“Imagine a group of players with so much energy and enthusiasm that their coach has to literally force them to stop playing football, go back to the hotel and relax at the end of every training session, all the way through the tournament.” Even today, Norway’s legendary captain Heidi Store regularly gets goosebumps when she reminisces about her team’s triumph at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 1995™ in Sweden – but these reflections on past glories are not the only way for the 52-year-old to sustain her endless enthusiasm for the beautiful game. These days, travelling to Macedonia proves just as effective.
For Store, the time has come to give something back, after winning 151 caps for her country at a time when the female side of the world’s most popular sport first began to be taken seriously. Although the fact Norway can still count themselves among the planet’s best teams two decades later is due in no small part to her efforts, the world champion is reluctant to speak about ambitious targets, sporting performances and coveted titles.
When the head of women’s football at the Football Association of Norway (NFF) travels overseas for FIFA as an ambassador for the Live Your Goals festivals, it is the pure passion of the project that she enjoys. This was the case almost ten days ago in Skopje, capital of a nation currently ranked 122nd in the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking.
A place for the love of football *“Wherever I go, I’m overwhelmed by what I encounter,” Store explained in an interview with *FIFA.com. “In every corner of the globe I meet enthusiastic people whose dedication and expertise are making women’s football more popular and inspiring more youngsters to play the game. The girls in Macedonia are no less talented than those in Norway or Germany; I’ve been there and seen the sparkle in their eyes,” she continued. “It’s wonderful to be able to help them play football, a sport they love every bit as much as I do.”
Around 200 girls aged between six and 12 gathered at the Live Your Goals festival in Macedonia on 19 and 20 September to take part in exercises, contest matches and simply enjoy playing football. The event was a roaring success. As Store explained: “When I’m at a festival like the one in Macedonia, it’s important for me to be able to connect with the girls and speak to them directly,” she said.
“If it comes up in conversation, I tell them about myself and my previous career, but first and foremost I want to make sure that they all feel welcome and realise that they have a place in this footballing family so that they’ll come back again.”
Dreams come true in Macedonia
Around 600 players of all ages play women’s football in Macedonia, of which almost 400 are registered. There is plenty of motivation for the sport to grow in this nation of two million people on the Balkan Peninsula. The Football Federation of Macedonia (FFM) has a full-time staff member dedicated to developing the women’s game, while the existing women’s league with its ten teams, five coaches with UEFA B Licences, two FIFA referees and five further assistant referees offers proof that this work is already well underway.
"Although the country doesn’t yet have many players, we’re lucky that there are so many people within the association who dearly love women’s football and work hard to give young girls the opportunity to play the game,” said Store, further reinforcing her belief in a positive future for the sport in Macedonia.
Plans for a youth league with seven clubs for girls aged between eight and ten are being drawn up with the help of FIFA. Live Your Goals is also supporting a parallel campaign run by the FFM to inspire more and more youngsters to realise their dream of chasing down the ball together as part of a proper team.
The next challenge
Such projects are close to Store’s heart. “I was once that young and wanted to play football no matter what,” she recalled. “Although back then we didn’t have the same support that there is now, I had parents and coaches who supported me. That was infinitely important for me and my career, and now I want to pass it on. The most important thing is to give these girls a place and a space where they feel welcome to play and hang out.”
It is for this reason that the Norwegian women’s football legend considers the Live Your Goals campaign, for which she has also travelled to countries such as Lesotho, to be so important: “It offers an amazing opportunity to spark enthusiasm and get girls excited about women’s football,” she explained. “As former players who have witnessed first hand how our sport has developed into a ever better and more entertaining game both technically, tactically and physically, we have a lot to offer,” Store said, before adding: “This is just the first step.”
Although the experienced Norwegian is delighted to see girls getting more and more opportunities to play football in many corners of the globe, “we still need more infrastructure, and making pitches available is particularly crucial,” she stressed. “In countries such as Macedonia where women’s football has captured the imagination, the challenge now is to actually create opportunities for girls to get out on the pitch to compete, train and organise competitions.”
Several facilities, including a technical centre with several training pitches, have already been built in Macedonia as part of three FIFA Goal projects between 2002 and 2014. It looks likely that there will soon be passionate female footballers all over Skopje determined not to give up on their training – a feeling Store and her fellow 1995 world champions remember well.