Thursday 07 July 2022, 06:00

FIFA Women’s Football Development – The Story So Far

This month, the world’s best women’s footballers are taking centre stage. In Europe, the Euros will be hosted in England. In Mexico, the best players from Concacaf will be aiming to seal their places at next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023™, a target shared by players in Africa, South America and Oceania, in their respective continental qualifying tournaments. In the last decade, the growth of the women’s game has been undeniable, yet challenges still remain. While just last month, the FIFA Women’s World Rankings featured 181 member associations (MA) out of 211 eligible (a new record), the pace of change has been uneven. When questioned about their hopes for the future, almost any player, coach or administrator active in the women’s game, will sound like they are quoting lyrics from a seminal Daft Punk hit. Work it harder, make it better Do it faster, makes us stronger More than ever, hour after hour Work is never over.

To get a more accurate picture of the status quo, FIFA commissioned a benchmarking report last June. FIFA’s Chief Women’s Football Officer Sarai Bareman said at the time: “We regularly see anecdotal examples and indicators in many different areas and countries demonstrating the growth of women’s football. For the first time, this report provides concrete facts and data about the current realities and opportunities that exist to professionalise and grow women’s game in a sustainable way.”

In order to better understand FIFA’s commitment to the women’s game, we have to go back to October 2018. The FIFA Women’s Football Strategy set out four key objectives, and five pillars, charting the course for how FIFA would work with confederations and Member Associations (MAs), clubs and players, the media, fans and other stakeholders to realise the full potential that exists within the women’s game. In line with FIFA’s Women’s Football Strategy, the FIFA Women’s Development Programme aims to provide all 211 member associations with the opportunity to apply for and access additional resources and specialist expertise to develop women’s football at a national level. Member associations are able to apply for support across eight key areas of women’s football development during the 2020-2023 period. In addition to financial assistance to cover the costs in selected programmes, the FIFA Women’s Development Programme also provides MAs with access to women’s football experts, additional equipment and technical support within FIFA in order to develop women’s football in their country.

Strategies and development plans are laudable in their stated objectives, yet when subjected to scrutiny post-launch, are often at risk of gathering dust on bookshelves, forgotten after the initial buzz. So we set out to reprise what FIFA’s eight Women’s Development Programmes are, and showcase some tangible examples, from around the world. The programmes on offer are as follows: Women’s Football Strategy This programme is designed to support associations in developing these new strategies, or revising and improving existing strategies in a tailor-made approach.

League Development This programme covers one of FIFA’s main priorities, which is sustainable growth in girls’ and women’s participation in football. The programme focuses on supporting member associations by introducing new competitions or strengthening existing ones, as well as capacity-building for coaches to create a safe and structured environment in which players can grow.

Women’s Football Campaign The Women’s Football Campaign is designed to support associations in delivering grassroots and small-sided football events to boost the participation of young girls and promote existing competitions and programmes.

Club Licensing This programme is part of FIFA’s new approach to support the professionalisation of the women’s game by raising the standards of clubs and leagues in women’s football. It targets existing senior leagues at the national and confederation levels that have not yet set up a formal club licensing system, as well as leagues at the national level that wish to strengthen their foundations.

Capacity-Building for Administrators This programme falls within the scope of building capacity at member association level to drive the development of women’s football in the region and help FIFA to implement its Women’s Football Strategy. The goal of this initiative is to support the people on the ground with the necessary knowledge and training so that they are equipped in their day-to-day work. The programme covers a range of topics, tailormade for the needs of the association: leadership, communication, marketing and administration.

Coach Education Scholarships This programme is aligned with FIFA’s objective to increase the number of qualified female coaches working in the game. FIFA offers coach education scholarships to both talented female coaches and/or players moving into the next phase of their footballing career by providing further education at a venue of their choice.

Coach Mentorship The goal of this programme is to support the process of getting more female coaches to occupy and retain positions at the top level. Each coach is assigned to an experienced coach (mentor) who will guide and support the mentee throughout the mentorship.

Women in Football Leadership This programme addresses the need to have higher female representation in football’s decision-making bodies. The aim is to provide a learning platform for women who are already in football structures within the member associations and confederations to gain the knowledge and experience necessary for their development. The participants take part in an intensive one-week training session accompanied by leadership coach support.

With 211 member associations around the globe, one could be forgiven for thinking that it would be hard to track progress. However, every application for one of the eight FIFA Women’s Development Programmes is logged centrally, and at the time of writing, 215 applications from 84 member associations have been received. Asia currently leads the way, with 58 approved projects. In recent months, many of the projects being planned have started to be implemented again. At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic however, FIFA Instructors were grounded. Workshops went on hiatus. In many countries, it was feared that where member associations would suffer a loss of revenue generation, girl’s and women’s football would be one of the first disciplines to be detrimentally impacted, if tough economic decisions needed to be made. To mitigate against this, FIFA launched a USD $1.5 billion COVID-19 Relief Plan in July 2020 to provide reprieve and security to world football amid pandemic. Over 200 FIFA member associations across all six confederations applied for and received funding. As part of the relief plan, USD $500,000 was made available to every MA for use specifically in the women’s game. To protect existing leagues and clubs, support diverse development projects, and provide peace of mind for footballers at all levels of the game.

Member Associations globally from Armenia to Venezuela via Mexico, were just some of the examples who utilised this funding for maximum impact. Whilst access to funding and human capital is universal, many countries have their own unique cultural and socio-economic challenges. This is where FIFA’s Women’s Football pilot projects play their part. Two such examples where FIFA has pivoted, are the FIFA’s Women’s National Team Preparation Pilot Programme (as implemented in Fiji) and the FIFA Menstrual Health and Education project in South Sudan.

So what next? Attention is already increasingly turning towards July 2023. The biggest FIFA Women’s World Cup ever (with 32 teams participating for the first time) will ensure the spotlight is once again shone brightly on the women’s game. FIFA’s stated objective is to increase the number of girls and women playing football worldwide by 2026, to 60million. The power of a World Cup provides no stronger catalyst to capture hearts, minds and feet around the world. In Australia, one of the two co-host countries, a target for equal gender player participation by 2027 has been set. Football Australia has focused on solidifying its foundations further, with activities like Female Football Week already introducing the game to new participants. Meanwhile, together with FIFA, a recent Coach Educators Development Programme ensured 50% of the participants were female.

In the words of Rae Dower, the current Australia U-17 Women’s Coach, and FIFA Coach Mentorship Programme graduate: “For coaches to see more female coach educators is also a really important part of elevating females within the game. What we want beyond 2023 is an increase in the numbers [of women] in the game. We understand that there will be a lot of hype around the event, but we want the event to actually have long-lasting ramifications for the game.” Legacy, and building on a potentially once-in-a-lifetime event hosting opportunity, is an equal focus across the Tasman Sea. In New Zealand, Girls and Women’s Month was an opportunity for federations and clubs across Aotearoa New Zealand to engage more girls and women in football and futsal by offering access to a variety of activities – whether those opportunities were in playing, coaching, refereeing or in administration.

The official emblem for next year’s tournament is ‘Beyond Greatness.’ In the final words of FIFA’s Chief Women’s Football Officer Sarai Bareman: “The core purpose of the FIFA Women’s World Cup is to showcase women’s talent. Everything we’re trying to achieve for women in football and women in society will be on display for the world to see in Australia and New Zealand. “It’s a movement and we want everyone to be part of it. You’re going to see an amazing display of the best athletes in the world, two beautiful countries, and two amazing cultures. It’s unique, like this emblem. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen before. Get behind it!”