From starting the first girl’s football team at Olga Primary School to representing Great Britain at the Olympics, local resident and Arsenal player Lotte Wubben-Moy shows us why it’s vital to provide high-quality training spaces to local young people.
‘This is the first interview I’ve ever had so close to home,’ remarks Wubben-Moy, looking out over Victoria Park’s boating lake, rowers circling the misty spray from the central fountain.
‘All my other interviews have been in Tokyo, for instance, or over at London Colney, North, just outside of London where we train.’
This area has been Wubben-Moy’s stomping ground for all of her 22 years, a constant in her life, with stints in North Carolina playing for the Tar Heels football team, and most recently, over three weeks playing for Great Britain’s women’s football team at the Tokyo Olympics.
A defender for Arsenal, Wubben-Moy was selected for the Women’s Football Olympic squad back in May, and recently returned home with her teammates. The team started the group stage well with a 2-0 win over Chile and followed that up with a single-goal victory against hosts Japan.
Being surrounded by hundreds of world-class athletes was a buzz like none other: ‘We all sort of have that common goal towards winning and competing for each other, it’s just harmony, energy, it’s so cool to be a part of.’
Team GB made it through to the quarter-finals, but their dreams of a medal were cut short by the Australian team, who won 3-4. The plane home was tinged with disappointment for Wubben-Moy, as she both wished she had performed better while feeling deeply grateful for what she had experienced.
There is a wisdom and steeliness about Wubben-Moy that is rare in people of her age. She maintains a calm and considered focus throughout the interview, a centre of stillness among the storm of wailing babies and busy servers around us at the Pavillion Cafe.
At one point she wordlessly walks over to the cafe’s water station for some cups of water, as comfortably as if helping herself in her own kitchen.
Equity in society is clearly something that Wubben-Moy feels strongly about, and must ponder regularly. While competing for Great Britain, she was struck by the disparity between the Olympic BMXers who had self-funded their trips to Tokyo, compared with the luxuries enjoyed by professional footballers such as herself.
Looking around her in Victoria Park, she is acutely aware of how things have changed in the East End over the last two decades. Thinking back to her childhood, she recalls visiting this very cafe when ‘Mum would get a cup of tea and I’d get one of those shitty shortbread biscuits for 50p.’
‘But nowadays’, she continues, ‘‘you’re paying, what? Almost five quid for a coffee? And you’re ending up having lunch worth twenty quid… I love a coffee and I love that culture,’ she muses, ‘but when I think of some of the (poorer) kids I went to school with at Olga Primary school and I think “is this (cafe) a place for them?”’
Wubben-Moy’s first experience of football was at Olga Primary School, minutes away from her family home on Zealand Road, Bow East. She remembers playing ‘on the gravel with all the boys, grazing my knees, loving life, hoping I was going to be accepted as one of the boys while I played.’
Finding no team for her to play with, Wubben-Moy set up Olga Primary School’s first-ever girls’ football team. Though she was, she recalls, one of the first girls in the school to vocalise her interest in football, once the door was opened, a team quickly formed.
‘The minute one girl sees another girl doing something they feel empowered to do it too. As women we have the power to elevate others,’ she says.
It was while playing with Olga Primary School that she was scouted for the West Ham Youth team, and then signed to Arsenal Women’s Team aged just 16. Just two years later, she left the Arsenal to move to North Carolina, where she played for the University of North Carolina’s women’s football team, the Tar Heels.
While the experience nurtured her as a footballer and a woman, she missed London life. It was the little things like lying on the grass in Vicky Park – a rare treat to ‘sit on green grass rather than play on it.’
The experience in America made her value the freedoms and independence that East London gives young people, where you can nip to the corner shop and jump on the number 8 bus straight into ‘town.’
‘If I want to perform on the pitch, I need to have a life I enjoy off the pitch,’ she says. ‘Whether that be the little things like being able to go to the shop and grab your favourite bread or go out for a coffee, and I missed those things (in North Carolina).’
Yet, after 22 years based at her parents’ home on Zealand Road, it’s time to fly the nest.
But only a stone’s throw away to London Fields; ‘I will stay in East London, I’m pretty sure, while I’m at Arsenal. I know how important that is for me now.’
Motioning to the scar on her head, long and straight almost down the middle, she says, almost as a reminder to herself, ‘you’re only as good as your last game.’
In Moscow four weeks ago, playing a Champions League game against Kazakh team Okzhetpes, Wubben-Moy went up for a header and collided with the skull of an opposition player.
She is acutely aware that life as a professional footballer is an unstable career path, one that at any minute could be taken away from her with an injury. Perhaps it is pursuing such an unstable career that Wubben-Moy feels so strongly that she needs a solid home base as her centre of gravity.
But it’s not all roses in Bow.
A few days ago she walked from her home to the ‘cage’ on Driffield Road for a quick kick-about. A sunken rectangle of tarmac surrounded by a high fence of perspex glass, not only was it closed, she said, it also had ‘shit on the floor and was covered in gunk’.
For Wuben-Moy, an Olympian with 24/7 access to a car that she can drive to a five-star training ground, this isn’t so much a problem as an annoyance. But, she explains, for ‘a young five-year-old who wants to get out the house because their mum’s shouting at them and she just wants to play football, she can’t.’
Cool and collected in most of our conversation, here she becomes animated, angry that this could prevent another young girl or boy from pursuing their dream like she could.
‘The reason why I play football is because I was able to have access to training facilities,’ she says.
‘Little things like that are what opens up possibilities and allows you to dream.’
If you enjoyed this, take a look at our piece on Sporting Bengal, the FC tackling racism in football.
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