While European women's football's blue-riband event – UEFA Women's EURO 2013 in Sweden – is in full swing, UEFA and its member national associations have been united on a mission to develop the female game across Europe. The overall results are impressive – and have been brought together in a special review produced under the auspices of UEFA's ambitious women's football development programme (WFDP)
Women's football is a key UEFA priority. With its women's competitions already established, the European body has decided that the time is ripe to focus on the foundations of the women's game and to encourage its growth and advancement at grassroots level on a pan-European basis. In December 2010, the UEFA Executive Committee approved significant funding for women's football development through the HatTrick assistance scheme to UEFA's member associations. The initial 2010/11 pilot phase was very successful and was repeated for the 2011/12 season.
For the period between 2012 and 2016, under the HatTrick III cycle, the WFDP is supporting and funding each of the 54 UEFA associations in their quest to nurture and promote the female game. "The concept is simple – that women's football has arrived as a team sport and all girls and women can play," the review says. "The key factors to develop are perception and accessibility."
The WFDP programme has already proved its worth, with high-profile backing into the bargain. Steffi Jones, the German women's football great, is working as ambassador for the WFDP and is joining forces with UEFA and its member associations to further cultivate women's football across the continent.
There are approximately 1.2 million registered female players in Europe, and the goal of each member association is an increase on that figure. The focal point used to generate new interest is predominantly grassroots football. The vast majority of WFDP-backed projects have started in schools, or with local community centres reaching out to girls and teaching them the rules of the game.
Many associations have used well-known players and professional coaches as role models, organising football festivals, youth tournaments or summer camps. The projects span many age groups, from as young as five to 16-year-olds. The work undertaken has shown that supporting the women's game at its base and empowering young girls to play is essential to both growth and sustainability.
Several projects have been approved to enhance integration, e.g. the creation of a mixed youth tournament or a call for clubs to form girls' teams with combined training sessions so boys and girls can practise together. Several associations have also launched public relations campaigns to promote the sport not only in the eyes of potential players, but also to positively influence parents, teachers, media and governments towards a stronger role for women in football.
It is crucial to keep incentive alive by creating a career pathway to aid the best possible advancement of elite youth players. Many of the WFDP projects to date have included newly launched women's competitions, leagues or elite youth programmes, thus providing more opportunities for talented players to compete at a regional level and potentially progress to the international arena.
In tandem, and of equal importance, many associations have invested in coaching and referee courses to raise the level of female match officials and instructors available to nurture and guide the upcoming new players long term. Some countries have opened dedicated women's football centres, which are fully operational as training centres and represent the hub of their national women's game.
In this light, UEFA has recently established a series of international development tournaments for women's Under-16 and U17 players. The tournaments are true learning experiences for the youngsters, not just in fine-tuning their skills through practice and guidance, but also allowing them to sample an international and highly competitive environment.
UEFA pledges to lead the development of all aspects of girls' and women's football as a priority, and will endeavour to act as a role model through concrete action. This includes the appointment of women into governing positions – a pledge which has already borne fruit with the chairwoman of the UEFA Women's Football Committee, Karen Espelund, becoming a full member of the UEFA Executive Committee in spring 2012.
The WFDP seeks to bring added value to football as a whole. UEFA and its associations have big ideas and hopes – and stimulating work lies ahead, with the overall well-being of European football in mind.
The Women's Football Development Review provides a comprehensive account – by individual member associations – of the hard work being done to bring women's football into the spotlight. Some of the WFDP projects have already been completed or are in the making; some have been planned and approved for the future. Whatever the stage in the process, this review serves as genuine proof that the female game is being taken seriously and is now reaping the recognition it so rightfully deserves.
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