Women’s soccer is steadily gaining popularity in Singapore as more initiatives to grow awareness of the sport are rolled out. The involvement of women in a traditionally male-dominated sport has come a long way from its days of little recognition. SMU Snapshots caught up with Lee Lai Kuan, president–and centre-back–of SMU Women’s Soccer, to find out what it’s like going off the beaten track to pursue one’s passion.

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How she found soccer

Having an older brother for a playmate meant that for a period of time during her childhood, Lai Kuan spent some time kicking a soccer ball around. When she was in secondary school, she wanted to join a sport but her school didn’t offer many activities. So, between volleyball, which her brother discouraged, basketball, where she was uncomfortable with the size of the jersey armholes, and soccer, the choice was a no-brainer.

By the end of her first two weeks of soccer training, Lai Kuan was burnt out and wanted to quit. Thankfully, she persisted with encouragement from her mother, and soon discovered a flair and love for the sport that subsequently carried her into the national women’s soccer team, and influenced many of her life decisions.

Besides a love for the sport, Lai Kuan credits the tightly knit women’s soccer community who keep her motivated.

“I really like the people that I’ve meet through soccer. I’ve known many of them since young, so we’ve really grown together. I also have a very strong relationship with my coach whom I’ve trained with for seven years now.”

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A traditionally male-dominated sport

Ten years ago, when Lai Kuan was still playing for her secondary school, few people knew about women’s soccer. Her school was one of the few to have a women’s soccer team. She observed how, the men’s teams would be split into zones to compete before qualifying for the national league, but the women’s teams only had one round of competition which saw up to ten teams participating on good days, and down to six teams on less promising occasions.

“Most parents have this concept that soccer is not a female sport, so recruiting girls for soccer was a challenge, making the CCA difficult to sustain. It was common last time for schools to close down their soccer teams due to a lack of sign-ups – so one year you might face them in competition, and the next year you wouldn’t see them again.”

Since then, more women have been banding together to form soccer clubs. Lai Kuan plays for the Warriors, one of the women’s soccer teams under the S.League, which is typically associated with men’s soccer. “S.League recently shifted some focus to women’s teams,” Lai Kuan grins, “and there have been more men’s clubs that are adopting women’s soccer teams also. In a sense, this helps us to gain recognition more easily.”

Changing perceptions

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While there are still gaps to be closed where recognition and the ability to compete full-time are concerned, Lai Kuan is positive that future generations of girls and women will be better equipped to pursue their passion for soccer as a full-time career. She cites the United States women’s national soccer team as a role model and beacon of hope.

“The United States women’s soccer team is recognised for their competence and they very often come in first at the Olympic Games and World Cup. It is very inspiring that they are all playing soccer for a living. That’s what I hope to do too. I think we are slowly moving in that direction.”

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Throughout her time in soccer, Lai Kuan has observed how abilities are sometimes overlooked because of gender stereotypes. This has shaped her to see things differently and built her to become a stronger person.

“It’s always a surprise to people when they hear about women playing soccer. I like to push myself to be tougher and play the sport better, to show that women can play good soccer too. I think society is slowly becoming more aware and positive about the subject. We had a breakthrough last year at the FAS Women’s Challenge Cup. We played at the national stadium and had an amazing turnout.”

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Back at home, perceptions of women’s soccer, and of Lai Kuan playing soccer, are also changing for the better.

“My father didn’t take me seriously when I first started soccer and would get bored at my games. Now, he’s at my every game and tells me he’s very impressed. He’s my number one fan. My brother’s attitude has improved too too – last time, when I asked him to come to my games, he would not show up. Now, he comes for my games without me having to ask him. These are big steps forward.”

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Despite the occasional hints of frustration when we chat about the state of women’s soccer in Singapore, Lai Kuan is optimistic about its future. She hopes that with the sport gaining exposure, more young girls will want to pick up soccer, and their parents will be open to it.

SMU women’s soccer is also doing their part to reach more girls and women with SMU Diva la Futbol – the one-day women’s soccer tournament that is open to the public. SMU Diva la Futbol is the initiative of the SMU women’s soccer and has been running for 15 years. The goal remains the same today – to create the awareness that girls and women can play soccer, by providing the opportunities to participate in an all-female tournament. The tournament sees an average of 350 participants annually, and Lai Kuan hopes that this figure will keep growing.

SMU Diva la Futbol 2017 will be held on 8 July 2017 at Kovan Sports Centre. To register and find out more about the event, check out their Facebook page and website!