Scotland's national women's football team are battling to reach the UEFA European Women's Championship final round for the first time, and, just ahead of an eagerly awaited play-off with Spain, the Scottish minister for Commonwealth Games and sport, Shona Robison, visited UEFA headquarters to discuss, among other things, the development of women's football in Scotland.
Robison met UEFA President Michel Platini and held discussions with UEFA women's football officials on UEFA's assistance to Scotland, in particular under the European governing body's HatTrick and women's football development (WFDP) programmes. Scotland take on Spain in the play-off first leg at Hampden Park, Glasgow, on Saturday before travelling to Spain for the second leg in Las Rozas next Wednesday.
"As the sports minister, I was keen to come to UEFA and describe some of the work that we are carrying out to support football, and particularly the women's and girls' game in Scotland," Robison told UEFA.com after the meeting. "It was a very productive day."
The Scottish government recognises the importance of investing in football in a country with a long and proud tradition in the game, and investments in youth, grassroots and women's football have increased considerably in recent years. Since 2007, some £73m (€89.97m) has been provided for the development of sports facilities across Scotland, including over 22 football pitches, and a new world-class national performance centre for sport is being created for 2016 with government funding, with the future well-being of men's and women's football in Scotland at its heart.
In addition, the Scottish government's Cashback for Communities Programme recovers money from crime, and such proceeds are being invested, among other things, into football – for example, fostering the construction of a further 16 full-sized latest-generation artificial turf pitches and six smaller pitches across the country.
"We have given support for the women's and girls' game as one of our three key priorities in working with the Scottish Football Association," Robison explained. "We have supported the setting up of a network of six girls' [and] women's club development officers, which has allowed people on the ground to build up links between the schools and the clubs, and make sure there is a sustainable development for the girls' and women's game."
The crucial input of the Scottish government is bearing fruit. The national women's team – who missed out on the 2009 Women's EURO through a play-off defeat on away goals – have achieved their highest world ranking, and Glasgow City LFC reached last year's UEFA Women's Champions League round of 16. With the nation looking forward to an exciting play-off encounter with Spain, Robison also welcomes the impressive overall progress that women's football has made throughout Europe in recent years.
"It pleases me, because when you watch the women's game, the skill and technique is fantastic," she said. "It's a great game to watch. I think [women's football] is being recognised more and more throughout European countries as being equal in importance to the men's game. This is something that, as a government, we're keen to support. When you look at the growth of girls' football within Scotland, it's the biggest growing team sport – you've got more girls playing football in schools than we've ever seen before. The more countries that develop the girls' and women's game in Europe, the higher the quality will be."
Ms Robison emphasises that, whatever the outcome of the Scots' push for a cherished Women's EURO place, the government's drive to bolster the girls' and women's game in this football hotbed will continue unabated. "It's been a fantastic achievement – particularly given that very few of the players are professionals or semi-professionals," she reflected.
"There have been great developments, but there is still a road to travel, and we still need to overcome some of the attitudes in the media towards women's and girls' football. We have to get spectator numbers up, but I think that success brings support and attention – so the fact the women's team is doing so well will bring benefits. We're keen to work with the Scottish Football Association to see what more can be done to market and profile the game in the right way – the more we can do that, the better."
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