After England’s victory in the 2022 UEFA Women’s Euro final, many of their jubilant players ran to the side of the pitch to celebrate with Fara Williams, who had retired the year before as one of the country’s greatest footballers.
Chloe Kelly, who minutes earlier had scored the game’s dramatic winning goal against Germany at Wembley Stadium, leaped into Williams’s arms and hugged her.
Lucy Bronze and Jill Scott ran towards Williams, who had been commentating on the game for television, with such enthusiasm and force that they knocked her to the turf before they collapsed on top of her in a joyous heap.
In what was the most significant moment of their careers, these players still wanted to pay tribute to Williams as one of the pioneers of women’s football who had helped pave the way for them and make their victory possible.
A difficult path
Williams’s story represents so much more than sporting success. It is about overcoming hardships, tapping incredible reserves of resilience and inspiring a generation of women.
She began playing with boys on the small concrete pitches of her housing estate in Battersea, south London. “I’d finish school, quickly do any homework, then it would be football,” she said in an interview last year. “I’d be out there kicking the ball for hours until it got dark.”
The devotion to practice earned her a place in the Chelsea under-14 team when she was 12 years old, but her mother, who raised Williams and her three siblings alone, struggled to pay for her football boots.
For a while, Williams lived with her grandparents before returning home, but she left again after a dispute with her aunt, who had moved in with her mother.
She was 17 years old and suddenly homeless, either sleeping on the streets or finding temporary beds at hostels or in friends’ houses.
Despite being separated from her family and consumed with fear, Williams continued to thrive as a footballer. The game came naturally to her, and she made her debut for Chelsea’s first team before quickly moving to Charlton Athletic.
In 2001, the same year she became homeless, she made her international debut for England against Portugal. She scored her first international goal three months later.
In her first season with Charlton, she was voted their Player of the Year and also won the Football Association’s (FA’s) Young Player of the Year award in 2002. After losing consecutive FA Cup finals in 2003 and 2004, she won the FA Women’s Premier League Cup in 2004.
By day, she was a promising young footballer, but by night, she would return to her hostel, where she was surrounded by strangers. She put up barriers, didn’t smile and didn’t want to speak to anyone.
“I just didn’t want to tell people,” Williams said in a BBC interview in 2014. “People have a judgement of who should be homeless and who shouldn’t, and I felt people would judge me. I put on a brave face and lived my life as a normal person would, as though I was living at home.”
Hope on her side
It was after playing a series of games for England’s under-19 side that Williams’s reluctance to leave the comforts of the team hotel was noticed by Hope Powell, who would be her manager for 12 years.
Powell offered support, driving her to a homeless unit, bringing her a sleeping bag and food, and meeting her regularly. Williams now had someone who believed in her.
Williams has credited Powell with encouraging her to improve her understanding of the game and to do her coaching badges.
Then, in 2004, Williams moved north to Everton, where, with the support of her new coach, Mo Marley, she became a community coach.
It was in Merseyside that Williams, now no longer homeless, finally felt settled and secure and able to fulfill her potential to become one of England’s greatest players.
Over eight years at Everton, “Queen Fara”, as she was known to fans, played 122 games and scored 70 goals, helping them win the Premier League Cup in 2008 and the FA Cup in 2010. In 2009, she was voted the FA Players’ Player of the Year.
But then in 2012, she moved across town to rivals Liverpool, who had just finished bottom of the league. She immediately helped transform their fortunes, leading them to the FA Women’s Super League title in 2013 and 2014.
In the final years of her club career, she returned south for a season at Arsenal, where she won the FA Cup in 2016, before joining Reading, where after four seasons, she retired in 2021 aged 37. A kidney condition had played a role in her decision, but she also felt tired and knew her body could take no more.
Transforming the game
It was in international football where Williams created her most durable legacy, amassing a record 172 appearances for England between 2001 and 2019.
Over nearly two decades, she played in seven major tournaments – four European Championships and three World Cups. She was on the England team that lost the final of Euro 2009 to Germany and the team that finished third at the 2015 World Cup.
Williams may not have won a title in international football, but she did help transform the women’s game from being played on poor pitches in sparsely populated stadiums to this year’s scenes at Wembley when the team she helped inspire became European champions in front of a crowd of more than 87,000 people.