Her stellar football career has helped her tick achievements off her to-do list that many can only dream of: playing for a national team, being a role model for young women and girls, becoming an MBE, as well as the most-capped female player ever. No biggie.
But Fara Williams, star of England’s ‘Lionesses’ and Arsenal midfielder, has more reason than most to celebrate getting to the top of the beautiful game.
Yes, there’s the sexism, the previous invisibility of female role models in football, the years of the women’s game being overlooked and ignored by the media, but Williams has also struggled through homelessness to become the acclaimed international player she is today – and, as she tells stylist.co.uk, it’s an experience she has used to empower her: “I was 18 when I became homeless but it was never something that stopped me from playing football, it was my motivation to succeed and to do what I was doing.”
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After years of living in hostels, then struggling with part-time jobs alongside training “never thinking one day I would get paid”, it’s safe to say William’s story is one of, as she says, “grit and graft”.
Speaking on the phone to Williams, who was raised on a council estate in Battersea, London, I hear a raw, earthiness in her voice – a sound that I can imagine, if forced would be not a far cry from a lioness’s roar.
At the time of the interview, Williams is in high spirits having just played her first match of the Euros against Scotland – and the team absolutely smashed it with a six-nil win. With an excited laugh, she admits she’s “buzzing” and it’s clear that right now, there’s no stopping her.
But, she emphasises that her journey is as important as her success – a journey that Williams has publicly shared with her fans: “I try and put myself out there and engage with fans – our teams discuss the hurdles we’ve come over in life, whether they be small or big. We all have different journeys and our fans can relate to that and connect with us.
“You have a lot of people sending private messages on social media, for me it’s mostly about homelessness. Young people that are homeless will message and say how inspiring I am to get where I am”.
Williams describes how, “growing up on an estate it [football] was the cheapest and most engaging thing to do” and at 12 years old she started playing for Chelsea’s under 14’s team, later moving to Charlton Athletic. She made her England debut at the age of 17 – with none of her then-teammates knowing that she was living in a hostel after family arguments had resulted in her leaving her childhood home with nowhere to go.
Williams, now 33, has made no secret of the difficulties of spending seven years homeless, previously saying: “When I was in the hostels I didn’t engage with people. I certainly put a barrier up. I never smiled.”
And the reality was a scary one. In 2014, she told The Guardian: “I was scared that first night walking past the homeless people. Like everyone else I had a perception of what homelessness looks like”. She revealed she used techniques such as making loud noises to scare away those she found intimidating: “I used to turn as I walked. I’d walk 100 yards and spin around. I looked mad myself. But one guy told me that, to stop people coming near them, the homeless act like they’re mad.”
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In a time of despair and uncertainty, where basic needs such as a roof over your head suddenly become a challenge, it would be easy for sporting hobbies to go out of the window. But for Williams, football became her anchor. In a stunning example of female strength, she tells me it was something she drew power and motivation from in the darkest times, showing the importance that sport can play in a young woman’s life: “You know when I was in that situation, I think having football made it very easy for me.”
Although Williams feels she had “good support around me in good friends, family and coaches”, she still kept her situation a secret from those in her professional life. She only found a stable living situation in her 20s when she relocated to Merseyside to play for Everton and was offered a permanent job as an FA community coach. For that reason, the midfielder is more empathetic than most to the isolation, fear and distrust that many young homeless people feel.
She says: “If you’re in that place you can lose trust and faith in people. When you’re trying to protect yourself, you might not want that support or think that support isn't genuine. But you can’t deal with everything alone and sometimes being homeless that’s what happens – it can be very lonely.”
This is one of the reasons Williams is regarded as such an inspiration. How many male footballers do you know of that have been through similar strife and carved out such a career for themselves? All the more impressive given the inherent gender bias in the industry.
Though she never initially saw herself as a role model (“I just saw myself as a player”), Williams has become one, and her advice to those that contact her is to trust in people, as she learnt to do: “People are genuine, they do want to help and you know, don’t see it that because you’ve been broken once in a different environment whether that might be trust, or whatever that might be, there are people out there that want to help you.“
Nowadays, she is often approached by fans in the street and warmly reveals to me how she feels herself and her team have “gone from, not from being nobodies, but not really being known to people actually appreciating the work that we’ve done and where we’re at now”.
