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International Women's Day: Celebrating those who choose to challenge

UEFA campaign recognises leading figures who are shaping the present and future of the game in Europe - from grassroots football to elite competitions.

To mark the 2021 edition of International Women’s Day, UEFA is launching a public awareness campaign to highlight women making game-changing contributions to the development of football.

At key points in the 2021 calendar, we will illustrate the outstanding work of some of the extraordinary women in football, shining the floodlights on their achievements, motivations and goals for the future.

Some are well-known through their stellar performances on the pitch. Many others work behind-the-scenes in equally important, but less visible, areas of football management: boardrooms, supporter stands, commentary boxes and grassroots coaching programmes.

To kick off, we focus on five women whose efforts to alter mindsets and inspire others embody the key theme of this’s year’s International Women’s Day - "choosing to challenge".

Emma Hayes: 'Take risks, trust yourself, and be confident that the qualities you have are needed in the game'

Emma Hayes is one of the most influential female coaches in European football
Emma Hayes is one of the most influential female coaches in European footballChelsea FC via Getty Images

A pioneer of coaching in women's football, Emma Hayes has been in charge at Chelsea FC Women for almost nine years, taking the club to domestic league and cup success and turning them into one of Europe's top teams. This season, she has led the Blues into the last 16 the UEFA Women's Champions League, where they meet Atlético Madrid. In 2016, Emma was awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for her services to football.

What are the most significant changes during your time in the game. What is the change you are still waiting to happen? "Investment through clubs and national associations has been the most significant change. I was in the industry when everyone was amateur, to semi-pro, to now managing world-class athletes. I've also really enjoyed watching the growth of the game off the pitch, the increased broadcasting and the number of opportunities that are being provided for players to professionalise and to turn it into a sport that is creating opportunities for everyone."

What is your advice for girls looking to emulate your achievements or find a career within football? "My family always encouraged me, my dad took me to football, I played with my sisters and my mum inspired me to be whatever I wanted to be. I was always encouraged, but it's so important to remember you don’t need to be perfect in everything to push yourself towards doing it. You don’t have to look at a job and think you're not good at this or you need more of that. Take risks, trust yourselves, be confident that the qualities you have as a girl or woman are needed in the game. Back yourself. It can be quite tough, you have to have the resilience and self-belief to cope, but keep pushing yourself towards whatever your dreams are."

What is the next important step you believe the women's game should take? "The next step, when it is possible again, is that we fill bigger stadiums week in, week out, and that there are more opportunities for women to play in the bigger stadiums."

Find out more about how the new UWCL format will benefit women's football

Asisat Oshoala: 'Don't wait for people to give you credit, you have to credit yourself'

Asisat Oshoala has overcome a football ban in her youth to be crowned Africa's Women's Footballer of the Year four times
Asisat Oshoala has overcome a football ban in her youth to be crowned Africa's Women's Footballer of the Year four timesGetty Images

Four-time African Women's Footballer of the Year, Oshoala could easily have missed out on a career in the game having been banned from playing in her youth by her parents. Since overcoming this barrier to star in the Under-20 Women's World Cup in 2014, her career has gone from strength to strength, including a goal in the 2019 UEFA Women's Champions League final.

Who inspired you when your parents were saying you couldn’t play? "The only person who was supportive was my grandmother. Although she's not alive today, she was the only person in my family that was there for me. When I play on the biggest stage today, I remember her and wish she was still alive to see me, but I'm pretty sure she's proud of me. I cried sometimes because I just felt like I don’t want to fail and have my parents say, 'you didn’t listen to us and this is how you end up'. It felt like a pressure to me, I felt I had to deliver."

How did you manage to change those attitudes? "With my parents, the point they said, 'OK we will let you be into sports professionally', was after the Under-20 World Cup and I had the golden ball and golden boot. That was one of the moments I felt really happy. They said, 'we realise you have the talent and we're not going to let it die'. Now, playing for FC Barcelona, what else do I want? I'm on the biggest stage of my life - the World Cup, Champions League final, it's emotional for me. I'm just happy it worked out."

How can you help the next generation of girls in your position? "I have a foundation, which supports girls. Not because I don’t care about males, but the environment and society, when it comes to sports, are always more supportive to male athletes than female athletes, so this is a strong point for me. I can tell my story to these kids, advise them, talk to them, and say go for your dreams, push for it, stay focused and don’t give up. You have to be your own number one supporter, your own number one motivation – if you don’t motivate yourself you can't get the energy from other people. Don’t wait for people to give you credit, you have to credit yourself."

Watch Asisat Oshoala share her story with We Play Strong

Stéphanie Frappart: 'I know I am a role model - young women are watching TV, so if I am here on the field, they can see it's possible'

Stéphanie Frappart has become one of Europe's top referees and is the first woman to referee a major UEFA men's match
Stéphanie Frappart has become one of Europe's top referees and is the first woman to referee a major UEFA men's matchAFP via Getty Images

Frappart has risen through Europe's refereeing ranks to make history as the first woman to referee a major UEFA men's match when she took charge of the Super Cup in August 2019, before she followed that up as the first female to referee a Champions League game in December 2020. She has also refereed in two Women's World Cups and officiated the 2019 final between the United States and Netherlands.

