Qualifying for UEFA WOMEN'S EURO 2009™ begins in earnest later this year on a bigger scale than ever before. In 2005, 20 sides competed for seven places alongside home team England while this time there will be 12 nations in Finland, including the hosts, with 30 contenders vying for berths from an initial entry of 46.
The decision to expand the finals has met with widespread approval, not least from Michael Käld, who as Finland coach has seen at first hand the benefits of reaching a EURO. He led Finland to the semi-finals on their first qualification in England and has been observing the growth of women's football in his country ever since. "It's very good 12 teams will be in the finals," he told uefa.com. "You can see what happened in Finland after 2005 which was the first time we qualified. Afterwards everybody was interested in women's football. Hopefully we will see some new countries and the same thing will happen there as happened in Finland."
Karen Espelund, as chairwoman of the UEFA Women's Football Committee, has overseen the expansion of the event, which has included abolishing the old two-divisional structure which meant all the entrants before last year's preliminary round had a chance of qualification, rather than just the top 20 ranked nations. "We have 46 entries out of the 52 associations, I am very pleased," she said. "It shows the development in many countries, but also that the format was good this time."
It is not only in the flagship competition that virtually all UEFA's members have been getting involved - a long way from the first European tournament of 1984 when 16 teams entered. A total of 45 nations were in the 2006/07 UEFA European Women's Under-19 Championship, up from 26 less than a decade ago, while the UEFA Women's Cup for clubs has 43 teams involved. And launching next season, the new UEFA European Women's Under-17 Championship will involve 40 nations, well up on initial expectations. Espelund said: "It proves what I have said for some years, which is if you establish a championship it will increase activity and push forward everyone working on it. Now the new entrants have to begin activities, start new programmes, encourage their clubs. It will benefit coaches and everyone around the teams."
As well as reforming and expanding its competitions, UEFA has been making behind-the-scenes changes to women's football, combining its senior tournaments with those run by the professional division - such as the men's UEFA European Championship and UEFA Champions League - and also putting the junior competitions under the auspices of the Youth and Amateur Committee, allowing the pooling of expertise and commercial know-how with the equivalent male tournaments. Espelund, the general secretary of the Norwegian Football Association, which has a very strong women's section, argues: "We see that in the strong countries in Europe - Germany, England, Scandinavia - the integration of women's football into overall activities has been a success."
EURO qualifying starts on 1 April, and later that month the UEFA Women's Cup reaches its climax with Umeå IK of Sweden playing Arsenal LFC over two legs. Both clubs supply the bulk of their respective national teams, and the growth of international competitions in women's football has caused a new phenomenon - fixture congestion. "You want to have strong domestic leagues, that's the basis of good football," Espelund said. "We don't have the same situation as with men's yet, but the calendar is quite fixed, which is good in terms of the number of competitions, but we have to balance domestic and international football."
Other issues for the year ahead include a possible discussion on the expansion of the UEFA Women's Cup, including multiple entries from individual leagues and the transformation of the final into a one-off event in future years. Another issue is the development of the 15 nations eliminated from the UEFA WOMEN'S EURO 2009™ preliminary round, who now have two years without a competitive game. "We can't leave these nations to their own devices for two years, UEFA has a responsibility," Espelund said. "They want help with match organisation, mini-tournaments, coach education - from some of the big-name European coaches. Also, if it was up to me alone, I guess we would not have a preliminary round in 2013, we can open up, but we need to prepare those so-called weaker teams."
But before that event there are the 2009 finals in Finland, and Espelund believes it will be a great occasion. "They worked quite hard to get the tournament, they succeeded and they will do well," she said. "I am eager to go to Finland and it will be a very good tournament, judging by the level in 2005. They will use it to develop the stadiums, they are setting up programmes for player recruitment since qualifying in 2005, they have good motivation throughout the country."
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