Hilton-Smith: Africa's potential is amazing

The recent FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup was in one respect a major success story for Africa. Nigeria, after all, reached the final - scoring 15 times en route - and only narrowly missed out on the trophy after outplaying Germany in the decider.

But while Fran Hilton-Smith viewed with approval the Super Falconets' campaign, her admiration was tinged with frustration. As a long-time champion of women's football in Africa, she knows the continent's potential better than anyone and viewed Canada 2014 not as a heroic overachievement, but as a tale of what might have been.

"The fact Nigeria achieved what they did showed again that African players have tremendous skill and ability," said Hilton-Smith, technical director at the South African Football Association (SAFA) and a member of the organising committee at Canada 2014. "But if they were able to compete as often as their European counterparts do, you'd see even more.

"There's no doubt in my mind that if African teams had consistency in playing matches and consistency in coaches, you'd have African world champions. Look at Nigeria in Canada. They were very unlucky not to beat Germany, and that's with all the many advantages the Germans have in organisation, training and playing regularly as a team and the professional league they have there. If we could start to bridge those gaps, the potential for Africa is just amazing.

"At the moment though, African teams just don't play enough. It's our major drawback and, for me, it's the thing that's preventing us from taking that final step towards winning these kind of tournaments. With South Africa, we try to arrange friendlies within Africa and it's impossible because the bulk of the countries don't put their teams together until a competition is on the horizon. That's when they quickly assemble the team, hire a coach, play one or two friendlies, hold a camp somewhere and that's it. For the majority of year there's nothing."

Women's football is growing in Africa and the standard is improving. But we need more matches to realise the potential that is there.

Yet this is not a problem without a solution. Indeed, Hilton-Smith has been working tirelessly, both in her role at SAFA and with the African Football Confederation (CAF) to look at practical ways in which the continent's teams can be developed and improved by more frequent, high-level competition.

As she explained: "With CAF, I've been appointed to the technical committee, which is massive in itself because I'm the first South African to be elected to that. It's also a boost for women's football because I'm always pushing that side of things, and what I always stress is that we need more competition. The problem at CAF level is that there's only the African Women's Championship every two years, some regional tournaments, then every four there's qualification for the World Cup. So there just aren't enough games taking place.

"What we need is to have the Women's Championship taking place every year; that would keep the teams going. And I must say, there's a willingness there in the technical committee to look at doing that. The vice-president is Kalusha Bwalya from Zambia and he's very pro-women's football; his women's team is really doing great things, both at junior and senior level. Women's football in general is growing in Africa and the standard is improving. But we need more matches to realise the potential that is there."

Increased club competition is also required and that is Hilton-Smith's primary target at national level, with a semi-professional South African women's league currently in the works. And her energies are not confined to Africa. She also holds positions on the FIFA Women's Football Task Force and FIFA Women's World Cup Organising Committee, offering opportunities to shape the female game at a global level.

"It's an honour to represent Africa on that task force, and it's been well worthwhile already," she told FIFA.com. "Moya Dodd (the task force's chair) has a great vision for the future of the women's game. The fact that ten of her points have already been improved is massive, and it shows a clear willingness by FIFA to really progress women's football.

"As for the Women's World Cup, I think it's going to be a great tournament, and opening it up to 24 teams has provided lots of teams - ourselves in South Africa included - with real encouragement. It's given smaller countries a chance to reach the elite competition and, once that happens, I think you'll see women's football coming on in leaps and bounds across the world."