Women's football in Croatia took the spotlight with a UEFA-backed festival in Osijek, with locally born HNS president Davor Šuker in attendance to honour the participants.
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Osijek hosted a UEFA-backed festival of women's football on Monday and Tuesday, with 600 girls involved in activities in the run-up to Croatia's FIFA World Cup qualifier against Wales.
An eight-hour programme of events on both days was attended by girls from local elementary schools, concluding with a match pitting a team of predominantly female local celebrities – with Osijek-born Croatian Football Federation (HNS) president Davor Šuker a notable exception – against players representing national women's champions WFC Osijek.
"I am really glad that the city where I was born, and my country, has staged such a prestigious event," said former Croatia striker Šuker. "The HNS cares about all the national teams, not just the men's senior side, which means we pay attention to women's football too. I am delighted I got the chance to play with the girls here. They had great skills and were tough opponents. I promise that this will not be the last event dedicated to women's football we will organise."
The Croatian senior men's team and their coaches visited the festival in the build-up to their World Cup Group A game, lending support to the HNS drive to promote women's football. "Women deserve an equal and respected place in football," said coach Igor Štimac ahead of his side's 2-0 win against Wales at Osijek's Gradski vrt. His team were accompanied onto the pitch by girls, and around 100 female players entertained the 17,000 crowd at half-time.
"I want to thank the HNS and president Davor Šuker for making this possible and allowing women's football to be the focus," said former Croatian women's international Tihana Nemčić. Meanwhile, Marija Margareta Damjanović, who was in charge of the event, added: "The festival of women's football is a big reward for WFC Osijek, who have been Croatian champions for several years. This is the first time an HNS president has scheduled a festival like this ahead of an important match like a World Cup qualifier. We invited all the elementary schools in Osijek and the response was great."
The HNS's push to raise the standard of the female game is being organised through five regional centres of women's football development – in Zagreb, Osijek, Rijeka, Split and Varazdin. UEFA is helping to fund the initiative via its women's football development programme.