By her own admission, Sarah Walsh never thought she would be in a position to influence the off-field growth of women’s football. A sharp and fleet-footed attacker, Walsh’s career included appearances at the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup™ and 2004 Olympic Games, as well as 70 caps and an impressive return of 32 goals. The Sydneysider was a constant contributor over nine years for her national team, during a period in which the Matildas made significant strides in the international sphere.
Fast forward to the present day and Walsh is making a very different, albeit equally valuable contribution to women’s football Down Under in her role as Football Federation Australia (FFA) Women's Football Development Manager.
FIFA provided funding for 33 women from around the world to participate in the inaugural Female Leadership Development Programme (FLDP) – one of nine women’s football development programmes FIFA offers its members. And Walsh, like her colleagues at fellow Member Associations, has been required to work on a personal nine-month project that aims to bring tangible benefits to local women’s football. Walsh elected to oversee and coordinate a nationwide programme called ‘Female Football Week’ which will take place across Australia on 8-14 March.
FIFA.com sat down with the former Matildas star to find out what benefits her initiative could provide, and just how the FLDP might assist other Member Associations across various corners of the globe.
FIFA.com: You are launching the first ever ‘Female Football Week’ in Australia. What is this initiative about exactly?
Sarah Walsh: The aim of our nationwide Female Football Week is multi-faceted, but primarily it is aimed at driving female participation at all levels of the game. It’s about developing women’s football and increasing the number of females we have participating in our game. By all levels I refer to players, coaches, administrators and match officials. It is also about creating the right environment, promoting the need for more females and generally celebrating the women’s side of the game.
All tiers of the game in Australia will be involved in various ways over the course of the week, be it through club driven activities all the way through to national team player appearances. There will be numerous activities from local clinics, to coaching courses to working with A-League clubs, and much more.
Why is it being launched at this time?
The timing coincides with International Women’s Day on 8 March, but more so it is also timed to coincide with the build-up and for the grassroots’ competition for the upcoming winter seasons.
How will you judge if it’s a success?
Obviously participation during the week will be one gauge. Longer term it is difficult to measure directly how it impacts on participation. But we enjoyed a national participation increase with our Play Football campaign. Now we are looking to see a similar impact after Female Football Week, not just with playing numbers but also in those key areas of coaching, admin and referees.
Where did you get the inspiration from? For instance is it modelled on a similar initiative you’ve seen in another country?
A few of our State Federations have been delivering a version of Female Football Week in the past, and a visit to the French FA exposed me to a similar initiative, one that was extremely impressive. Following this, we decided to take the initiative nationally. This is just year one for us, eventually we would like for it to evolve into a whole of football celebration for the week.
You had a mentor for part of this nine-month FIFA Leadership Development Programme (FDLP). What kind of support did you receive in that regard?
We are paired up with mentors with mine being Ebru Koksal who is a very experienced FIFA consultant. I have been working with her on some of the programmes that we are delivering here, and she also assisted me with personal goal-setting. Ebru has provided great support and been a great sounding-board, as has my FFA colleague Emma Highwood (FFA Head of Community and Women’s Football) who also helped me in my transition from player to administration.
How has being involved in the first edition of the FDLP helped you?
I have always been interested in project management and this was a great opportunity to work on a large project from start to finish. The leadership program has provided me with networking opportunities which has helped me to extend my support network internationally.
Why do you think it is important for there to be more female leaders in football?
I think it is important to have diversity in all areas of sport, and indeed business for that matter, as it can help allow for broader and more rounded decision-making.
Would you recommend the FDLP to others?
Out of all the programmes that FIFA deliver I think this is one of the most valuable. I think it would also be a highly worthwhile exercise for those nations where women’s football is not so popular or less developed.
What is your message to girls and women wanting to become future leaders?
My advice to young females would be to extend your support network and identify potential mentors, experienced people who you can continually learn from. Creating females as leaders is a goal of the FFA. We have 100,000 registered players which is a very significant figure, and this is a chance to demonstrate we are one of the leading organisations for females in sport in Australia.