Karen Espelund, the first woman to join the UEFA Executive Committee by invitation, speaks about grassroots girls' football and youth tournaments ahead of the women's U17 finals.
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As the continent's top young female players contest the UEFA European Women's Under-17 Championship from Thursday until Sunday, the future of the game is bright.
In June, Karen Espelund became the first woman to join the UEFA Executive Committee by invitation, and as the chair of UEFA's Women's Football Committee she is overseeing a development strategy that will have far-reaching effects on the female game and benefit football as a whole.
"The potential of girls playing grassroots football is huge in all the national associations," Espelund said. "Every girl should have the chance to play in her neighbourhood. That is the basis for further development in all aspects. We need stronger leagues, more female referees, administrators and coaches, and we need female representation at all levels. UEFA has taken some brave decisions, and it is now up to the national associations to follow suit. UEFA will be there to support them."
Through its HatTrick assistance programme, UEFA has committed to spending €100,000 per member association per year on developing the women's game between 2012 and 2016. The results of past initiatives are already bearing fruit, and Espelund – a driving force behind the creation of the UEFA European Women's Under-17 Championship in 2007 – is delighted to see the impact the youth competitions are having in driving up quality.
"Competitions lead to development," she said. "Approximately 45 of the 53 UEFA member countries regularly participate in them. Watching the senior Germany team play in this summer's FIFA Women's World Cup, you could see that a lot of today's players have worked their way through youth tournaments. In the future, the U17s and U19s will be the natural pathway for most players into the senior teams. The structures in the national associations are developing, playing opportunities for girls are increasing, and all this leads to positive development."
With Espelund having taken her place as the first woman on the Executive Committee, UEFA is determined to ensure that such momentum is maintained. "With this decision, UEFA has proven that football is for everyone on all levels," she explained. "Women must be given the possibility to take an active part in all functions, not only as players. This will benefit football and the governing body's legitimacy in the long run. I hope to prove this in a positive way."