The cage is a canvas
Football is art. I really believe that.
It’s a space where you can create, express yourself and be free.
When you make a pass, when you take a shot, you are the owner of that creation. No one can take that away from you.
I grew up in Bow, East London. It’s a part of the city renowned for being home to young creatives. It’s also home to street football.
My family were never really into the game, but they did know about art. My dad is a furniture maker and designer — he came over from the Netherlands with only a backpack when he was 25 and started his own company — and my mum works in the fashion industry as a seamstress. And of course my sister has become a graphic designer!
I was a bit different from them in some ways, but I had my own creative world.
Every evening after school, I would take my ball and play in the streets, finding space between the cars outside our home. I’d kick the ball against this big wall. Again and again. Day after day. Until one day an elderly neighbour came out of her house and started shouting at me.
Feeling pretty shaken, but not wanting to admit it, I picked up my ball and left.
At the time, I remember using the fact that I had gotten so strong — even one of my weakest shots would probably smash a window — as justification for the old lady’s outburst!
Looking back, I have to thank her, because that’s how I ended up finding the cage.
The cage was just two minutes around the corner from our house. The pitch was sunken into the ground slightly and framed by a tall green fence, giving it this weird amphitheatre feel.
The pitch was concrete and doubled as a basketball court, which led to more than a few grazed knees. And, of course, the floodlights never worked, meaning that most of the time I played there after school, it was dark. The gates were always locked, but I could climb into that world with my eyes shut. I had to do it so often.
For those who didn’t dare climb over, their only interaction with the cage was as a spectator. They'd walk by, catching glimpses at first, then fixing their gaze on my feet poised to play out the skills I had been practicing for hours already. Their pace would slow while mine would increase. The window of opportunity was small before they would disappear beyond my horizon. Then I’d catch my breath and return to creating, never needing external validation. The skills were my creation, my art.
The grass was greener in the cage and those who dared to climb over would know.
And the pitch was our big rectangular canvas. Football really is art.
Arsène Wenger knew about that better than anybody. He made the connection between football and art mainstream.
I have never personally met Wenger but I do have one fond memory of a time when I brushed shoulders with him. It was around when I made my debut for Arsenal in 2015, when I was 16. In the canteen at Colney, I looked over and saw Wenger sitting there, immersed in thought, with his lunch and a glass of red wine. As a lifelong Gunner and Wenger fan — he became Arsenal manager before I was even born — it was such a cool sight to see him there. Enjoying the moment.
In his time in England and beyond, he dared to climb fences and inspire other artists. To him, the game was as much about beauty as function.
After all, it’s about enjoyment, right? Something we share and we do for fun.
It’s easy when playing, especially as a professional, to get lost in the routine, the devotion of time and energy to schedules, diets, training, etc. But what’s kind of amazing is that Wenger managed to keep a creative perspective, while simultaneously revolutionising football.
I attribute much of the player I am today to my younger self, who would spend hours in the cage with no agenda. I was just free to play the game I loved and most of all, free to create.
Depending on the day, there might’ve been five or 10 boys playing, but the number of girls was always constant: one. Me.
That never seemed to matter though. I was just one of the kids playing football. No one cared that I was a girl. Just that I could play football, and I wasn’t half bad at it. Football has the ability to cross boundaries like that, and in most instances, create common ground where similarities may be harder to come by.
That’s what street football in London is about. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, or what you’re about. The only question is, can you hold your own? Alright, we’ll see. Let’s play.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are of evenings spent in the cage.
If only all football was like street football: free for all and on the doorstep. The reality across the country though is that so many young girls and boys miss out on opportunities to play football for reasons that go beyond whether they are good enough.
Equal opportunity to play football at youth level is something that I will continue to fight for as my career as a professional footballer progresses.
It feels like as a collective, we can make a difference. But we can’t do it without the fans.
I love how we are able to share ourselves and our individuality with them, in a way that is not just transactional. They are part of the experience and the sense of community in a way that is refreshingly different from the men’s game.
I’m proud to be part of helping the game grow, worldwide, nationally, but also locally in East London. Women’s football is developing in ways that make it more possible for young girls who spend their free time climbing cages to dream.
Personally, my own dreams revolve around Arsenal, the club I love. The club that feels like home and where I am proud to have signed a new contract.
My dreams for this contract involve winning, competing on the biggest stages, and continuing to contribute to the direction in which the club is going.
I want to keep playing my way, with the same raw passion, freedom and art that I had as that little kid in the cage, wrecking my knees and finding myself.
But alongside these more football-oriented goals, this contract is about creating something for the community that both Arsenal and myself exist in.
In line with the number of years I have signed for, I will be building a programme, in collaboration with Arsenal in the Community, that involves giving my time and energy to help girls and young women in Hackney, Camden, and Islington.
The future excites me.
I want to continue to grow myself and my mind, but also help others along the way to doing the same.
I can’t change the world or my country, but with the help of the common ground that is football I can help make a difference in my community.
Oh, and if I am to be remembered for something else, I hope it’s as the person who eventually gets a project going to fix the floodlights at the cage, so that the next generation of young girls can keep playing after dark.
- From my written piece for The Players Tribune