“For players of my generation – and before – there wasn’t money in the game. You were doing it because of your passion.
“But the players in the EUROs will take the game to another level. It’s important to make sure that both boys and girls are watching so that barriers can be broken down.”
The importance of this summer’s UEFA Women’s EUROs is not lost on Rachel Yankey who certainly knows a thing or two about breaking down barriers.
A pioneer of the game, who has inspired so many to get involved in football, Rachel became the country’s first professional female footballer when she joined Fulham in 2000 where she famously won the treble – when a club wins three trophies in a single season – in 2002-03.
The former Lioness enjoyed an illustrious career at a time when women’s football in England was still not fully professional, winning numerous trophies with Arsenal and Fulham, and surpassing Peter Shilton’s record of 125 England caps against Japan in 2013.
Now the 42-year-old is an ambassador for Starling, the only bank in the UK founded by a woman, and the official national banking partner of the UEFA Women’s EUROs 2022. Rachel says: “This is exactly what the women’s game needs, somebody to look at their company ethos and say this is what we are all about, equality, and we’re going to back it.
“I think every female footballer can relate to a woman working in a male-dominated area and championing it. We need to make sure that we support each other.”
Helping the next generation get involved in football has been important to Rachel throughout her career. While winning an incredible eight league titles, nine FA Cups and a UEFA Women’s Cup across two spells at Arsenal – which resulted in Rachel being honoured with an MBE in 2006 and an OBE in 2014 – the London-born forward coached children in primary schools.
“I didn’t start coaching when I retired. I was coaching the whole way through,” she explains.
“I’ve been trying to encourage both boys and girls to get involved in football. There are so many life skills you can learn from football… I want kids to understand the game is for everybody.”
Rachel jokes that she first found public speaking at school assemblies ‘scary’, but it’s an example of how football has helped her develop a skill which she now uses, such as when she became the star of the Cbeebies ‘Footy Pups’ show.
“There are many things you can get out of football that you can take into the world of work,” she says. “Such as being confident to problem-solve quickly, because you have to do that on a football pitch, or speak in front of teammates, that could help with leading a meeting.”
“If you don’t become a footballer, there are so many different jobs within the game. You might write about football, take pictures, be a physio or a doctor.”
Parents have a role too. Rachel recalls how her mother encouraged her to play football and “let me be who I wanted to be because she could see I was enjoying myself” – even when other parents told her football wasn’t for girls.
Supporting children to be confident enough to lead, and make responsible decisions, is a key message for Rachel, which aligns with the values of Starling, whose Kite debit card for kids encourages them to learn about money management.
“I don’t think we give kids enough respect for what they understand,” Rachel says.
“Through the work I do with schools, I let children come up with a session plan for football [training].”
“When you let children lead, you see their minds work in a way that’s different to ours because we’re moulded to think a certain way as we get older.”
And it is the perceptions of women’s football that Rachel hopes the UEFA Women’s EUROs will help challenge – just like she did when she embarked on a career that ended up spanning 20 years.
“I hope people will look at women’s football as the norm,” she says. “It’s a game of football.”