A challenge has been thrown out to the graduates of the first-ever FIFA Female Leadership Development Programme (FLDP): to reach for the top in football and inspire the next generation of women.

"When you leave this room today and go back to your federations, think what you can achieve. This is just the beginning."

That was the message from FIFA’s Senior Women’s Football Development Manager Mayi Cruz Blanco to the 33 participants who completed the third and final module in Amsterdam this week. The mentors from around the world who guided each participant through the intense nine-month curriculum were also on hand to witness the emotional graduation ceremony.

"When I first started in football, I thought I was the only woman in the Southern Hemisphere working in football,” said Fran Hilton-Smith. A former South African national team player, Smith has helped develop women’s football in various roles over the years, including some time as the South Africa women’s national team coach.

"The FIFA Female Leadership Development Programme has created a network of like-minded women, which is a great achievement. We need to continue to share our stories so that we, and future generations of women, continue to learn from each other. And now, the cherry on the top is that we have people in Zurich in FIFA’s development team who are there to support us too. So we are no longer alone."

The FIFA Female Leadership Development Programme has created a network of like-minded women, which is a great achievement.

Fran Hilton-Smith

The aim of the annual programme is to increase the number of female leaders in the game and achieve greater gender equity in football decision-making. This includes at executive committee level in all governing bodies, which will enhance football governance and improve the game overall. It is implemented in partnership with THNK School of Creative Leadership.

“All the evidence, whether from football or beyond, suggests that having more women in leadership positions leads to better outcomes for all stakeholders,” said Natasha Bonnevalle, partner at THNK and expert in diversity and inclusiveness. “We are therefore excited to have partnered with FIFA on the Female Leadership Development Programme to build the next generation of female leaders for football.”

Each football association or confederation represented by the respective participants now has a responsibility to ensure their further development and to support them in the implementation of their personal project. FIFA will keep in touch with the associations to obtain progress reports. In addition, an online platform will help maintain strong networks between the participants and mentors, while further coaching opportunities will be available to the participants even after the programme concludes.

Further proof of the success of the programme, has been seen in the number of applications for the second edition that will start later in 2016. With only 35 places available, applications have been received from over 80 of FIFA’s 209 Member Associations. The aim is to continue the programme long into the future, ensuring there are more and more female leaders, ready to take their place, in the uppermost echelons of football.