Many years of hard work behind the scenes in women's football in Spain has started to come to fruition. The patience and dedication of a small group of believers over a period of 20 years has seen this sport gradually gain more widespread acceptance. For the national team to have reached the FIFA U-19 Women's World Championship as champions of Europe is testimony to this progress.
But despite the changes that have taken place over the last few decades, much still needs to be done before women's football shares parity with men's football with regard to the attention and respect it receives from management, supporters and the media.
For while the men's U-19 European Championships in Sweden received widespread press coverage and was televised on Spanish national television, their female counterparts' thrilling victory in the final against the all-conquering German side could only be seen on satellite or cable TV.
Nevertheless, on their return to Spain, the girls were full of smiles when they saw the array of television cameras awaiting them. "Winning this title has caused quite a stir, especially as far as the media is concerned. When we arrived, there were a lot of television cameras and journalists present and most of the newspapers were represented. For once the work done and the success obtained have been recognised. I hope this has made people sit up and take notice and that there will be an increased level of assistance and interest from now on", national team manager Ignacio Quereda commented.
Items on the agenda
The organisation of teams and football academies by clubs such as Athletic Bilbao, Espanyol and FC Barcelona has been a hugely positive development for women's football. The benefits of proper training and facilities in an environment that breeds success can only have a positive effect on the lovers of this sport, and enhances the prestige of the Superliga, Spanish women's football's first division.
However, the low media profile that women's football continues to suffer from is far from helpful when it comes to attracting new sponsors, which rules out an increase in the number of teams and the professionalisation of the sport. This is disheartening for the girls involved, as it is increasingly difficult to balance their work or studies with a demanding sporting life.
While the majority of parents encourage their sons, if they show ability, to pursue their dream to be the next Raul or Ronaldo (with all that would entail financially), the same cannot be said when it comes to their daughters, who are much more likely to find dissenting voices in the family.
The national team manager makes a convincing case for the development of women's football: "If we have managed to get women to come to the stands of a stadium, why can't they go on the pitch as well? They have been fighting to do so from a very young age."
Building up from the foundations
It has been four years since the last Campeonato Nacional de Selecciones Autonómicas Femeninas de Fútbol 7 (community 7-a-side national championship for girls) took place in Spain. Although most mainstream fans may not know about it, it is a wonderful event that is a credit to its organisers.
The 2004 edition was held in December in Gijón, Asturias (in the north of Spain).There were ten regional teams present, made up of girls between the ages of 10 and 13. There are more participants every year as underage football becomes increasingly popular. The matches last 30 minutes and all the players in each squad have to play a part in the matches.
First there is a mini-league with five teams in each group. When all the teams in a group have played each other, each team plays against the team that shares their position in the league table in order to decide the final results. The first placed team in each group play each other in the final.
A Catalan team that were a notch above their rivals won the 2004 trophy. They scored some fantastic goals in defeating the Basque Country side in the final 5-1. The winning side's trainer Felix Gimeno emphasised how important the tournament is to the girls: "This competition motivates them a lot. They are all delighted. Some of them had never had the opportunity to come together in this way and they've learnt a lot here."
There was a great festive atmosphere from the start to the finish of the competition, and a spirit of togetherness united the different sets of supporters and players, perfectly illustrating the higher purpose of sport: to educate as well as to entertain. The dual objective of the championship was thus realised; to promote the sport while at the same time introducing the girls to the benefits of competition at an early age. And while all this was happening, the national team manager was walking around the pitch observing "some very interesting things" to share with his assistants around the country as they try to ensure that the prospects of today become the stars of tomorrow.