Pitchside Europe

From sleeping rough to England’s caps record: the inspirational story of Fara Williams


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Mark Sampson’s dominant England side pulled off a shock 4-0 win against Pia Sundhage’s legendary Sweden side in a friendly thanks to a Karen Carney brace and one each for Lianne Sanderson and debutante Fran Kirby.

Before the game, the official FA Twitter account announced that playmaking midfielder Fara Williams would be starting for the 130th time at Hartlepool, making her the most capped England player ever.

Williams, 30, is not only a great player, she has a fascinating and inspiring life.

She gave an interview earlier this year in which she revealed that she had been homeless for six years during her career. While representing her club and her country, she was living rough or sleeping in a hostel - and she didn’t tell her team-mates either.

That's right - a football star was homeless, while playing for England.

Since then she’s been heavily involved with coaching homeless girls and women as part of the Homeless FA’s initiative; she’s helped Liverpool Ladies to the FA WSL title; and, of course, she’s broken that England appearances record.

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Those not au fait with women’s football might assume that the legendary goalkeeper Peter Shilton was the previous recordholder. Well, he wasn’t.

Veteran winger Rachel Yankey had 129 caps. The very idea that a woman can hold such a footballing record evidently makes a lot of people uneasy.

The FA’s tweet got responses asking them to specify that it was a new record for a female England player.

Indeed, when Yankey got her own record, pundit Jason Cundy tweeted angrily that she didn’t deserve the plaudits she was getting.

Before one dismisses this as a one-off, it happens regularly, and around the world. During the World Cup, there was a touch of infighting in the US when Landon Donovan was repeatedly described as the country’s leading international goalscorer.

With 57 goals, he’s certainly got more than any other man; but Abby Wambach’s 167 goals (at the time of the tournament) leaves him far behind.

One chap on Twitter objected, saying: “You might as well say that Birgit Prinz and Marta have more goals than Miroslav Klose and Pele.”

Well, yes, you might as well say that – because they have.

Prinz scored 128 goals in her international career; Klose has 71. Marta has so far scored 82; Pele managed 77.

And to reassure the likes of Cundy, pointing this out is not to make a comparison between the players. It’s simply to compare their respective achievements in the parallel worlds within which they compete.

Critics will point out that men’s international careers tend to be shorter than women’s, due to the player pool size being larger. It’s true, elite female footballers of the most recent generation have tended to make their international debuts at a very young age – like Williams, who first made the England team when she was 17 – but the sheer longevity of their careers deserves recognition.

Can it really be that hard to just add the little word “men’s” into the sentence “Landon Donovan is the USA’s all-time leading goalscorer”, or “Peter Shilton is England’s most capped player”? It would make both sentences factually accurate, after all; and doing so wouldn’t downplay their contributions to the game.

Equally, though, it wouldn’t erase the sporting achievement of women who not only work, train, play and represent their country, but do all this in the face of a sporting establishment that more often than not wants to belittle what they do.

By Carrie Dunn - on Twitter @carriesparkle

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