Every player has formative memories of when their love of football first caught fire. Some will have seen it nurtured by family, others by the sight of their teams in action and many on a local pitch itself. For Alex Scott, Arsenal captain and winner of well over 100 England caps, hers was forged in a football cage in London.
“In the East End I spent all my time in a football cage,” she told FIFA.com. “That was my outlet every night, I would rush home from school and go to play with the boys.”
It’s both a childhood highlight and the foundations of a player who finds herself at the top of the women’s game today. “That was when I was dreaming of playing for Arsenal and at Wembley. If it wasn’t for someone spotting me I wouldn’t be where I am.”
This is why, when given the chance by the Arsenal Foundation and Save the Children, she went against the wishes of friends and family to spread this love in a refugee camp in Iraq. The organisations had come together to build football cages in the two camps, far superior to those she grew up with, and Scott was asked if she wanted to meet the children who would benefit from them.
“Everyone told me not to do it,” she recounted, “but the more I was speaking to people I thought to myself: ‘Imagine if we all adopted this kind of attitude, then no one would be going over to help or give hope’. The fact that no one wanted me to go pushed me to do it.”
With rebellious spirit in hand, this is how the defender, who less than nine months earlier had seen a FIFA Women’s World Cup bronze medal hung around her neck, found herself driving through the desolate landscape on the edge of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Just a few hours from Baghdad, and similarly from areas controlled by the Islamic State terrorist movement, it’s fair to say she was out of her comfort zone.
People can say: ‘What does a football pitch do?’, but I saw first-hand that it’s everything to them. Those football pitches are giving them their childhood back.
“The tragic circumstances that they were living in hit home,” the 31-year-old recalled on arriving at the camp, comprising of small housing units packed with families as 6,000 displaced Iraqis suffer the toils of war. “It blew me away. You read about it and see it on TV but it’s not until you step into it that you understand.
“They’re just ordinary people like me and you, but because of the circumstances they’ve had to flee their homes – some of them have been there for two and a half years. [These children] still all have hopes and dreams, wanting to be doctors and physios so they can help people in the situation they’re in.”
That length of time, with more likely to come with instability rife in the region, is a huge amount to see taken from any childhood. This is why Scott is convinced something as simple as 500m-squared of artificial turf is potentially so transformative. The reactions have proved that.
“People can say: ‘What does a football pitch do?’, but I saw first-hand that it’s everything to them. Those football pitches are giving them their childhood back. Before they had it they would sit inside, 11 of them to a cabin, all day and all night – Groundhog day. [The pitch] is their escape, it’s a place to go, play and forget about their troubles.”
Scott was an instant hit with the kids, met with beaming smiles and a caravan of companions during her time at the camp, while giving the girls – who have time on the pitch set aside just for them – a special training session. “People have been teasing me as it looked like I was racing them and not letting them win, but I guess that’s the competitor in me,” she laughed with a touch of embarrassment.
“In Iraq it’s not in their culture for [girls] to play sport, so that’s why it’s important they have an hour slot just for them. It encourages them to come together, work together and empowers them to go on and be something.”
A changed game
Her trip to war-torn Iraq, and seeing grassroots football at its most fundamental, is a million miles away from where she was nine months earlier, stepping out in front of tens of thousands in Canada at the Women’s World Cup. But having joined Arsenal back in 1992, she’s seen women’s football grow hugely over 24 years in the game and attitudes change too.
“I’ve seen women’s football when it was at the bare minimum where we had nothing, training twice a week, to where it is now, which is absolutely fantastic,” she explained, picking up a host of trophies during three spells at Arsenal, including scoring the winner in the UEFA Women’s Champions League final in 2007. “For me it’s always about staying grounded and remembering where you’ve come from.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have played in three World Cups and every time they keep getting better and better,” having first appeared at China, a few months after that winning goal for the Gunners. “I think that’s just the whole impact of women’s football in general, taking it to a whole new level, new audiences and every tournament that comes around beats the last with flying colours.”
Her latest taste of the international stage was also her most successful, as England’s Lionesses won hearts on the way to third place. “To go on and get a bronze medal, with other teams wanting us to do well once they had been knocked out, shows that we were able to get across the spirit of football and the passion of wearing your national team colours, playing with all your heart,” Scott maintained.
“Gone are the days when England were a pushover. I remember when we were first in tournaments and, coming up against Germany, they’d be a gulf ahead of us, but now all nations have closed that gap, which is fantastic for the competitive level of women’s football.”
“Now we need to prove bronze wasn’t a one-off.” When they step out to do so, Scott can be confident in the knowledge there’ll be a few more fans cheering her on from a far-flung football cage next time, too.