How does it feel to be seen as a leader for women in football? "I know that I am a role model. Young women are watching TV, so I know that if I am here on the field they can see that it's possible. This is the first thing that will help some young girls to start refereeing. I know that I have a role in that, but I am not pushing women too much because they will continue by themselves and they will decide if they want to be a referee or not."

How did you become a referee? "I played football, but I also wanted to learn about the Laws of the Game, so I started refereeing, and continued both playing and refereeing until the age of 20, when I had to make a choice. At the time, women’s football structures were still developing, so I felt that it would be better for me to go on as a referee. You’ve got to have a passion for football, certainly, if you want to be a referee, and if you have, then why not try it?"

Did you have a role model to follow as you developed your career? "I’ve not had a role model, but I’ve watched a lot of referees and they’ve all had some influence on me. A lot of people within the French FA have also given me good advice to follow."

Find out more about female officials making strides in the men's game

Lisa Alzner: 'It's important to go through doors if they are open'

Lisa Alzner has changed her career path from playing to coaching, and is inspiring girls to fall in love with football
Lisa Alzner has changed her career path from playing to coaching, and is inspiring girls to fall in love with footballUEFA via Getty Images

Still just 22, former Austria Under-19 international Alzner gave up a playing career due to persistent injuries. Offered the opportunity to coach, she took up a role with the Women’s Football Academy of Upper Austria, coaching the regional Under-14 team, which competes in national competition. She is also a UEFA Playmakers coach educator, and one of three technical experts helping to deliver the grassroots programme across Europe.

How has women's football changed since you started playing, and what still needs to happen? "For me, growing up, a professional career in football felt possible – the path is there. It is not perfect but if I was 10 years older it would have looked much more difficult. I had idols who were playing for the national teams, for example, and one of my biggest idols was Nadine Kessler, all my childhood I wanted to play like her. Women's football has taken big steps at the peak of the game, but now the development and increased awareness must take place at grassroots level. It should not be a big deal for a girl to play football, there has to be more access for all ages and all levels."

How does the Playmakers programme differ from traditional coaching methods? "Playmakers is a great opportunity to bring girls to football who haven’t had access to it before, who wouldn’t play it otherwise - you can see through the process how a girl can develop and fall in love with sport. Many are shy at first and not confident in themselves, but gradually they warm to it, enjoy the environment and step by step they start to feel connected to the story, and then they connect to football. It is great to see the development from the first to the last session. My advice to girls, and even women, if you are thinking about football, try it out! Find an environment where you feel supported, try it, and enjoy the game!"

On a personal level, how would you like your career to develop from here? "My first goal is to be the best coach and mentor I can for all the girls I coach. I don’t have clear goals for five, 10, 15 years, but it's important to go through doors if they are open and to try new things, not to be afraid of risking things and taking chances."

Find out more about the UEFA Playmakers initiative

Anne Rei: 'At the beginning, everybody thought, "You're a woman, what do you know about football?"'

Anne Rei has modernised football in her native Estonia and is now driving women's football in Europe to the next level
Anne Rei has modernised football in her native Estonia and is now driving women's football in Europe to the next level

General Secretary of the Estonian Football Association since 2012, Anne Rei also chairs the UEFA Women's Football Committee and is a member of the Estonian Olympic Committee. A former athletics coach with an administrative career in football spanning almost 30 years, she has played a key role in developing both the men's and women's game at club, national and international levels.

How do you reflect on your path in the game? "It has been quite a ride. There is always a new challenge, because football has developed so rapidly in this time, it has grown a lot, particularly in Estonia where in the Soviet era women were not allowed to play football. As a young woman coming into football, with a background as an athletics coach, it took a little bit of time to get respect. Everybody thought, 'You're a woman, what do you know about football?', so I had to be persistent and prove that I was good enough, but with a lot of dedication, I have enjoyed the journey to where I am today."

What has been the most significant change for women's football? "2017 was a decisive year for women's football. We had a very successful EURO, with stadiums full of people and high viewing figures on TV. People not acquainted to women’s football started to sit up and take notice and think about what we can achieve. At the same time, we launched UEFA's women's football unit, the We Play Strong campaign and began to build a new strategy. Now, we are transforming the competitions and we have really big hopes for the professionalisation of the game. We are writing a new chapter in women's football, and to be part of it makes me very proud, but at the same time, respectful and focused for the job we have."

Where do you see women's football in five years? "We will have many more players, that’s clear, and with the help of the game at the top, the Women's Champions League and the Women's EURO in 2022, there will be more and more publicity. Girls will see there is a pyramid to climb, that this is a profession. A lot of big clubs in men's football are now investing in women's teams and creating the right environment and facilities for the game's development. This will create more engagement, more sponsors, more TV coverage, and I am really sure that in five years we will hit the ambitious numbers in our Time For Action strategy."

Find out more about Time For Action, UEFA's women's football strategy