Belgian football is on the up. The men’s national team is riding high at the moment, and their female counterparts, the Red Flames, are beginning to emerge from the shadows and make their presence felt on the European scene. And with the UEFA Women’s EURO 2017 and the next FIFA Women’s World Cup™ taking place in neighbouring Netherlands and France respectively, Belgium’s ladies have plenty to aim for in the years ahead.
Women’s football is enjoying a boom at all levels across the country, a point illustrated by the success of the 2015 Live Your Goals Footfestival, which took place at the National Football Centre in Tubize on 30 August.
Belgium has embraced a dynamic vision of its women’s grassroots football, a policy that is now paying dividends and to which FIFA lent its support through a Goal project in 2014 - only the second devoted to women's football after a similar project was rolled out in Australia. The country’s initiatives, chief among them its Footfestivals, are now taking on a whole new dimension under the auspices of the Live Your Goals programme.
More than 200 female players responded to the invitation to attend the 2015 Live Your Goals Footfestival, organised by the Belgian Football Association (URBSFA) and Live Your Goals. “A few years ago I’d never have imagined there’d be such enthusiasm for the game,” said a delighted Red Flames coach Ives Serneels, who has long been committed to the development of women’s football in Belgium and now has the satisfaction of seeing his charges join him in that task.
Spreading the gospel
After showcasing their skills in a public training session, the national women’s team players pulled on their tracksuits and got down to some coaching. “The girls appreciated how accessible we were and they couldn’t believe they were training and chatting with us,” commented defender and national team stalwart Heleen Jaques.
For her part, Jaques was taken aback by the sheer number of players participating in the event: “I’ve never seen anything like this in women’s football. We’ve taken part in smaller Footfestivals, but thanks to Live Your Goals this is on a totally different scale.”
Forming groups of around a dozen, girls aged five to 12 performed drills with a number of Red Flames players, while participants aged 12-16 were put through their paces by the rest of the national team. The Belgian women’s U-19 team also lent a helping hand, which was just as well given all the requests and questions that came the players’ way.
The sight of them all assembling in the middle of the pitch at the end of the day just showed how far women’s football has come in Belgium.
While the event was all about having fun and discovering the game, it also gave the youngsters a unique opportunity to chat to the country’s leading female players and to take part in training sessions and drills that had been carefully devised by qualified coaches.
“The girls thought we were all professional. They looked at us with their eyes wide open and asked us a lot of straight questions,” said Belgium captain Aline Zeler. “I go to schools a lot and introduce young girls to football as part of their PE classes, so taking part in a day like this is very special for me.”
The URBSFA has seen its membership rise by more than 20 percent in the last two years and is hoping to break the 35,000 barrier in due course with a well thought-out strategy. The first Live Your Goals* *event to be held in Belgium forms part of the plan.
Some 30 of the girls who attended do not play for a club, and some of them had never kicked a ball before. For the most part, the experience proved productive, and though one girl departed saying she preferred dancing, most of the participants went away delighted with their day, their eyes opened to the joys the game has to offer.
One big, happy family
As well as being a showcase for young talents, the event also showed how much standards in general are improving. “I was impressed by the skills of quite a few girls,” added Jaques, who was only too happy to give them some advice. “They’re getting a better feel for the game and they’ve got a lot of technique. They’re not afraid to rub shoulders with the boys, and the results are there for all to see.”
Her skipper agreed: “There’s still this idea that football is for boys first and foremost. It’s a mental thing, though I’m seeing a real change in mindsets.”**
A veteran of over 300 Belgian first division matches, coach Serneels will remember the get-together for a long time. “It gave me a lot of pleasure to see all these young girls beaming and smiling away the whole day. I was struck by their togetherness, no matter how old they were. The sight of them all assembling in the middle of the pitch at the end of the day just showed how far women’s football has come in Belgium. We’re a family and it’s getting bigger every year.”
That is exactly what the URBSFA and the Live Your Goals programme are aiming to achieve: to create a family that young girls and their parents feel part of, a family that embraces them and fires their dreams.