Wildcats growing girls football participation in England

  • ​SSE Wildcats have benefited from the FIFA Forward Programme

  • Girls aged 5-11 play football in an environment tailored to their needs

  • Part of The FA’s strategy to double women’s football participation by 2020

When Jill Scott, Toni Duggan and many other England internationals first took to playing football as youngsters, they had no choice but to play in boys’ teams due to the lack of all-girls programmes in their local area. The FA’s SSE Wildcats, however, is today giving that choice of all-female football to young girls in the country.

An initiative aimed at ages 5-11 – which has received a $1,048,000 investment as part of FIFA Forward – Wildcats was launched in 2017 as part of The FA’s strategy to double female football participation by 2020. Given the initial low numbers of girls-only football within that age bracket, it was evident there was potential to significantly increase participation. After the success of 200 centres opening in its first year, with each one typically catering for 30 girls, The FA has extended the scheme with the creation of a further 772 centres across the country in 2018.

“Since the launch of SSE Wildcats, we have seen great enthusiasm from the girls taking part to continue learning and playing football,” said Kelly Simmons, the FA’s Participation and Development Director.

“The centres have proved a huge success and we are pleased to be able to considerably grow the size of the initiative in 2018. None of this progress would have been possible without investment from the FIFA Forward Programme and we are grateful to be able to offer a much higher percentage of girls across the country the opportunity to enjoy football in a safe and inspiring environment.”

Have fun, make friends, play football – that is the SSE Wildcats ethos. A name chosen by the girls who use the centres themselves, the initiative is about galvanising and nurturing young girls’ passion for football in a way that is tailored to their needs.

“For some of these girls, it’s the first time they’ve even kicked a ball, so we have to make it as much fun for them as possible,” said Rachel Pavlou, the FA’s National Women’s Football Development Manager and a FIFA Women’s Football Development Expert.

“We found that girls at that age [5-11] just wanted to play football and socialise with their friends, but they didn’t feel they had the opportunity to do that within the environment they wanted. SSE Wildcats has been successful because we’ve listened to those girls taking part. The way that it is branded – the name, posters, flyers – they came up with all of that.

“There’s a great two-way communication between the girls and the coaches and it’s about making football fun for them.”

Communication has been a key theme within the project. Not only has the process helped these girls in their footballing journey, it has had a notable positive impact on their social development.

“There’s so much that football can do for these girls,” said Pavlou. “Parents have said that their daughters are feeling more confident, talking more about sport, health and that they’re seeing them grow in character because of this programme – and that’s exactly what we want.”

FIFA Forward

From the Wildcats’ kits to footballs ranging in different sizes and colours, the initiative has been funded by FIFA Forward, the programme introduced to improve the way the world governing body develops and supports football across the globe.

“The FA’s Wildcats project is simply amazing because through football it gives the opportunity to many girls in England to not only socialize in a safe environment, but to be a part of an open society which educates and helps empower young girls,” said Bjorn Vassallo, FIFA's Member Association Regional Director for Europe.

“When it comes to football, the programme provides these girls with the necessary technical skills. Through enabling more girls to play the game, FIFA is strongly investing in women’s football and committed to engaging in global technical development. FIFA is very happy to assist the FA with the implementation of this project,” concluded Vassallo.

“The fact that we’ve got FIFA putting funding into it, that just gives us the chance to develop what we’re trying to do and be able to realise it,” said Pavlou. “That 5-11 age group was a real worry for us, that we weren’t giving those girls at that age group the same opportunities at football until a later age in their lives. And now, through the SSE Wildcats, we’re able to provide that. It’s something we’re really proud of and that’s thanks to FIFA who have supported us along the way.”

The FA is already reaping the rewards of increased girls’ involvement as they look to reach their target of doubling female participation by 2020, having recently announced a 15.9 per cent year-on-year increase in girls-only Mini-Soccer teams.

The all-female environment amongst friends, key to nurturing the girls’ passion for football, has given many of the girl’s confidence to take the next step on their footballing pathway: club football.

“You have to think that when these girls get to age 12, they’ll have that real love of football and will go on to increase those numbers at that age group, and then the next and so on. I do think we’re well on our way to having more girls playing in different areas of the game.”

And who knows? Perhaps the next generation of Lionesses will have at one time started their footballing journey as a Wildcat.