Football is the fastest-growing women's sport in the world. Participation has more than doubled since 2000 and there are now an estimated 26 million females playing football worldwide.

One country where the spike in the popularity of the women's game has been really exceptional is perhaps a surprise. It's England.

You would expect that the nation which created the modern game of Association Football - the country which has the wealthiest and best-supported league in the world, and whose Premiership clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool are global brand names - would be supportive of the women's game. But until very recently this was far from the case and, indeed, women were even banned from playing on league grounds until the 1960s!

It was not until 1993 that the English FA took the women's game under its wing and started to invest in it seriously with money and infrastructure development. Fifteen years ago there were some 10,000 women in England playing for amateur clubs - now there are 147,000. And the Active People Survey completed in 2006 highlighted that 250,000 women and 1.1 million girls were playing some form of football in England - a truly astonishing rise in interest.

But Mary Harvey, Head of Development for FIFA, thinks that perhaps the rise not so extraordinary given the high profile and popularity of the men's game. "You take a girl growing up in England - or in Brazil or Argentina - where football is their national sport. It's not the national men's sport. It's the national sport of the country and, if you look at the audiences that attended the 2006 FIFA World Cup and also watched it on television, there was a big, big percentage of females. So it's not really a surprise that they love it. But what is now happening is that more and more opportunities are being given to girls and structures are being put in place to enable them to play. The desire's there to participate in the sport of football and that's what changing!"

Until fairly recently in England (one of four countries that make up the United Kingdom, which also includes Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), football was not considered a suitable game for girls. They were expected to play netball or field hockey but there are now plenty of opportunities for any young woman keen on the game to progress.

New opportunities
Kelly Simmons Head of Football Development for the FA explains how the infrastructure works: "Every one of the 42 English counties has a development officer who works with schools and local clubs to set up girls' teams and help girls move on through schools into football clubs and leagues to get regular competition. There are local centres of excellence for talented girls with weekly coaching and games programmes. And there is a national academy at Loughborough in the Midlands where the England youth teams train and then, if they are good enough, players can progress right through to the senior team."

Lois Fidler is the Centre Manager at the National Player Development Centre, which was opened in 2001. Since then, between 12 and 22 girls are selected for the specialist training camps every year:

"We work with a four-corner model to develop not only physical strength and ability, their technical and tactical competence, their psychology so that they can cope with the pressure of tournament football and the social aspect of being able to interact with their team-mates. We want to develop the whole player."

As a result of this hard work, England qualified for the FIFA Women's World Cup in China this summer for the first time since 1995. And led by the outstanding Kelly Smith they went all the way to the quarter-finals.

The fast improvements were noted by opponents, fans and female football specialists alike. And in a sign of the sense of equality and fair play emerging in England, senior men's boss Steve McClaren was impressed with the progress.

"I know Hope (Powell, head coach) and the team will be gutted to have lost, but they should all be very proud of their performances in China," he said after their 3-0 defeat by USA. "There have been some excellent team and individual performances by England and they have certainly generated a huge level of interest. We should all congratulate them on their efforts."