The growth and development of women's football in Europe
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Karen Espelund has contributed to and witnessed the growth of women's football in Europe, and is optimistic about what the future has in store for the sport at all levels of competition.

The benefits of participating in football are as obvious for women as they are for men. We have more than 1.2 million registered players now, enjoying the knock-on effects for their health as well as socially.

More importantly though, the infrastructure of both European football and society is more supportive than ever of the female game.

We have come a long way since my first steps in football. When I was playing football with boys on the street as a child in Norway, nobody pointed at me and said “hey, you’re a girl, you’re not supposed to play!”

But there was a perception in schools and in organised sports that it was a male domain and that has now thankfully changed.

Competition drives development and gives us the role models to inspire the next generations. When UEFA started the European Championship back in 1984, we could see that the level of play was high and that has gone from strength to strength up to the last UEFA Women’s EURO, in Sweden in 2013. We saw the role that players like Lotta Schelin had on the public during that tournament and the size of the crowds with full stadiums in the latter stages.

That tournament boasted significant media coverage, reaching 133 million households through the host broadcaster Eurosport. The final alone was watched by over 15.9 million viewers, showing the changing landscape in terms of public interest.

The challenges of maintaining participation levels vary across UEFA’s 54 member associations. Our Women’s Football Development Programme aims to make a tailor-made solution to the specific nature of each territory – in Germany for example, continuation of the sport among middle-aged females was identified as a key goal and the UEFA-sponsored project there is support for an over-35 female league.

A record 49 countries will participate in the development tournaments for Under-16 girls teams this year (we also have tournaments at U17 and U18 levels across the associations) to give a structured platform for young girls to shine and be inspired to reach the highest possible level in the game.

Of course, we need to work towards a stronger grassroots structure for girls because there’s still scope for greater involvement. But we can see the will and desire to set up football schools and to create a pyramid that is similar to those for the boys. And that’s one of the reasons to be very optimistic indeed about the future of women’s football.

Karen Espelund has worked for UEFA for the past 25 years where she has held a number of positions. Karen is now a member of the Executive Committee, the chairwoman of the Women’s Football Committee, and the deputy chairwoman of the Development and Technical Assistance Committee at the House of European Football. Prior to that, Karen served the Norwegian Football Association for 15 years, including ten years as general secretary. Football is Espelund’s passion – she remains a keen veteran player – and her firm conviction is that every child who wants to play football can fulfil this dream in her or his neighbourhood.



Football (Soccer)

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