With seven of the eight quarter-finalists at the FIFA Women's World Cup having come from Europe, the solid development foundations laid by UEFA, its national associations and clubs seem to be bearing fruit.
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Women's football in Europe is flourishing. With the FIFA Women's World Cup semi-finals due to get under way on Tuesday, the continent boasts three teams in the last four, having also provided seven of the eight quarter-finalists.
UEFA has been doing its part by actively promoting the development of women's football. The UEFA Women's Football Development Programme (WFDP) has been running since 2012, with each association receiving €100,000 every year specifically for growing the women's game. From 2020, this figure will rise by 50%, with each association set to benefit from an annual €150,000.
HatTrick is funded from revenues from the UEFA European Championship and by 2020 will have invested more than €1.8bn back into the game since its introduction following UEFA EURO 2004. The scheme has helped UEFA member associations build or renovate football infrastructure and invest in projects to develop football at all levels, including grassroots football, women's football and elite youth player development.
The current HatTrick cycle, which runs until 2020, will lead to a total of €610.5m being distributed among UEFA's 55 member associations over a four-year period. For each previous cycle, more than 70% of the funding has been invested in order to upgrade football infrastructure, such as pitches, stadiums and national training centres, in order to ensure that everyone has access to football.
"The potential for women's football is limitless and, with this in mind, UEFA has taken the step of increasing the funding available to the national associations to help improve the women's game across the continent," said UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin. "Increasing the participation and the role of women in football has been one of my main objectives, both before and after I became UEFA president."
The guidance, expertise, advice and resources synonymous with the WFDP are intended to give UEFA and its member associations the chance to put ambitious visions into practice, as well as allowing associations to advance in accordance with their respective needs.
So far, the WFDP has funded 459 applications to the tune of €82.2m across all 55 UEFA associations, with regional stakeholders also becoming inspired to invest further in order to develop women's football at a local level.
Over 50% of these applications, and around €31m in funding, have centred on grassroots projects, creating opportunities for girls and women to play the game. Meanwhile, a total of €12m has been invested into 94 club and league development projects, aimed at boosting both professionalism and administrative capabilities; additionally, 78 projects, representing €13.5m of funding, have helped FAs to enhance their elite youth pathways, coaching and development, resulting in a higher level of elite player and higher standards at the very top of the women's game.
"It's just great to see that football has become a more natural choice for girls – which means we are on the right track of changing perceptions around the world – and that efforts to make the sport more accessible are paying off," said UEFA head of women's football Nadine Kessler, a three-time UEFA Women's Champions League winner.
"All I ever wanted was to be a footballer, so it fills me with pride that more and more girls feel the same. There's no real reason why girls shouldn't fall in love with the game the same way boys do."
Certainly, women's football has never been in a stronger position. UEFA Women's EURO 2017 in the Netherlands attracted a global cumulative live audience of 178 million viewers for the tournament, while its aggregate of 240,045 spectators beat the previous record of 216,888 set at the 2013 finals in Sweden. Meanwhile, fans from across Europe have flocked to France this summer to watch the Women's World Cup, while supporters have been watching in record numbers at home, which bodes well for the next UEFA Women's Euro in England in 2021.
Players such as Lucy Bronze and Lieke Martens, both stars of the current tournament in France, have become global names in their own right and role models to young girls around Europe and beyond.
It was to help ensure that young girls have the opportunity to emulate their favourites that, back in June 2017, UEFA launched the Together #WePlayStrong campaign. This initiative strives to transform perceptions of women's football and encourage girls to take up and continue playing the game.
A crucial goal of Together #WePlayStrong is to make teenage girls aware that football is also a game for girls, while highlighting the benefits of playing the sport and pointing the way to grassroots possibilities in each area.
Though currently some 1.3 million girls and women play for clubs throughout Europe, the target is to extend this number to 2.5 million by 2024, in line with the UEFA Women's Football Strategy unveiled on the eve of May's UEFA Women's Champions League final in Budapest.
'Time for Action: UEFA Women's Football Strategy 2019–24' will focus on building the foundations within UEFA and its associations to guarantee European women's football the best platform to thrive. UEFA will invest in programmes and initiatives to support a balanced delivery of this plan from grassroots to elite levels.
"Women's football is the football of today; it is not the football of tomorrow. It is UEFA's duty as European governing body to empower the women's game," said Aleksander Čeferin.
"UEFA will put significant financial investment into the sport, underlining that it dares to aim high and make European football as great as it can be. The actions we propose and commit to in 2019 will lead to a greater, more professional and more prosperous game by 2024. Time for action!"
Aside from raising the numbers of girls and women playing the sport, UEFA also seeks to change Europe-wide perceptions of women's football; double the reach and value of the UEFA Women's EURO and UEFA Women's Champions League; improve player standards by reaching standard agreements for national team players and putting safeguarding policies in place in all 55 countries; and double female representation on all UEFA bodies.
Records being broken
European clubs and FAs are also doing their bit to spur interest in women's football. In recent years, the sport has experienced unprecedented growth at every level around the continent, while the public and media have also helped bring the female game into the spotlight.
Five countries broke domestic club attendance records in 2018/19. In March, a world-record club attendance watched Atlético play Barcelona in the Spanish Women's Primera División. Almost every European nation has a domestic league, with a 50% hike too in the number of active professional players in Europe compared with 2017. What's more, national associations have invested a total of €123m, which is a 10% increase from 2017.
"It's fantastic to see such high attendances, and exhilarating for the players to play in front of such big crowds," said Nadine Kessler. "It shows us that women's football really is reaching new heights and there is an appetite for the game like never before."