Lionesses captain Leah Williamson has spoken about the controversy surrounding the 2022 FIFA World Cup as the tournament gets underway in Qatar.
In an exclusive interview with SPORTbible, the 25-year-old England Women’s captain also spoke about wider issues of equality within the game – and what she really thinks about celebrities profiting from it.
The Lionesses are a diverse team of women, including openly LGBQ+ players, so what are Williamson’s thoughts on the world’s highest football competition being played in a country where same-sex relationships are outlawed?
“All I seem to hear is that people are being excluded, which is a shame,” says Leah.
“There seem to be barriers to getting involved [the World Cup] already. We all want to watch football and enjoy it. When I go out on the pitch I don’t think about anything else for a couple of hours and when I watch football it’s the same thing, it consumes you, you just want to dive into it.”
Wider human rights issues, including corruption and the death of migrant construction workers brought in to build the stadiums, have marred the build-up to what should have been a global celebration of the beautiful game.
“It’s outrageous, shocking stuff,” he says. “I don’t know how we got to this point.”
The England and Arsenal centre-back may have strong views on equality and inclusion, but when asked what he thinks of celebrities such as David Beckham and Gary Neville benefiting from their participation in the game, he insists he “wouldn’t ever judged. anyone for what he chooses to be paid.”
However, in stark contrast to the negativity surrounding the World Cup, the magic of Euro Women – which saw the Lionesses claim victory at Wembley in July – has been hugely positive for women’s football in the UK.
“It was such a great event,” says Williamson. “Everyone loved it and four months later I’m still getting people saying, ‘Thank you for giving us a summer we loved and a lifetime we’ll always remember.’
Crowds at Women’s Super League matches are growing, with Williamson’s club Arsenal selling season tickets for their 5,000-seat ground. but Williamson recognizes the need for longevity and sustainability as clubs try to fill their main stadiums for WSL matches. “I hope I’ll be around to see that,” he adds.
Since winning the Euro final, the Lionesses have become household names, with Williamson starring in Nike’s latest advert alongside iconic players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, and team-mate Jill Scott swapping the on-field competition for tests bushtucker at I’m a celebrity, get me out of here.
But beyond endorsements and game appearances, Euro success has allowed the winning team to give back to their communities.
“We play and I love my job and I get so much out of it,” says Williamson, who owns Freedom in her hometown of Milton Keynes. “The range that we have is what surprised me and [the Lionesses want to] add some positivity any way we can. This is the most important thing for me. We all want to change the world, but sometimes you have to start where you’re from.”
On Wednesday (November 23), Williamson did just that as she unveiled an art installation at Wembley Stadium to celebrate National Lottery-funded hero Helen Hardy, founder of Manchester Laces – Manchester’s first all-female non-binary team.
Williamson says this is a perfect example of how the game should progress: “[Following the Euros] We asked for this, for people to get involved. Manchester Laces is a great example of someone who has watched the summer and felt they could be a part of this community. We don’t want anyone to be excluded.”
My final question for Williamson, who famously rallied with the Lionesses, is what advice he would give the England men’s team as they set their sights on victory in Qatar. “Enjoy it. They’re a good group of guys and after working so hard to get to a tournament, it would be a shame to get there and not enjoy it. It brings out the best in you.”