Wembley Stadium. 31 July 2012. The Olympic Games. Great Britain 1 – 0 Brazil.
A record 70,000 people at Wembley that night and millions more TV viewers watched Steph Houghton score the most famous goal for women’s football in this country – a “defining moment” in the development of the women’s game, according to one of the people at the heart of it.
“I’ll never forget the next day,” said Rachel Pavlou, the FA’s national development manager for women’s football, “seeing Steph Houghton’s celebration on the back of every single newspaper. I’d never seen that before. I even took a photo of it – it was a defining moment for women’s football.”
Houghton flies out to Canada next week as England captain ahead of a World Cup campaign that offers the chance to create yet more history and to build on the momentum gained at London 2012 for all levels of the female game, which is still showing lasting effects today.
“The whole of the women’s and girls’ game, from the grassroots to the elite is really thriving,” added Pavlou. “We’ve got some really exciting stats and we’re proud of the whole of the game.”
“More girls want to play the game and more parents want to support their girls because of the Olympics and the fantastic role models they saw. We’ve got increased TV coverage and more money coming into the game to support it at grassroots level, so the Olympics really did help us get where we are today.”
A recent 2,000-strong Club Website poll found a majority (53%) believed there had been a lasting boost to the women’s and girls’ game since the London 2012 Olympics and the FA have an arsenal of stats to backup that view (see infographic below).
3,596 affiliated girls’ teams (11-16) play football in England today, an increase of 19 percent on the 2008/09 figure of 3,029 – the benchmark from the start of the FA’s National Game Strategy.
In the same period, the number of affiliated women’s teams has risen by 21 percent from 1,253 to 1,513, which suggests the game is in rude health.
If you factor in all of the girls’ teams who play mini-soccer – not part of the official count – along with the 2,500 schoolgirl teams and more than 300 female teams in further or higher education, then that equates to a lot of female players.
Add in to the mix more than 20,000 girls playing in the grassroots participation programmes run in partnership with 88 Premier League and Football League clubs last season, a further 8,000 who played at the Continental Girls’ Football Festivals and the thousands who played ‘recreational’ football at programmes such as Mars Just Play or Football Mash Up and it’s easy to see why the FA are positive about the data.
Despite all of this, there is still work to be done. The FA recognise their two main challenges as trying to change perceptions of girls’ football, whilst working to increase the number of girls aged under 10 playing the game.
“There are still people out there who don’t think that the game is for girls. One of our challenges is to change those perceptions,” said Pavlou, who points out that 95 percent of boys under 10 have played football, compared to only 41 percent of girls.
“For me, that is a massive inequality. We need to find a way to bridge the gap so that girls under the age of 10 have the opportunity to play at an early age.
“When the World Cup comes on, we’ll be getting massive coverage from the BBC of every game, so we want to be in a place to say to everyone: ‘Right, you’ve been enthused by the Women’s World Cup. These are your opportunities to play.’
“We are committed to increase those opportunities for young girls and we are increasing the opportunities to market to everyone that the game is for girls and should be played by girls. No-one should feel that it’s just a boys’ game.”
Pavlou calls on anyone interested in taking up the game to visit the FA website for information on where to play, or call their local County FA, who each have a lead on women’s and girls’ football.
She also calls on existing clubs and leagues to do their part in trying to grow the game further still.
“I’d say to all of your clubs and leagues out there that we are always looking for more clubs and leagues to set up girls-only opportunities within their structures. We’d always love to see more of our brilliant clubs out there take on the girls’ game. We know that they are doing some fantastic work but it’s not all been done. We’ll need their continued support to help us develop the female game.”
If the FA has come in for criticism over the women’s and girls’ game in recent years, it has often been for moving some of the more talented girls into their development pathway – Centres of Excellence and Player Development Centres – to the detriment of the grassroots teams for whom those girls played.
But Pavlou says the FA is listening to clubs on this issue and has just completed the first year of a pilot project in the south west that they hope will address some of the concerns.
The pilot has seen Player Development Centres replaced by Advanced Coaching Centres, where girls can receive supplementary FA training whilst still being allowed to play for their grassroots club. They also attend a Centre of Excellence six times a season to be assessed in the more elite environment.
This allows players to play at more appropriate levels of the game, reduce travel time for training and matches to ensure more time and focus is invested in elite players.
After positive first year results, the trial has been extended next season to the east region, which faces similar issues to the south west, concerning rurality and fewer girls playing the game. A full review of both pilots and the work of existing Centres of Excellence will be undertaken before the start of the 2016/17 season.
“We’re always looking to adapt based on what people are saying to us,” said Pavlou. “In the south west people were telling us that they are losing girls’ teams because of the pathway and that should never happen.
“The grassroots is the most important part of the game, in my opinion. If we don’t have strength at the base, then we’re not going to have anything going forward, so we have to support our grassroots game and help them.
“Whatever our talent pathway looks like in the future, we’ll take on board the views of the grassroots game and ensure it remains strong and robust, so that the talent pathway is as strong as it can be.”
To help achieve this aim, the FA has this week increased the age limit for mixed football to under-18s from the start of next season, to allow more girls the opportunity to play and more choice over who they play for.
“The important message to get across about mixed football is that we’re not raising the age group to make girls play with boys. We’re doing it to give girls the choice to play with boys if they want to.
“We’ve been doing research and risk assessments to give girls the choice, but our number one priority is to see the girls’ game flourish.”
For all the work that Rachel and her team are doing behind the scenes to progress the women’s game in England, she recognises that there’s nothing like a successful tournament to help the game leap forward.
“It’s really important to us that we perform well and that the girls give the best that they can. When England do well in a tournament, it’s not just amazing for England, but for the grassroots game as well, to inspire more people to play and support the game.
“Every time that our England team plays we’ve seen the a spike in numbers, not just players, but coaching courses, referees courses and so on.
With a perfect record of 10 wins from 10 in qualifying and a good blend of youth and experience in the squad, Mark Sampson’s outfit go into the tournament in good shape. So what price another “defining moment” for the women’s game in the coming weeks?
“I really hope the girls do well. They deserve to. They are a brilliant bunch of players, they’ve worked really hard, they are fantastic role models, they go out in the community all the time to try and get more women and girls to play.
“So it would just be amazing if they could do it on the world stage and inspire even more girls out there.”
To find out how to get involved in women’s or girls’ football, visit thefa.com/womens-girls-football/participation.