Roddy Mackenzie reports on the lead-up to Scotland's first appearance in a school junior international tournament and what it means
History will be made early next month when the Scottish Schools' Football Association hosts its first schoolgirls' international. Scotland will face Northern Ireland at under-14 level at Queen of the South's Palmerston Park in Dumfries on May 6.
The competition shows how far the game has come at schoolgirls' level and is a sign that women's football is finally being recognised in Scotland.
A recent survey by Paisley University showed that there are 17,000 girls aged between eight and 18 who play organised football at least once a fortnight in Scotland. It also found there are between 2,000 and 3,000 women's coaches. While it does not follow that all of these coaches are involved in girls' football, a significantly high proportion is.
There is now a network of 12 development centres throughout Scotland for players at under-13, under-16 and under-18 level and three centres of excellence, in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow. Players attend either a development centre or a centre of excellence once a week for 24 weeks a year and these sessions are supplemented by inter-regional tournaments.
According to Sheila Begbie, former Team Sport Scotland co-ordinator for football and now assistant director of the Scottish Women's Football Association, the women's game has never been healthier. The Bank of Scotland has forged a four-year sponsorship link and there has been some National Lottery funding through Sportscotland.
The bank also supported this month's under-16 festival finals at Kilgraston school, Perthshire, where Grantown Grammar edged out Ullapool High in a penalty shoot-out that showed the skills levels had greatly improved.
"The progress that has been made in the last year-and-a-half since Vera Pauw took over as director has been phenomenal," says Miss Begbie. "She has brought a lot of the ideas from her native Holland and the standard is as high as I can remember.
"The senior national team is not rated in the A category in Europe, like England, which is in the top 16, but we are rated 19th or 20th.
"We have been invited to play in Australia in June as guests in the Pacific Cup. It's an Olympic qualifying tournament. Although we are not eligible to compete in the Olympics as a separate nation, the organisers were keen for us to come."
The fact that the national team lost narrowly 2-0 to the United States, the world champions, in Bulgaria earlier this month underlines how much progress has been made, with most of the current players having graduated through the system after starting by playing small-sided games.
Maureen McGonigle, executive adminisrator of the SWFA, has seen the game flourish at schoolgirl level over the past couple of years but knows there is still work to be done. "We know there is a lot of interest in the game but we are still just jogging along as there are not many coming to the door of the SWFA and starting new clubs or leagues," she says.
"I strongly believe this will happen but there are difficulties. Whereas it's normal for dads to take boys to football teams, it's slightly different for mums taking girls. It is more acceptable now but it is not easy for young girls to go into what is still a male environment. I think it is the gutsy girls who have the determination that will sustain an interest.
"I know it is changing, with Sportscotland and the Scottish Football Association creating more interest and opportunities. A lot has been achieved with the funding we have received from the Lottery, but it has taken a while for people to waken up and offer such opportunities."
Ironically, as the standard of women's football in Scotland improves, the game faces a greater threat of losing players to other countries. Mrs McGonigle has seen top players being lured to US colleges on scholarships and says that colleges have contacted the SWFA, seeking information on the best players.
The best schoolgirls will be the main targets and it is understandable that players will be attracted by offers abroad, particularly as there is the carrot of an academic qualification at the end of the scholarship. "I know a few of the girls who have gone to America who would have been quite happy to stay in Scotland if we could have offered a similar opportunity," says Mrs McGonigle.
Miss Begbie also fears that the talent drain will dilute the quality of the national team.
"Vera Pauw discourages players going abroad as she believes it disrupts the team-building programme," she explains.
"The Scottish girls are a closer-knit group and get together at least once a week.
"The problem we have is accessing girls from universities and colleges. The educational system does not allow elite athletes to take time out from courses and I think Vera finds this difficult to understand as it happens in other countries.
"We played a match against the Republic of Ireland recently. Their players play all over Europe and I think you could see that in the way they played."
l Sportscotland has announced that National Lottery funding will provide for 15 more school sport co-ordinators, bringing the total to 228 in 19 local authorities.
"By working in tandem with local authorities, Sportscotland - using Lottery funds - aims to have a co-ordinator in place in every secondary school in Scotland by 2003," pledged chairman Alastair Dempster.