Two current Estonia internationals have high hopes for the next generation of talent as they stage UEFA Women's Under-17 EURO.
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Times are changing rapidly for football, with interest in the women’s game growing at an unprecedented rate. The sport’s leading ladies now have massive fanbases worldwide and are proving to the younger generation that there is now great scope for a viable career in football – not just as a player but also in the coaching or administrative field.
UEFA aims to promote holistic growth of women’s football from the grassroots level, and it is vital to make it more accessible by bringing tournaments closer to girls all over Europe. Estonia’s prevalent football culture has already seen the UEFA Super Cup and the men’s U19 final tournament staged in the country, but this is a huge leap towards promoting the women’s game. Tallinn and Tartu being Estonia’s two biggest cities naturally have more participants across every level, but third host city Võru will play a huge role in reaching more locals in rural areas and developing a higher interest in women’s football.
The two ambassadors for this year’s Women’s U17 tournament, Lisette Tammik and Mari Liis Lillemäe, echo this ambition. The Estonian pair are team-mates at FC Flora Tallinn and pivotal cogs in the senior national women’s team. "It’s amazing that our small nation is getting a chance to play in this huge tournament," says Tammik, who recently passed 50 caps for Estonia. "It will give them an unforgettable experience to play against very strong opponents. It’s also a really great opportunity for Estonia to organise this tournament; a lot of young girls get to see such a high level of football with their own eyes. They will see that anything is possible if you really want to achieve it."
Lillemäe, meanwhile, is relishing her remit. "I’ve enjoyed being a role model to the future stars; football has given me so much and now I’m happy to give back," she says. "I believe there is something for everyone in football. It enhances empathy, goal-setting skills and teamwork, which are all highly valued in life. Also, it’s perfect for establishing lifelong friendships."
Holding the women’s U17 competition in Estonia will hopefully encourage more female participation and reshape the narrative in terms of inclusivity in the minds of coaches and teachers. UEFA and the Estonian FA hope that together, the legacy this tournament will leave behind will help the women’s game take huge strides in the country.
The path for girls to develop into professional footballers has to start in their early years, and often you have no need to look further than home. If girls are encouraged from a young age to pursue football by their families, they can go on to achieve great things. "My dad used to play different sports when he was a firefighter, so he would bring me along," says Tammik. "Whenever I got the ball you could see in my eyes that I loved playing football. Then my mum and dad put me in a boys group to play football and now, 20 years later, I am still playing."
Seeing top-level players with their own success stories so close to home is bound to grab the attention of girls in Estonia. Furthermore, there will be a sense of relatability as the U17 players perfectly bridge the gap between aspiring footballers and global superstars. Lillemäe is the perfect example of what happens when inspiration and opportunity combine: she accompanied her childhood friend to a practice session and hasn’t looked back since.
"We need to increase the visibility of women’s football – through campaigns, social media, school visits – so that girls are aware of the opportunities and feel welcome to play," she says. "And I’m sure the tournament will create an amazing atmosphere that will show young girls the growing appreciation for women in sports."