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Girls' football growing despite big challenges

The eyes and minds of Finland's female footballers and their fans will be trained on Sweden this month, as UEFA's Euro 2013 women's championship games kick off. As in many other countries, women's football has long been the poor relation of its male counterpart. However enterprising local clubs are working to change the view that women's football will always be a hobby and not a profession.

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FC Futura Juniors' 11-year old girls celebrate following a successful tour in Sweden in July. Image: Merja Kouva

It's not only Finland's senior women footballers who are looking to make a name for themselves in the international arena. A group of 11-year old girls from Porvoo, about 50 kilometres east of Helsinki recently became local heroes when they came away from a successful run in an important football tournament in Örebro, Sweden. In addition to fond memories, the FC Futura Juniors also returned with a haul of bronze medals and a trophy as a symbol of their creditable performance in their first overseas campaign.

The story of an unknown team from a small Finnish town may not seem a headline-grabbing accomplishment, but the local coverage signals a subtle shift in how the wider public is beginning to perceive women’s and girls’ football.

Rapid growth in junior girls' players

"Girls' football has been showing the biggest growth in new players joining over the past few years. And it's growing faster than boys' football," said Janne Ekman, chairman of FC Futura Juniors, the club to which the victorious girls' team belongs.

According to Ekman, just two years ago girls accounted for a modest 10 percent of the club's junior players. Today, they represent 30 percent of juniors. Before that, girls had clearly lagged behind their brothers in taking up the sport.

Behind the apparent lack of interest Ekman says, is a scarcity of media attention and of resources. "In spite of the equality here in Finland, there isn't as much resourcing for girls' and women's football. There is also less media attention so girls don't see as many role models," he added.

All the same Ekman's experience of growing interest in the sport among girls is also reflected at the national level.

Sari Tuunainen, a spokesperson for Finland’s national women’s team affectionately known as "Helmarit" or "Pearl Owls", says that while the situation could be better, support for women's and girls' football has improved and more new players are joining the ranks nationwide.

"The number of girls with "pelipassit" (player's cards) has grown from 20,000 when Finland qualified for the first Euro final in 2005, to 26,000 now," she explained.

Media and money decisive factors

Tuunainen also conceded media attention can play a crucial role in highlighting potential sporting heroes for young enthusiasts and consequently helping to develop the sport.

"The Finnish media are more success-oriented. Now that we are in the finals we get more attention. When we are not winning, then we may be forgotten," she added wryly.

Finland's pearls will take on the cream of the European women's football crop in Sweden from July 10 - 28, where they will face the formidable Italians in their first fixture.

Andrée Jeglertz, head coach and manager of Finland’s national women's team, said that while the situation has improved, the media need to change attitudes towards the women’s sport.

"There needs to be more coverage, not just of the major international games, but of the local league games in the newspapers and on television," he declared.

As with other sports, money also tends to follow the media. And sports that have less media coverage also tend to have less money. Jeglertz noted that while the Finnish Football Association (Palloliitto) has come a long way in terms of financial support for the "pink" sport, more needs to be done at the local level.

"Clubs still struggle to get financial support from sponsors. The main thing would be to build up the clubs so they can get people who can seek out sponsors," he said.

Back in Porvoo, Janne Ekman of FC Futura Juniors agrees that inadequate resourcing can harm a club's ability to provide programmes for interested children.

"We have put off introducing a daycare "futis" programme because we were afraid we wouldn't have sufficient facilities to provide playing time for the kids. Porvoo suffers from a lack of grounds for the sport," he explained.

Ekman said that the club has been in ongoing negotiations with local authorities to try and improve the situation.

Football a viable profession for women too

Jeglertz, who played professional football and managed clubs in Sweden before teaming up with Finland's Helmarit in 2009, said that he has been pleased to see more girls getting out on to the football field in recent years.

He attributes the creeping movement to a growing understanding that like men's soccer, women's football can offer professional opportunities for gifted and dedicated players.

"In Finland many still see football as a hobby and not as a job. But more people are understanding that you can become a professional player and this was not the case before," he added.

He added that one important channel to further develop the girls' sport and to provide a constant stream of talent for the senior level game, would be for local clubs to develop semi-professional players.

"They could then play football professionally a certain number of days per week, and then have another job or go to school for the rest of the time," he proposed.

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