With just a few months to go before the start of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, host nation Azerbaijan saw the women’s game enter a new era on Saturday 10 March, as the ‘Live Your Goals’ campaign and Legacy Programme were launched in Baku.

The goal of the former initiative is to encourage girls and women across the world to get involved in football. The latter project lays the foundations for this laudable aim to be achieved, in the form of courses for instructors and referees. At the first of a series of seven festivals organised with the sole target of developing women’s football, an impressive number of devotees turned out to brave the cold temperatures and snow.

“We’ve not been that lucky with the weather, but this turnout shows how much sport and football in particular is a driving force for Azerbaijani women,” said Elkhan Mammadov, Secretary General of the Azerbaijan Football Association (AFFA). “I’m absolutely delighted that these projects have been activated. There are six more festivals to come, and we’re very much looking forward to welcoming even more women and young girls to the fold,” he added.

Although the weather conditions may have put paid to plans of actually kicking a ball around, participants had the chance to attend a concert held by local singing sensation Chingiz Mustafayev and to meet the official mascot of Azerbaijan 2012, as well as numerous members of the country’s national women’s team. In addition, they had the privilege of rubbing shoulders with Steffi Jones and Vera Pauw, veritable legends of the female game.

“You’re all great examples for women’s football. I’m extremely honoured to be here with you today for the launch of the Legacy Programme and the ‘Live Your Goals’ campaign, because playing football can be so rewarding for women. It gives you so much self-confidence,” said Jones, a former Germany international.

It’s tremendous to be able to prove how important football can be in terms of personal development, but also to demonstrate what a modern, thriving country Azerbaijan has become. 

Azerbaijan U-17 coach Sissy Raith

“Hosting a World Cup at any level offers a country the opportunity to move to a different level, and to demonstrate to the watching world its ability to stage such an event,” she continued.

Pauw, whose coaching CV includes the national women’s teams of Scotland, the Netherlands and Russia, struck a similar note. “Football is so much more than shooting a ball into a net. It enables you to learn a huge amount about yourself, and to set certain personal goals,” she explained.

“The words that make up the name of this campaign, ‘Live Your Goals’, are actually the best advice I could give to young players who have just taken up the game: get all you can out of football – it’ll be a great boost in life!” she said.

Azerbaijan U-17 coach Sissy Raith is also supportive of these initiatives. “When I arrived in Azerbaijan nearly two years ago, women’s football was not in the best of health," she said. "We had to start from scratch. It’s been a real joy for me to pick players and then help them to improve. It was tough at the beginning, but today we have a group of women who can be considered proper footballers."

A former Bayern Munich player and Germany cap, she is hopeful for the future of the women’s game in her adopted land. “It’s tremendous to be able to prove how important football can be in terms of personal development, but also to demonstrate what a modern, thriving country Azerbaijan has become. We can’t wait to represent the nation at the upcoming FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, and we hope to be able to project a great image of the country to the world,” she concluded.