Women Working in Football - Essex County FA's Cindi Chatha (Part One)
Whilst coverage of women’s football has increased in recent years, what often goes unnoticed are the hundreds of women who play a vital role in the day-to-day functions of professional and grassroots clubs and organisations.
In a brand new feature series, Kick It Out will be speaking to women who work within football – in a number of roles including coaching, club executives, photographers, administrators, matchday staff and more – to celebrate and gain an insight into their contributions to the professional and amateur game.
The feature will discuss their experiences of the game, how they reached where they are today and any challenges they may have faced along the way.
For February’s entry, Kick It Out spoke to Cindi Chatha, Inclusion Football Development Officer at Essex County Football Association. In part one, she reflected on her passion for football development and equality, as well as her work in bringing communities together in Essex.
It hasn’t always been easy for Cindi Chatha to stay involved in the game she loves.
Despite facing what others may have considered significant barriers to working in football, there was never any doubt in her mind as to the career she wanted to pursue.
“I used to enjoy sports and football a lot when I was younger, but it was quite difficult for women to get involved in the game,” Cindi said. “My father didn’t like me playing football at all because it was perceived as a ‘man’s sport’. Then at age 13, I developed a severe auto-immune disease and my life changed completely.”
Diagnosed with a long-term illness as a teenager, the chronic tiredness that came with it meant Cindi had to reconsider her relationship with football.
“I couldn’t play football, I couldn’t do any sport. As I had a passion for it, development was the next best step that I could manage myself.”
Whilst studying at university, Cindi began volunteering for Arsenal’s ‘Double Club’ community initiative before moving to Tottenham Hotspur’s Foundation as a sports coach, where she spent five years.
Eager to gain as much experience as possible, Cindi secured another position alongside her role at Spurs, working as a Sports Development Officer at Springfield Community Flats in south London. It was during this period of her life that she began to develop a deeper interest in social and equality issues.
Cindi explained: “At Spurs I was involved in the Think Fit project, which was aimed at women only and we had a high uptake of Muslim ladies joining, who had never done any sport in their life.
“In south London, the girls didn’t have any interest in participating in any sport so my aim was to engage with them. A lot of the boys were disengaged with the community, so the focus was to use sport as a tool to engage with them and build positive relationships.”
Her own experience and upbringing was a significant driving factor in her desire to promote inclusion in football.
“From my background I’ve had issues where due to my ethnicity I was not allowed to play football and my disability has stopped me from taking part in any sports,” she said. “So it’s nice to break down barriers and open doors for others who will have the opportunities that I never had.”
It’s now been over two years since Cindi joined Essex County FA as the lead on their football inclusion development work, and she feels there’s been a significance advancement in the association’s understanding of equality.
“After achieving the Preliminary Level for the Equality Standard for Sport, everyone has an in-depth knowledge about equality and the nine protected characteristics – how to create positive action and engage with different communities.”
Cindi’s role has not come without its challenges and she gave an insight into some of the obstacles she’s faced in reaching out to unrepresented sections of the public.
“It has been difficult in engaging and establishing positive relationships with under-represented communities, in particular the BAME community,” she said.
However, Cindi is pleased that she has made breakthroughs: “We’ve managed to build a successful positive relationship with one community. Often after initial meetings, communities can stop responding but one Muslim community fully engaged with us and we have now developed a successful Just Play session”.
“The session is linked to the local mosque and it has also now opened up to the wider community, so you get a wide range of ethnicities there.”
In an effort to further increase the County FA’s engagement with diverse communities across Essex, Cindi has played a key role in the establishment of the Unity Cup – a series of tournaments which seek to bring people from different BAME and non-BAME backgrounds together, regardless of faith or ethnicity.
She said: “It’s open to all, and whilst we are trying to target BAME groups, we wouldn’t turn away anyone who’d like to come. Engaging with the BAME community is essential but you don’t want to segregate. It’s important to use football as a way of uniting communities together – not dividing them.”
One of the next Unity Cup tournaments will take place in Harlow, where a 40-year-old Polish man named Arkadiusz Jóźwik was killed last August.
Echoing the sentiments of Kick It Out’s Call Full Time On Hate initiative, Cindi explained what she was hoping to achieve by hosting the tournament at the location of such a tragedy.
“I want to target Harlow so we can unite the communities together. We have Essex Police involved in helping promote the tournament and attending on the day. It’s vital to have the police involved so that they can also build positive relationships with communities.”
In Part Two, Cindi reflects on her experience as a Sikh woman in the football industry, as well as discussing what more can be done to make the game’s workforce more diverse and inclusive.