She notes: “The roles have changed now because the game is the way it is now. We certainly are role models to young players growing up and we present ourselves in a certain way and make sure young people are looking to get involved in the game.”
Admirably, Williams sees being a “good person” as an essential part of her role model status, something it fair to say those who populate the gossip columns in male football could learn from.
She explains to me: “You are an athlete but you have to be a good person and have good values. I think that’s really important in life and in general. That’s what I would try and give off to people – if you take away Fara the footballer you have Fara that is a good person.”
Her adoring fans starkly illustrate the difference in how visible female footballers were when she was growing up – when Williams would “go and watch men’s football because it had more exposure” – and now.
This contrast is an example synonymous with the development of the game in a wider sense – investment in women’s football has tripled since 2010. The industry is in a better place than ever (think bigger stadiums drawing bigger crowds, a pledge from the FA to double the amount of women in football by 2020 and a focus on more commercial prospects), but there’s still a space for more female role models in sport.
As a young player, Williams felt their conspicuous absence in the media. Watching the men’s game, she would look up to male stars because there just wasn’t the same exposure for women. And it’s the exposure that Williams addresses as the problem, not the lack of players.
“There was never anything in the media or the papers that was a regular thing that you’d buy. Nothing in there about female footballers and hardly anything on TV so it was difficult to have a female role model back then.”
She points out that it wasn’t until she got a more in-depth understanding of football that she learnt about the great female footballers out there, suggesting that with the low level of media exposure the average teenage girl doesn’t stand much of chance of connecting to female football: “The older I’ve got and the more I come to understand women’s football there’s a few names that stood out such as Rachel Yankey, Marianne Spacey and Kelly Smith.”
Watch: UEFA Women’s EURO 2017 England v Scotland football skills challenge
With a sense of togetherness, Williams talks of “our game” and addresses her predecessors with weighty respect. She sounds immensely proud of being “lucky enough to play with some older players that were coming to the end of their careers” and credits them for teaching her “the value of having to be a footballer and having to work hard to achieve things”.
Although there’s still much to do in giving this sport the recognition it deserves, Williams acknowledges it was more difficult for those before her and pays tribute to those who paved the way, saying, “It was very hard back then.
“They were the players that helped put our game in the position that it’s in now and we’re lucky to have those players to have grafted without the support that we have today.”
Graft couldn’t be a more appropriate word when it comes to female footballers – most of whom are paid poorly and work second (or more) jobs alongside playing – a different world to that of the men’s sport.
An illustrative example is the fact Williams never even expected to be paid for her skill. When the footballer first started playing professionally for one of the capital’s leading teams, Chelsea, it was something she saw as a privilege in itself.
“When I started out it was just about playing. Just being able to play and put the Chelsea shirt on and score goals for Chelsea, the buzz that I got from that, I never thought that one day I would get paid to play for a team I had supported for so long.”
After struggling on the “FA part-time salary” that “wasn’t enough to live off but enabled you to have a part-time job so that you were less tired when you were training”, WIlliams has now been on a full-time salary for four years and has become one of the biggest names in her field – literally. So, what does the soccer superstar put down to her success? Pretty simply, “sticking at it”.
“My career is the reward of sticking at it, making different decisions along the way which helped me kick off my football career. It could have gone a different way, I could have got a job if I needed money but I did it the hard way. We had to grind and get little part-time jobs on the side and pay to get to football back then.”
Despite the challenges, Williams insists: “I’ll never look back with any regret, I could have done education but if I did I probably wouldn’t have had the achievements I’ve had in my career.”
What’s that you say about women not being as ‘strong’ as men? I can’t think of anything stronger than a lioness, which is exactly what Williams is.
Fara Williams is helping McDonald’s celebrate 15 years of its Community Football Programme and its longstanding commitment to inclusivity. For more information on McDonald’s support of the UEFA Women’s EURO 2017™ visit mcdonalds.co.uk/womenseuro