Girls kick on to join the major players

19th August 2005 at 01:00
Men's football may dominate public attention but the women's game is gaining ground fast, Roddy Mackenzie writes. Now the task is to strengthen its position, at home and abroad.

A quiet revolution is going on in Scottish football. The biggest growth area in the game is on the female side. It is estimated that 107,000 schoolgirls in Scotland now play football on a regular basis, a 60-65 per cent increase over the past 10 years.

Scotland's under-19 girls' team reached the European Championship qualifying finals this summer; the senior team, guided by the new national coach, Anna Signeul, of Sweden, will embark on its World Cup qualifying campaign on August 28, competing against Russia in Moscow; and on the same day, the under-15 team will play in a four-cornered tournament in Germany against the hosts, the Netherlands and Canada.

At all levels, Scottish teams are in demand and there is a distinct impression that the women's game is on the brink of something big. Sheila Begbie, the head of women's and girls' football at the Scottish Football Association, certainly believes it, but knows that the correct structure has to be set in place to ensure the game does not falter.

Miss Begbie, a former teacher who was awarded an MBE for services to women's football four years ago, has the task of putting the building blocks in place to ensure the game's long-term future.

Scottish Women's Football, which has been working with three regions - east, west and north - is now coming into line with the SFA youth football review which will restructure the game into six regions.

Miss Begbie emphasises that schools will play an important part in the process as the SWF attempts to strengthen school-club links, particularly with primary schools.

"One of the priority areas is now under-11 level," she explains, "A lot of the girls in the primary schools are playing mixed football from the age of eight upwards but there are also more and more all-girls' teams.

"Girls between 8 and 11 have been accustomed to playing small-sided soccer, either 4 v 4 or 7 v 7, so they have been developing their basic skills.

"We have been fortunate in that we've not really seen a big drop off in the numbers playing the game between 13 and 16, which I know is a problem with other sports. I think that is because a lot of the clubs are very organised and there are regular games to keep girls interested.

"The volunteers we have in the clubs do masses of work. We need to expand our network of volunteers and coaches to ensure we hold on to the girls and get them playing in a structured environment."

Miss Begbie can only cast an envious eye over countries such as Norway - where 23 per cent of their footballers are female - and the United States - which also has a huge playing base - but hopes that Scotland will have a semi-professional league in the not-too-distant future to keep the talent in the game and give the best schools players something to aim for in the game. She also hopes to resurrect the professional league that collapsed a couple of years ago due to lack of financial backers.

However, the fact that Germany - who are in Scotland's senior level World Cup qualifying section - have invited a Scottish team to an under-15 tournament demonstrates that Scotland is still considered to have a place at the top table.

The senior team narrowly missed out on qualifying for this summer's European Championships in England and were only beaten by an injury-time goal by the English side in a friendly at Tranmere shortly before the championships.

The English game expects to get an influx of schoolgirls after the television exposure for the European Championships and Scotland may also get some spin-off. Meanwhile, the game can spotlight role models.

Scotland's top player, Julie Fleeting, who is a PE teacher at Charleston Academy in Inverness and has played as a professional in the United States, was the players' player of the year for Arsenal last season and is widely considered as world class; and international goalkeeper Gemma Fay last month signed for Leeds United.

At present three of the Scotland senior squad are on scholarships in the United States and some of Scotland's leading players compete in the Icelandic League in the summer. However, the ideal would be to keep the best Scottish talent here.

"Germany have had a structure in place for the past 20-25 years and they have a professional set-up now which means they can attract players from all over the world. They have Brazilian players in Potsdam," Miss Begbie points out.

"And they have clubs now that can offer players a job. Many of the German players are in the army or the police, but that is really in name only. The reality is that they are full-time athletes.

"They have role models in Germany, like Brigit Prinz, whom young players can aspire to and that helps to attract players to the game.

"We are starting to get our own role models, like Julie Fleeting and Gemma Fay, and we can use them to make appearances at schools' festivals. We are moving forward.

"In the past we were looking at inviting professional men's players, like Celtic's Shaun Maloney, who of course girls can never aspire to!"

The Scottish national coach, Ms Signeul, guided the Swedish under-18 team to the European title in 1998 and brings another perspective. She has expressed herself happy with the technical ability of young Scottish players but believes that fitness is something that needs to be worked on if the national side is to continue to hold its head high in the international arena.

"We're hoping to come to some arrangement with the Scottish Sports Institute through SportScotland whereby our players can get access to strength and conditioning and sports science programmes," Miss Begbie says.

"We are desperately keen to have our international players part of a more professional framework as we look towards where we hope to be in five years' time. We are very ambitious.

"We've just been looking at our targets from five years ago. One of those was to get the under-19s qualifying for the European Championship finals and we achieved that. So it's not just by default it happened but by design."

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