Women's football has come a very long way in a short space of time. The USA's thrilling 4-3 victory over Canada in the semi-final of the Olympics was one of the best games of last year. The overall quality of the tournament even prompted Bobby Charlton to comment: "Women's football used to be ridiculed, but not any more."
It's not all that long ago that Richard Keys and Andy Gray could laugh their way through a report of the Women's FA Cup Final with impunity.
The Olympics put pay to some of the more dispiriting sexism, demonstrating that although a different game to the men's, women's football can still be highly entertaining (underlined by the 70,000 spectators and 4 million TV viewers who witnessed Team GB's 1-0 defeat of Brazil).
In building on this success in the UK, 2013 will be a pivotal year. While it is perhaps unreasonable to expect the Women's Euro in Sweden this summer to capture the imagination in quite the same way, the tournament will provide a further shop window.
The FA's strategy to develop the game, and to win over the press and broadcasters, has been to focus on the success of the national team. To that end, in October 2012, it launched a new five-year plan. £3.5 million will be pumped into the women's game; the top tier - the semi-professional Women's Super League (WSL) - will to be expanded to 16 teams and a new coaching system will be introduced to develop elite young players .
The plan has been criticised by some for not going far enough. After all, what's £3.5m compared to the £3 billion the Premier League received for its TV rights? While they may no-longer be ridiculed, the 260,000 girls and women who play football each month may feel that they are still being patronised.
Nevertheless it is a start. And with only 12% of 14-year-old girls doing enough physical activity, it's an initiative which could have wide-reaching health implications for the nation.
The investment also makes good business sense. Women's football offers a genuine opportunity for growth in an otherwise saturated market. The high-profile enjoyed by the 2011 World Cup in Germany demonstrated the commercial potential. In recognition the FA is giving the women's game a brand and identity of its own and selling off the broadcasting rights separately for the first time.
The challenge is twofold. Commercialisation requires a fan-base. The 'product' has to be good, but just as importantly, the passion for playing football needs to be translated into a passion for watching matches as well. The consequences of failure to achieve this conversion are evident. In the US, girls' soccer has long been a hugely popular participation sport, yet attempts to establish a national professional women's league have failed twice in recent years. In this respect there is a very long way to go: even WSL matches are seldom watched by more than a few hundred fans.
One of the more glaring problems holding the game back is arguably the one that is easiest to fix: a lack of cohesion between the various bodies and organisations, many of whom seem to be pulling in opposite directions.
From top to bottom, the sport is completely disjointed. The WSL is played during the summer months, yet every other level - from U9s to the Premier League - is played during the winter. For elite junior players, there is theoretically the opportunity to play at one of around 30 FA-funded Centres of Excellence (CoE). However the CoEs operate in isolation with no links to the wider football community. There is usually no contact with the grassroots leagues or clubs, no scouting system, no talent spotting and no development squads. It's not really the CoEs fault. CoEs in the boys' game are free to play whomever they like: not so the girls, whose CoEs are, for some reason, restricted to only playing among themselves.
The result of all this is that some of the best players are currently playing at a CoE and benefiting from high quality coaching to be found there, but an awful lot of them aren't. Consequently the quality of CoE football is not always as good as it could be.
At grassroots the best players are usually concentrated in a small number of teams in leagues which provide little competition. Extending the rule allowing mixed football up to the age of Under 15 (i.e. letting girls play for boys teams) would do much to improve standards and bring England into line with Holland, France, Sweden, and Germany, who dominate the women's game, and also the rest of the UK..
A great example of how the sport could benefit through better integration is provided by Doncaster Rovers Belles.
One of the best know Women's clubs, Belles compete in the WSL and play their matches at the 15,000 all-seat Keepmoat Stadium, undoubtedly the best in the league. Unlike WSL rivals Arsenal and Birmingham, Belles receive no additional funding from its parent club, but boasts first class training facilities, thanks to an innovative partnership with the neighbouring Balby Carr Sports Academy.
Uniquely for a WSL club, it was not awarded an FA-approved CoE although it is applying for one to open at the start of next season. Instead it operates a player development centre (PDC) drawing in the best players from the grassroots leagues, providing them with the highest standard of coaching and also classes on health, well-being and nutrition.
The club is showing the way forwards. As England Coach Hope Powell said, "We have to look at the reasons why girls drop out at 14. How do we keep them in the game, how do we give them opportunities to stay in the game?...Role models have a big part to play in that."
The active participation in the PDC of senior professionals like Sue Smith (capped 93 times by England) is providing these role models. Greater involvement in the wider football community by clubs and CoEs is the key to achieving that. In that respect, we should hope that more follow the Belles' example.
Visit Steve McKevitt's blog Everything Now Book it's updated occasionally.
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