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Varsha's story: Football's power to break cultural barriers

As a South Asian girl growing up in England in the 1990s, cultural norms discouraged Varsha Patel from pursuing her love of the game. Fast-forward 30 years and today, she is a qualified coach and role model for girls in her community who want to play football.

 Varsha Patel and the young girls' team that she coaches
Varsha Patel and the young girls' team that she coaches

I grew up in a small Black Country town with a high proportion of South Asians, most of them like myself in terms of how we were parented – a traditional family set-up. It was very common for the boys to play sport after school, but less so the girls. It was the norm – just something we grew up with.

I was very sporty at school. I loved the competition, loved being active, loved the idea of winning. I grew up with football around me: my brothers played, I watched it a lot on TV – and if I was allowed to go and watch a game with my dad, I'd do that too. But none of the other girls did sport outside school, and so sport was something I never thought was open to me. Nobody challenged it. I never challenged it.

For girls like me from a South Asian background, the culture was that you'd come straight home from school, get changed, watch TV, do your homework and then go and help your mum in the kitchen. So in my teens, I drifted away from sport. I don't remember seeing many opportunities. I went to university, moved away, got married. Sport fell off my radar.

EURO 2024: Game changer, story maker

Varsha's story began thanks to the English FA's development programme that introduces girls from all walks of life to football in a fun and friendly environment. The initiative is funded in part by UEFA's HatTrick programme, which distributes an average 66% of each men's EURO's net revenue to European associations for investment in their national game.

Read more stories that show the EURO’s power to change lives and communities for the better, on and off the pitch.

'I'll do it'

When I had my eldest daughter, I started to reflect more on my childhood. I remembered how much I enjoyed sport when I was young, and thought I needed to give my girls more of an opportunity. Reflecting made me understand the value of sport.

After the launch of a free programme run by the English FA introducing girls aged 5–11 to football, we saw there were free football sessions at our local club and thought we'd go along with my eldest daughter – she must have been seven at the time. She really took to it and then my youngest followed in her footsteps.

There was enough interest that the club could create their own girls' team, which was exciting. But when my youngest reached the same stage, there weren't enough qualified coaches to help run the team.

So I put up my hand.

"I'll do it," I thought. "I don't know what I'm doing – but I'll do it."

Varsha Patel recently completed her UEFA C coaching licence.
Varsha Patel recently completed her UEFA C coaching licence.

'The next level'

The whole family thought it was a joke. "How on earth can you be coaching?" You know, fair enough. I know the game, but I didn't know the detail. But my daughter was just desperate to be in a team, so I gave it a go. And I've just done my third season as a coach.

I started by looking at an FA course, and did that. Then I did the FA's Level 1 coaching course [now the Introduction to Coaching Football] and now I've just done my UEFA C licence too.

The UEFA C licence course was great. We had mentors to help us take our coaching to the next level, and we could meet lots of other coaches and see how everyone's got their own unique coaching style.

The only downside was that there were a lot of men. We're trying to get more female coaches, but there's still too much of an imbalance. And being the only South Asian as well – it would be nice just to see a bit more diversity.

'Not just players'

I'm not going to lie – the coaching takes time. During the week, I prepare the training session plans, review the previous game, wash the bibs, pump up the balls and get everything ready for training on Saturdays, then we have matches on Sundays. It's like having another full-time job, but this one is really rewarding. It gives you a feeling that no job can really give you.

It's definitely brought me and my daughters closer together. It's a two-way thing: I'm watching my youngest daughter now, seeing how she's progressing in the game. And she helps me with my training plans – tells me what's working well with the team.

I've also now started leading Squad Girls' Football, which is the next level up [for girls aged 12–14] and I'm still learning in every session. With 15 to 20 girls coming every week, I'm learning to adapt my coaching style and delivery to larger groups of mixed-ability girls.

Each of the ten girls on my Wildcats team are at different levels and you have to be aware of their differences. I try to look at each of them and think about how I can develop them not just as players but as people.

"We need to see more role models – more people that communities like mine can identify with. And I want to give that message to my girls, to tell them that they're going to be the role models for younger girls just starting out."

Varsha Patel

'The value of sport'

In 2023, I got to attend the first Grassroots Female Coaching Conference at St George's Park [the English FA's national football centre], which was amazing. And I've got to give credit to the Essex FA, my local FA, and what they’re doing for female coaches – there are quarterly networking sessions where we get together and we can lean on each other for support. And I can't forget the invaluable support from my mentor Mark Gordon, the Wildcats lead and the coach at FC Redwing, who's always believed in me.

I've been working quite closely with one of the football development officers on bringing free girls' football sessions to a local primary school with a high South Asian demographic, with the hope of transitioning some of them to the Wildcats.

But there's still this massive education gap. If you're a South Asian parent, you're so driven by academia that you don't understand the value of sport. I certainly didn't – until I started going down this route myself and seeing how important it can be in life.

Varsha Patel with young  Wildcats players
Varsha Patel with young Wildcats players

'Every right to be here'

I've got two girls who both love football and they're always asking, "Where are the brown girls on TV?" Where are the role models for them? Representation is so important on the pitch, but it's important off the pitch as well. We need to see more role models – more people that communities like mine can identify with.

I see myself as a role model. And I want to give that message to my girls, to tell them that they're going to be the role models for younger girls who are just starting out and who are also thinking, "Oh my gosh! Is this the right path for me?" Of course – you've got every right to be here.

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