This week witnessed a little bit of football history made in New Zealand as Auckland played host to the first-ever FIFA Com-Unity seminar devoted exclusively to the women's game. For its Kiwi hosts, the five-day-long event represented another significant step towards ensuring that the country's staging of next year's inaugural FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup leaves a lasting legacy in a country more traditionally associated with rugby.

The seminar began on Monday, in fact, with a frank acknowledgement of this fact from NZ Football chief executive Graham Seatter, who pointed out that, of FIFA's 208 member associations, his is one of fewer than 20 which does not consider football its national sport. The challenge, said Seatter, is "to reduce that number by one more", and he was far from alone in viewing women's football as key to that strategy.

"There are precedents internationally," he said, "in countries where football is not the national game, where the development of the sport is led by the women's game. Two examples that come to mind are Canada and the United States. Interestingly, very significant impetus was provided for the growth of women's football, and football over all, in each of those countries by hosting a women's World Cup. These examples are not lost on us as we work towards hosting next year's FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup. We see that event as a fabulous opportunity to showcase our country to the world and with 95 countries already confirmed to take television coverage, and an expectation that that number will exceed 140 countries, we really will be in front of the world."

Clark earns Blatter praise
One man who is sure to take a keen interest in the fortunes of FIFA's newest competition is the governing body's president, Joseph S. Blatter, who addressed the seminar via video link. Stressing FIFA's determination to ensure that the tournament leaves a positive and lasting legacy "for the game, for the world, for New Zealand, for the women," Blatter re-iterated his long-belief that the beautiful game's destiny will to a large extent be shaped by its female participants.

He said: "'The Future of Football is feminine'. I said this at the occasion of the 1995 World Cup in Sweden and what I said then is still true today. About 40 million girls and women play football in all of the 208 member associations of FIFA, which means the barriers are down. New Zealand will be the host country for the first-ever FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup. I believe it will be a success and hopefully leave a legacy for the development of women's football."

The FIFA President also took the opportunity to lavish praise on New Zealand's prime minister, Helen Clark, whose enthusiastic and wholehearted support for the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup was rewarded with a personal invitation from Blatter to become the tournament's Honorary President. The offer was one which the Kiwi premier proved only too ready to accept, with Clark admitting that she had been left "staggered" at the sheer scale of the women's game worldwide - and its potential benefits for her country's youngsters.

"I'm absolutely delighted to be Hononary President," she told the seminar. "When you meet these women involved in women's football of all ages, you see what incredibly positive role models they are. This is a time when girls and women tend to be less physically active than their male counterparts in our country. The more opportunities we have to showcase the young and fit and healthy women achieving great things on the sports field, the happier I am."

'A sport on the move'
Clark's speech was made on the seminar's opening day, which was based around relationship management with government officials and NGOs, and was followed by sessions on sponsorship, media and marketing. An impressive list of speakers had been assembled by FIFA, including US television analyst Brandi Chastain - famous for that sports bra-baring celebration after scoring the winning penalty in the 1999 Women's World Cup Final - Ed Coan and Alex Stone, the English FA's head of marketing and media respectively, Doris Fitschen and Heike Ullrich, sponsorship manager and head of women's football respectively for the German DFB, and journalist Mark Gleeson.

"It just feels to me like an area of women's sport which is really on the move," was how Clark summed it up. "Indeed football in general, I think, is on the move in New Zealand." If the week just past is anything to go by, the pace at which that movement is taking place looks sure to shock the world.

For his part, Reynald Temarii, President of the OFC and vice-president of FIFA, also thanked Ms Clark for her efforts and commitment to the Pacific Island Forum, which groups 16 islands and whose goal is to promote their social, economic and cultural development through football. He hopes this objective will be realised in collaboration with FIFA's Win in Oceania with Oceania program. He concluded by reminding that "football is a tool to build communities".

Next week will see a similar seminar held in Chile as part of their preparations for hosting the 2008 FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup, and the South Americans will certainly do well to match the optimism sparked not only by New Zealand's staging of the inaugural U-17 tournament, but also by the country's senior team's presence at November's FIFA Women's World Cup.