A couple of weekends ago, I took my 9-year old niece to the Women's FA Cup Final to watch her very first football match.
I grew up in a football mad household. My three brothers made sure that football was firmly on the family agenda, as avid fans and players of the game - yes, all three of them at some point wanted to be a pro, and no, none of them made it! Sheffield Wednesday have received serious backing from the Holdaways over the years however. As a result, there was no way I could grow up without a love for the sport. But where my brothers and our (male) family friends were encouraged to play to their hearts' content, I was confined to the role of 'official throw in taker'. Football, it seemed to me, was something for the boys.
For my niece, that doesn't need to be the case. She isn't what I'd call a typical sports fan, , and before the game probably wouldn't have chosen a football match as her day out of choice. But by half time, she was totally gripped by the occasion. In fact, when the inevitable Mexican Wave took hold of the stadium midway through the second half, she quickly decided she wanted it to stop so that she could actually concentrate on the game!
And it wasn't just those of us in the stadium that had the opportunity to be gripped by the occasion. By screening the match on BBC2, the media demonstrated a concerted effort to bring women's sport to people that may not typically get a chance to see it. WSFF's research shows that the majority of sports fans want to see more women's sport on TV, so it's seriously encouraging to see broadcasters capitalising on the demand.
What the FA Cup Final demonstrated to me, however, was the need for women's football to take one final step. All the pieces are in place for the sport to really reach the next level; now we just need to see more players become full time professionals with the financial stability to enable them to dedicate their working lives to training and playing the game.
There are plenty of utterly brilliant women's footballers out there. It's now about raising the overall standard and ensuring that the best female footballers in the country don't have to balance their commitment to their sport with full or part time work elsewhere. They all need the time and the financial security to be able to focus on their game. The men at the top of football get this, so why don't the women?
Take former England captain, Casey Stoney for example. At the beginning of her career, Casey had to work at Arsenal's stadium launderette to keep her football career going. By 2012, she was captaining the national team; she's had to fight at every step of the way, but she has made it. Casey is exactly the sort of amazing role model that women's sport can offer.
Earlier this year, Casey was replaced as England captain by Manchester City defender, Steph Houghton. Steph's another great role model for girls and young women. Just 26 years old, she's captained her country, won every domestic trophy available and scored 3 goals at the London 2012 Olympic Games. She's the kind of player that any young girl growing up playing football can aspire to be.
WSFF recently launched a partnership with Manchester City to help get more women and girls into football. Women like Steph are a huge part of what will make that partnership a success. Its all well and good us telling girls that they can have a career in football, but it's so much more powerful when they can see how someone like Steph has made it happen.
The world's eyes are firmly focussed on Brazil right now; the buzz that always accompanies a major international tournament shines a light on just how great and how powerful sport can be, and this World Cup is no exception (England results aside...). It brings people together and forges a sense of national identity that only a handful of other things can ever get close to. One day in the future, we hope that the Women's World Cup will generate that same sense of excitement and passion amongst the population; that way, other young girls like my niece can see the how football is for them just as much as it is for their male friends, or as in my case, their brothers!