Scotland is following the Dutch lead and raising the age limit for mixed football to 15, Roddy Mackenzie reports
Girls are likely to play alongside boys in national secondary school football competitions for the first time in the British game when Scottish schools resume after the summer holidays.
In what is the most significant development in the women's game for years, the doors have been thrown open for mixed football up to under-15 level.
Previously, girls and boys could only play together up to the age of 11 but the annual general meeting of the Scottish Football Association on May 30 approved a proposal to raise the age limit for mixed football from 11 to 15 with immediate effect.
The decision is not a mandatory one and it will be left to the annual meeting of the Scottish Schools Football Association in Falkirk on June 23 to decide whether boys and girls will play alongside one another in national schools competitions next season, but the likelihood is that the SSFA under-12, under-13 and under-14 shield tournaments will permit mixed football teams for the first time.
John Watson, general secretary of the SSFA, says: "We had already talked with the SFA about a pilot scheme at S1 level next season with boys and girls able to play in our under-12 competition.
"Obviously, now the under-13 and under-14 competitions come into it but our under-15 shield is effectively for under-16s given the age-group dates.
"I don't see a problem with the football but individual schools may have problems with the likes of changing facilities or travelling to games. For instance, there may be perceived problems in a male teacher travelling in a minibus to a game with, for example, 14 boys and one girl. It will be something for individuals to consider."
The Scottish Women's Football Association is hailing the move as highly significant. Lisa Brown, its marketing and promotions officer, believes it is a major development for the female game.
"Our national squads at under-16, under-18 and senior level already play closed-doors training games against boys simply for the competitive element, but this is a huge step," she says.
"The SFA has been criticised in the past but it should be applauded as, in many ways, it is leading the way in this, along with Holland, which allows boys and girls to play together at youth level.
"In the rest of Britain, girls and boys still cannot play together after under-12 level and I think this will make a big impact here.
"It comes at a time when there are a number of exciting developmnts in the women's game.
"We had a women's international against Holland recently which attracted the biggest ever crowd to a women's game - 1,400 - and when we had an open day for women's football we had 2,200 people."
Undoubtedly, the major mover in the plan to play mixed football is Scotland's Dutch national women's coach, Vera Pauw. She believes that many girls are lost to the game because they have to give up at 12 if there is no suitable women's team to join in their neighbourhood or they cannot play at secondary school.
She has watched the situation gradually change in the Netherlands, from allowing girls to play alongside boys first at under-14 level, then step by step right up to under-19 level.
She says: "In America and the Scandinavian countries, there is no need for an age ruling on mixed football as there are such strong structures in place for girls' football that the question never arises. But in smaller countries, such as Holland and Scotland, there is a need to address the issue.
"It is a big boost to go from 11 to 15 in one step and I am really happy.
"In Germany, it is still under-12 and the same in England, whereas in France, they are moving up to under-14 level. So Scotland is leading the way in this, behind Holland.
"It will significantly help the women's game. In Holland, when the age was raised to under-18 level, the number of female players went up from 12,500 to 28,000 in one year."
Ms Pauw does not expect problems from raising the age limit for mixed football. She says: "In Holland, the system has followed studies by the University of Utrecht which has looked at the mixed game technically, sociologically and psychologically, as well as how it affects the physical growth and development of girls and how the game is structured. There are no problems and the number of girls playing the game has increased in a big way."
There is no lack of opportunities on the horizon for female footballers. An English professional league is due to be launched in 2003. There are now an estimated 1.5 million players in England.
The United States has already launched a professional women's league and next year Scots could be involved.
Ms Brown says: "The American national coach, Anson Dorrance, was at our recent game against England and spoke with our players afterwards. He told them that the standard had improved a lot and there is a chance that some Scottish players will play for American teams from next April to September and then return to play for their clubs here in the winter."