“While we’re in the process of getting football back up and running, we need to ensure that we’re not missing out on a whole generation of young people,” Brown says. For everyone sitting on boards, making these decisions around the transition, that’s the question everyone’s got to be asking – what about our young people?
“It’s not our voices that need to be heard, it’s the youths’. Because they’re also the ones who have been really impacted. When it comes to unemployment rates dropping, mental health issues vastly increasing and it becoming more challenging to even complete their GCSEs, it’s got to be them who are telling their story.
“We need to make sure that we offer opportunities so that the next generation’s voices are heard.”
Brown is determined that G4G’s foundational belief in the power of conversations can offer balm to the fallout of the pandemic, and that football remains an essential tool for building success and confidence. “We will continue to deliver our mission, our mission will never change,” she says.
“With the support of organisations like adidas, we’ll make sure that we push to reach more young people, we’ll make sure that they are strong outside of Goals4Girls by offering sustainable development pathways so that this generation of girls we’re working with, we see them on the television, in the boardrooms, on the football pitches.
“If we can see those things happening, that means that we as an organisation have done our job.”
Grassroots football is back as of March 29 and we’re celebrating its return with adidas and the adidas Football Collective, a movement united in the belief that football has the power to change lives for the better.
The new adidas Superlative pack is available from www.adidas.co.uk/football-shoes