The women's football landscape across Europe is evolving and flourishing from day to day. Thanks to the massive impetus created by European football's governing body and its 54 member associations, and reflected in the innovative UEFA women's football development programme (WFDP), more women and girls than ever are joining, and enjoying, the beautiful game.
In December 2010, at its meeting in Prague, the UEFA Executive Committee approved the ambitious WFDP project, as well as the funding for the programme. The Executive Committee was greatly encouraged to see the flourishing state of women's football, in terms of both registered players and participation, and gave the green light for the development programme over a six-year period until 2016, via UEFA's HatTrick assistance scheme.
Now, three years on, the results are there for all to see. The WFDP is facilitating the overall growth of women's football and striving to bring the national associations closer together in terms of their domestic women's football development. A pilot phase took place in 2010/11, before the main four-year programme kicked off in 2012, with UEFA funding each national association to help them realise development objectives structured to their own needs. Now, throughout Europe, more and more women and girls are getting the football bug – with many more ready to follow suit.
Mighty oaks grow from small acorns, and the impact of the WFDP is being felt everywhere. By this autumn, €8.15m had already been allocated over a two-year period to fund specific women's football projects; 118 individual projects had been launched, with all national associations fully participating in the programme. Other investors, such as governments, are also involved across the board. Greater numbers of dedicated women's football staff are working within national associations, regional bodies and clubs; more women are serving on football's committees; and, what is most pleasing, there are more FAs nurturing long-term development plans.
It is at the grassroots where the WFDP has had a significant effect. Some 70% of the projects have been in associations that are in the early phase of cultivating women's football, with grassroots projects reflecting their specific needs – consequently, some FAs have doubled numbers of registered female players.
Another satisfying aspect of the WFPD is the desire of the larger associations to share their visions and expertise with smaller counterparts, for the overall benefit of the European women's game. Best practice is being exchanged by national associations in a variety of areas, such as promotion, player recruitment and how to gain government support. Networking at UEFA women's football events is leading to bilateral relationships between associations on specific projects.
UEFA has also rewarded associations who have distinguished themselves in women's football development, and gave the inaugural Best Women's Football Development Award as part of the UEFA HatTrick Awards to Northern Ireland for its SCORE Project scheme bringing together schools and clubs and nurturing coaches.
A comprehensive review of the UEFA women's football development programme was published in June. The review offered individual member associations the chance to highlight their work, and provided an impressive overview of the extent of the care, dedication and sheer effort that is going into fostering the women's game around this continent.
A statistical overview produced in the new brochure, Women's Football across the National Associations (2013/14), presents another crystal-clear picture of how the sport is growing – 1,162,314 registered female players; 48 associations with women's football leagues; 23,529 female senior teams; 21,285 female youth teams; 69,533 clubs with women's teams; 11 associations with girls' national academies; 7,505 female referees; 39 national associations with women's football committees; 369 women's football coaches within national associations; 464 female members sitting on national association committees in Europe. These are impressive figures – and ones that are rising by the day.
The goals for the WFDP remain ambitious. Specific women's targets are on the agenda, including launching a women's coaching development programme as well as a 'women in football' leadership programme to aid, among other things, promising female leaders within the game. Women's referee development is another key objective, seeking to increase the number of female match officials and thereby matching the growth of the women's game.
Karen Espelund, the first woman to become a full member of the UEFA Executive Committee, and a vastly experienced football administrator, is watching the developments with a keen and enthusiastic eye. "UEFA's decision to invest in the development of women's football was a wise and forward-looking move, and the results of this vision are clear to see," she says.
"UEFA has pledged, as one of its priority activities, to constantly promote and nurture women's and girls' football. This pledge is paying handsome dividends. It is extremely heartening to see how Europe's national associations have responded with concrete actions and programmes to give women and girls the opportunity to become involved in the game.
"The majority, around 70%, of the applications under the WFDP are for grassroots projects, which is great news, as continuing to strengthen the grassroots base of women's football in Europe is a key objective for UEFA. UEFA will keep offering its full backing to associations to help women's and girls' football become even stronger in the years to come."
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