During my discussion with UEFA’s Karen Espelund at the Leaders in Football conference last Thursday things were getting more complicated as they were getting clearer.
I was trying to understand again why so few women were involved in football.
I had asked UEFA’s first female executive member whether more women needed to be elected by football bodies like UEFA or if women should be encouraged into the game at the grassroots, i.e. by playing.
Espelund said it was a combination of both. It felt like a problematic truth.
Perhaps it is only by grasping the complexity of this issue that we can begin to understand why, in Espelund’s words, “International football is still a man’s world”.
The need for changes at both the top and bottom, and perhaps through the middle too, explain why progress has been so slow.
Espelund is one of the only trailblazers for women in football administration. She was lucky enough to be welcomed at grassroots level as a player and then helped at the top. It is undoubtedly a combination few women get to experience.
At the age of 27, Espelund was employed by the Norwegian FA simply because the law dictated a woman should be there.
This was a start – the rest was up to her.
While this is a personal reason for Espelund to back the quota system, there is a more general reason to support it.
“The quota system needs to be used when an institution is conservative. These old fashioned institutions need tools to open up a different type of competence,” said Espelund.
Espelund demonstrates the importance of help from the top, but the grassroots level is crucial. For this is where women should be flowing into the game, not getting stuck.
The reason why Espelund entered an intimidating male-dominated world is because she loved playing football and wants to protect a young girl’s right to play.
It is a simple desire.
Almost getting there
“The media should play a crucial part to stimulate women’s football at the grassroots level, but it doesnt always. And it is important to question why. “
The media should play a crucial part to stimulate women’s football at the grassroots level, but it doesn’t always.
And it is important to question why.
After last year’s Leaders in Football conference, I asked event Chairman and former FA exec David Davies why there were no female speakers. He was regretful but said there were few women at the top of the sport.
At this year’s Leaders in Football conference, there were two women speakers. Espelund herself and the first female on the English FA board, personable businesswoman Heather Rabbatts.
It was a small improvement.
There were also more female journalists in attendance and more men speaking of issues that concerned women, whether this was the recent hijab issue or the success of Japan’s team at the last World Cup.
As the media pack gathered around Rabbatts it was clear her views were not being dismissed because of her gender. For once I did not mind being bruised by an aggressive cameramen jostling for the best position.
It is not just in the FA and UEFA where women are finally finding themselves part of the agenda. After Britain’s new culture secretary Maria Miller wrote a letter directly to the BBC asking them to treat women’s sport more fairly, their coverage has shifted.
BBC Two covered England’s crucial Euro qualifier against Croatia and the BBC Sport website has branched out to cover women stories. Only yesterday young England player Sophie Bradley spoke of how she still had a day job, something Ryan Giggs and the men’s team found hard to come to terms with when they met her.
However, instead of being angry about this inequality, Bradley laughed about it.
Perhaps she is on to something. Maybe resentment only gets women so far.
After all, as Espelund told me, there are more reasons to be positive.
“UEFA have introduced a development programme that includes what clubs, associations and UEFA should be doing. UEFA started by appointing me, as an example to other governing bodies.”
“The FIFA Executive Committee (ExCo) have also appointed a woman into referees committee for the first time. Progress is being made”.
But what about investing money into the women’s game?
“Over the next four years, we are investing 22 million euros into developing women and girl’s game. Each association will also have 100,000 euros each year for four years but they have to set up a development plan. Also 75 per cent of UEFA association members are focusing on grassroots because that’s where investment works.”
Yes, we are back to grassroots, again.
Thankfully, grassroots football has already received a welcome boost from the London Olympic Games.
The GB women’s football team were supported by 70,000 people at Wembley and it is likely the game resulted in more girls signing up to their local clubs.
“We need to build on the momentum from the Olympics,” said Espelund.
“But this shouldn’t just be left to the women’s clubs but is something the FA needs to keep pushing.”
Heather Rabbatts and Espelund are in the perfect position to ensure this happens. They are two of the few women who have had the balls to succeed in this male-driven world.
And until they are joined by other women, who are encouraged from the top, bottom or both, they are the best shot we have to change the status quo.
But heck, it is not an easy game.
Joanna Tilley is a freelance journalist working with Al Jazeera on the Sport website.