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Changes afoot in girls' soccer

More girls are showing a keen interest in football but they need structured development and career pathways to keep them on the ball, reports Roddy Mackenzie

While rugby is claimed to be the fastest growing sport in Scottish schools, there is no doubt which game is spreading most rapidly among girls: football.

The Scottish Schools Football Association now runs two national competitions for girls - at under-15 and under-18 levels - and in the past year the entry for the senior competition has shot from 29 to 54 schools.

Football festivals for girls have been held across the country and they have several role models, most notably Scotland captain Julie Fleeting, who played professionally in the United States with San Diego Spirit.

The popularity of the game has taken off to such a degree that the University of Abertay, Dundee, is now piloting a scheme at its Centre of Excellence for Women Footballers that allows them to study for a qualification and play daily. Academy formats have been offered before, at Reid Kerr College in Paisley and Falkirk College, but the Abertay model is similar to the sports scholarships offered in the United States.

Sheila Begbie, assistant director of policy and development for women's football at the Scottish Football Association, believes it is an exciting step. "We are looking to keep the talent in this country as many girls do go to America on scholarships because there's been nothing to offer them here," she says.

The next few years will be a critical time for the girls' game. "We are working on improving school-club links as that is very important. I also hope to work closely with active primary school sports co-ordinators.

"There are a lot of positive things happening with small-sided football but we have to have a uniform structure in place so that there is a natural progression from four-to seven-a-side to full teams," she says.

The strongest area in terms of schools football is perhaps South Lanarkshire. It has almost a full complement of schools involved in its girls' football programme.

Ian Steele, the SFA women's football development officer for South Lanarkshire, has seen the game grow considerably in the last five years. He concedes there are no formal school-club links but argues that talented players are spotted because many of the club coaches also work with schoolgirls.

Eighteen of the area's 22 secondaries, including the independent Hamilton College, are involved in monthly leagues. Of the four others, only Biggar High has never participated in the programme: the village is particularly strong in rugby and does not have a football club. Lesmahagow High, Blantyre High and Claremont High (East Kilbride) have been involved in previous years and it is only because a key member of staff has moved that they are not now.

There are currently 34 teams from S1 to S6 - that is more than 300 girls - playing regular, organised seven-a-side football in South Lanarkshire. It is estimated that another 150 girls play in organised primary festivals, so there is no shortage of interest.

"Teams come together once a month at a central venue," explains Mr Steele.

"The days of playing home and away fixtures every week are long gone."

The authority's programme culminates in a Football for Girls Day at the Hamilton Palace show ground every May for all the secondary schools involved in the leagues and any primary school that wants to come.

"I was involved back in 1996 with the old Hamilton district council when there were only six or seven schools playing girls' football," says Mr Steele. "When the new authority started, we had 10 or 11 schools in our first year and we've grown to 18 high schools. Now we have to work more in Lanark, Carluke and Larkhall as these are the areas we can grow in.

"The most difficult aspect is holding on to girls once they reach the age of 14, 15, 16, but that problem is the same in any sport.

"It's a lifestyle change. Some of the most committed girls that I've brought through and thought would never give up football have lost interest when they got to that age."

Mr Steele believes that if girls and their parents could see a career pathway, as in boys' football, there would be more chance of them staying on beyond their teens.

"There are no financial incentives in girls' football," he also points out.

"Whereas a boy's parents can look to him becoming another David Beckham or Barry Ferguson, there are no such role models in the women's game here.

"There are opportunities, though. There are professional teams in countries such as Sweden and Germany and there are scholarships to colleges in America.

"Tracy Donachie, from East Kilbride, has led a nomadic existence, spending six months playing football in Iceland, then eight months in Australia and then took a soccer scholarship in the United States.

"But there is not a lot of media coverage of the women's game and then when there was a game on Sky TV recently, England beat Scotland 5-0. That didn't help."

Mr Steele knows that there are still chauvinistic attitudes towards women's football in this country, which is not the case in the United States. If anything, top players such as Mia Hamm are more widely known than some top American male players.

"Here, football is seen as a man's world in many quarters," he says. "I tell my girls that they need to work twice as hard as the boys do to gain recognition. Many of them do and there is a lot of talent out there.

"Maybe if girls were able to train with the boys in a professional environment - perhaps the senior Hibs' women's team could train with Hibernian's youth side - then it might shift attitudes."

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