Today is the 101st International Women's Day. “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures" is the official motto this year, a theme published and explored on the official website internationalwomensday.com.
FIFA.com joins in on the celebrations with a homage to the feminine face of football, in a review dedicated to the fast-growing women's game.
No fewer than 29 million women and girls now play football around the world, a number that is increasing rapidly all the time. It is an impressive figure, especially when you consider that women were generally banned from playing organised football until relatively recent history. For example, the prohibition of women in football in Germany was only lifted in 1970. Prior to that, opponents of the women's game clung fast to the absurd argument that playing football was incompatible with natural feminine gracefulness.
And yet, those traits are some of the main attributes associated with and valued in women's football. Pace, elegance, technical skill and dynamism are qualities embodied by many female footballers and exemplified by the likes of Brazil superstar Marta or FIFA World Player of the Year Homare Sawa. Both are prodigiously skilled, blessed with superb technique, and combine high-tempo play with passing elegance. No-one watching the pair glide over the red carpet in stylish evening gowns at this year's FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala would have dared to suggest they were anything less than the epitome of ‘feminine gracefulness’.
Feast for the eyes
“The increasing enthusiasm for women's football comes down to the simple fact that it's nicer and more pleasant to watch," according to French international Louisa Necib.
The inspirational midfielder is not alone in this opinion, with German forward Melanie Behringer echoing her sentiments. “Both on the field and off it, it's not as aggressive as men's football. The spectators come along for the good entertainment. They’re simply there to have fun. There's no hooliganism whatsoever. Instead, it's more of a family atmosphere, with many people bringing their kids," said Behringer.
“Women's football is the sport of the future. When we come to Europe, we see for ourselves just how far the sport has developed. It's astonishing and highly motivating," said Brazil centre-forward Rosana.
Meanwhile, German FIFA.com user christine101 eloquently described her personal love for the women's game: “Women's football is a feast for the eyes, especially because it's uncomplicated and the players get through the game without “spitting" (which is so typically male). The players’ commitment and enthusiasm out on the pitch are unique. You hardly ever see diving or cheating, and it leaves you wanting more!"
Giant strides towards the future
The world’s passion for the feminine variant of the game reached a new peak last year at the FIFA Women's World Cup Germany 2011™. Some 63 million people around the globe watched on TV as USA took on Japan in the final, with a total of attendance in excess of 700,000 cheering on the 16 competing nations at the stadiums. The 2015 edition in Canada will feature 24 teams for the first time, and is likely to catapult women's football into the next dimension.
However, the game has travelled a long and rocky road to reach this point. The year 1986 is of special significance in its development. At the 45th FIFA Congress in Mexico City, Norwegian delegate Ellen Wille took to the microphone and, in the name of her association and all women footballers, called on FIFA to invest far greater effort in promoting the women's game, pointing to the huge untapped potential in this area.
“I'd had to fight to get women's football recognised in Norway, and I wanted to continue that internationally,” Wille later recalled. “So I took the stage at the FIFA Congress and pointed out that women's football wasn't mentioned on the agenda. And I said it was high time that women had their own World Cup and an Olympic Football Tournament.”
The feminine year 2012
As we now know, the pioneering delegate’s energetic efforts slowly but surely bore fruit. The inaugural FIFA Women's World Cup took place in China in 1991. The first Women's Olympic Football Tournament was in 1996. Progress has been rapid since then. Twelve nations contested the 1991 tournament, but by 2011 it was 16. The qualifying competition for the 1991 finals comprised 110 matches, but that had risen to 355 for 2011.
Against this background, it is less of a surprise that more and more girls are learning to love the game at a young age. The sport can help them grow in confidence, developing their abilities in a safe and healthy social environment.
“I think it's been incredibly important that women's football has become established as a grassroots sport,” said German international Sonja Fuss. “It means lots and lots of girls overcome their reticence and play, and more and more girls use the sport to take time for themselves and time together with others, having fun and growing as human beings. The more young girls take up football, the greater the chance of quality youngsters coming through. That in turn leads to more demand and higher quality. You start enjoying real selection options, but that’s always going to take five to ten years.”
In the wake of the much-praised FIFA Women's World Cup 2011 in Germany, widely acknowledged as a superb advertisement for the game, 2012 promises another festival of women's football. The year features three important tournaments: the Women's Olympic Football Tournament between 25 July and 9 August, the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Japan from 18 August to 8 September, and the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in Azerbaijan from 22 September to 13 October. A packed programme and dramatically increasing participation-rates all point to a glorious future.