This partnership between VERSUS and Sports Direct celebrates the impact football fans have on their communities across the UK. Football has the power to change the world for the better, and these individuals embody that message better than anyone else.
Chris Paouros is no stranger to the complexities of building a community. She’s a trailblazer in the sport, working to make football a safe and welcoming space for everyone. She co-founded the Proud Lilywhites – one of the first LGBTQ+ supporters' associations in the country – in 2014, and her work in the community doesn’t stop there. Her name is attached to roles at Kick It Out, the Football Sports Association, and the FA’s Inclusion Advisory Board.
Inclusion is something Paouros holds close to her heart, and her work to increase diversity and representation off the pitch and in the stands proves it. Before all of this, however, she’s a fan.
A Tottenham Hotspur season ticket holder since 1996, Paouros' love for the club and football is the driving force behind the work she puts in to ensure the beautiful game stays beautiful for supporters of all backgrounds - regardless of race, gender and sexuality.
VERSUS sat with Paouros to discuss growing up in a Spurs household, LGBTQ+ visibility in football, and the future of gender equality and inclusivity in the sport.
Photography by Holly-Marie Cato for VERSUS.
“We just started building relationships centred around bringing about change in football by making it a more inclusive space.”
VERSUS: How was it that you first started to incorporate football into your work, or has it always been a major focus for you?
Chris Paouros: I feel like I’ve been an activist all my life. If I look back to being a kid, I ran my first petition when I was 13-years-old because girls weren’t allowed to wear trousers at school – so I’ve always had a sense of wanting to right wrongs in terms of injustice. In terms of working in football, I co-founded and I still co-chair the Proud Lilywhites – the official Tottenham Hotspur LGBTQ+ supporters association – and we’ve been doing that for just over nine years now. But by trade, I’m a business consultant.
VERSUS: How did your two worlds – business and football – collide?
Chris: I’ve spent nearly 20 years working with clients and solving business related problems, and in those instances and spaces, I realised there was a lot of really good non-profit, community-related work going on. I wanted to try and bring people together from the business and football worlds, which nine years ago wasn’t a particularly revolutionary thought, but it also wasn’t necessarily something too many people were doing.
VERSUS: What do you mean?
Chris: If you look at equality work in football nine years ago, it was really badly funded. Everyone was competing for the same pot of money – funds were limited. But as a voluntary organisation, we didn’t really need funding because we were just a bunch of people with some ideas, and wanted to do stuff we cared about! We knew we could bring people together, so the first thing we did when we started Proud Lilywhites was: meet Troy Townsed at Kick It Out, Jo Tongue at Women in Football, Lou Englefield at Football vs Homophobia and Anwar Uddin who’d not long started the fans diversity campaign. We just started building really solid and fruitful working relationships – ones centred around bringing about change in football by making it a more inclusive space. I also realised really quickly just how much I had to offer, personally.
I was at a point in my career where I could afford to do more things on a voluntary basis, but also, to be a bit more of an activist.
VERSUS: Just like when you were 13-years-old?
Chris: We started the Proud Lilywhites in early 2014, and later that year my wife died unexpectedly. My whole world got tipped upside down when she passed away. I didn’t know what I was doing or what my purpose was. That first year after her death, I didn’t know which way was up and so wasn’t thinking very straight. But the first Proud Lilwhites’ event was in October, and at that time, my wife’s family – who come from New Zealand – were in London so they came to that first event.
My wife was also a Spurs fan, we had our season tickets together. I remember thinking I wanted to do something that would honour her and her legacy. She was a primary school teacher who always worked in inner-city schools, loved football, and really wanted to make sure children who suffered at the hands of injustice were supported; she wanted them to grow up and realise the world can also be a place of justice for people who looked like them. She worked in Tower Hamlets and Newham, and mainly taught Black and Brown children, and I could see that, what the world looked like for them, wasn’t necessarily what it looked like for the kids that lived in our area. I gave up my job after she died and decided to work for myself – which I’ve done ever since.
VERSUS: Has that enabled you to focus on areas both you and your wife cared about most?
Chris: It’s definitely given me the chance to do all of the work I currently do in football. So, as well as being the co-founder and co-chair of the Proud Lilywhites, I also co-founded Pride in Football; a network of LGBTQ+ fan groups across the UK. When we started there were four groups, now there are 50 – which is so cool! I want to see these big changes both on and off the pitch, but in the meantime, if there are other things we can do to make people’s lives better whilst waiting for the big changes to happen, then we’ll give it a good go!
VERSUS: Have you always supported Spurs?
Chris: I grew up in Southgate, which is in the suburbs of North London, and I have always been a Spurs fan. I can’t remember not being a Spurs fan! My parents are from Cyprus, and my first uncle came over here in 1961 and landed in Haringey – like all good North London Cypriots. Haringey is a Spurs borough and the year my uncle arrived, Spurs was a double-winning team! So, that was that! A number of years later, my mum arrived in London with her younger brother and my granny. At the time, my mum’s younger brother was about 15-years-old and was really into football. When I was growing up – roughly 15 or so years later – he had a Spurs season ticket. One of his mates couldn’t go to a match with him one day, so he took me instead – I was about six.