When comedian Lee Mack smashed the winning penalty past a quite literally hamstrung David Harewood to give the Soccer Aid World XI an unassailable 4-1 lead in the shootout following a 2-2 draw, it marked the end of an enjoyable evening at the London Stadium : four goals, a half-time performance from Robbie Williams, a touchline rant from Harry Redknapp and, most importantly, a record £15,673,728 raised towards UNICEF’s work around the world.
Yesterday’s charity showpiece delivered exactly what it promised: entertainment. Where else would you get to see former England striker Eni Aluko (all 5ft 3in of her) speeding towards a 6ft 8in, 180kg giant (World’s Strongest Man winner Tom Stoltman) in goal?
There was also the odd glimpse of decent football, with musician Tom Grennan showing a great turn of pace and fine finishing skills to score England’s second goal. But as Mack wheeled away to begin the wild celebrations with his World XI team-mates, it suddenly became clear that something was missing.
Where was the event’s female Lee Mack?
It’s rarely a good idea to pick holes in something that raises millions of pounds for charity and is undeniably a force for good. So, consider this more of a pause for thought. A gentle questioning. A head-scratcher.
Since 2019, Soccer Aid has included women in the line-ups and among the coaching teams. This year marked the 11th edition and attitudes towards women’s football have moved on since its inaugural match in 2006 (although perhaps not so much if you scratched the surface of social media on Sunday night).
There are not many places where you see men and women playing alongside and against one another on a football pitch, so it’s great that Soccer Aid has made that happen on such a high-profile platform. But the women who have been included in the game have all been ex-professional footballers or women who have made a career from the sport in some way.
There have been no female comedians, singers or actors getting in amongst it out on the pitch.
The closest organizers have come to include a female celebrity among the game’s players have been Harriet Pavlou last year and Chelcee Grimes yesterday.
Pavlou is a former Arsenal and England academy-level player who went on to become a freestyle footballer and a world champion in panna, a street-football game where the aim is to nutmeg an opponent. Grimes is a singer/songwriter but as recently as 2019 she was playing up front for Fulham FC Women, scoring three goals in their FA Cup campaign.
These are not female Lee Macks.
Nor are they female Woody Harrelsons (a 2010 participant, even though the American actor’s football knowledge was somewhat questionable) or female Adam Richmans (the US TV presenter who was given five minutes on the pitch in 2014, and left it without having a single touch of the ball).
Pavlou and Grimes are women who have at some point in their lives, and in some way, considered football as a career.
So, why haven’t there yet been any female celebrities in Soccer Aid?
A Soccer Aid For UNICEF spokesperson told The Athletic: “Since 2019, female players have taken part in the Soccer Aid For UNICEF game — a first for a football match sanctioned by the FA and broadcast on free-to-air TV.
“The female players who took part initially were former professional footballers — however, that was subsequently expanded to include non-former professional footballers too.
“Furthermore, female representation — from both professional football and non-professional football backgrounds — has been standard on the respective management teams of England and the Soccer Aid World XI FC since 2019.
“Everything described above continued at the 2022 match on Sunday.
“Soccer Aid recognizes its place and importance, culturally, in the sporting calendar and is proud to continue its work in championing diversity across the game. This year, comedian Alex Brooker became the first physically disabled participant to take part in the game.
“Since it started, Soccer Aid has raised more than £60 million to help give children all over the world a childhood full of play.”
Each year, Soccer Aid’s organizers need to recruit about 40 players to put on the event, so they cast the net wide, having conversations with a large number of people.
Given the diversity of the event’s audience, they are aware it is in their interest to be diverse with the talent pool, and those watching on Sunday will have seen Anita Asante and Fara Williams joining Aluko in the England ranks, while former US internationals Heather O ‘Reilly and Carli Lloyd joined Grimes in the World XI squad. And in the England dugout, Chelsea Women’s manager Emma Hayes and Line of Duty actor Vicky McClure were alongside Redknapp.
That’s all great, but it could be so much better. So much more diverse. So much more inclusive. So much more fun.
The aim is to make Soccer Aid as watchable as possible, to maximize the audience and so raise as much money as they can. None of that precludes organizers from including female celebrities who can match the male ones for fitness and skill.
For a whole host of societal and historical reasons, there might be a smaller pool to choose from (although it will be growing year on year) but I can guarantee that if they look hard enough, they will find some.
(Top photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)