ZURICH: This [March 8] is International Women’s Day – falling a coincidental five days after the lawmnakers of football’s International Board approved in principle a change of heart which will open up the game for many thousands of women across the Islamic world.

The use of the headscarf will be permitted for Muslim women players at international level from July – health and safety assessments permitting.

Independently, FIFA president Sepp Blatter offered football’s supp0rt for the concept of the slogan Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures from the internationalwomensday.com website.

He said: “If there is one thing in the world that connects people from the most disparate countries and cultures, it is football. This applies to women just as much as it does to men.

“Last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany connected women across the globe around women’s football more than ever before, while our Live Your Goals campaign aimed to inspire women and girls to participate in the sport with help from the many excellent role models provided by today’s players.”

In an interview with FIFA.com, Blatter added:

“Sport, and football in particular, has played an important role in the emancipation of women right from the very beginning and continues to do so today. In this sense, women’s football has a stronger social dimension than the men’s game and women players and fans relate to the game differently.

“This does not diminish the women’s football as a purely sporting contest; on the contrary, it enhances it. This is something that FIFA is aware of and we are committed to helping to achieve the social goals of women’s football, such as creating equal opportunities – whether in football or in other walks of life.

“But of course we can always do more, and that is what makes it so thrilling to work in football – the game’s potential is endless.”

Concretely, what and how much is FIFA doing to help women’s football to develop?

“In addition to providing direct financial support to the member associations and confederations, FIFA provides a range of women’s football development programmes and organises both youth and senior women’s football competitions.

“In fact, we have the same tournament structure for men as for women at youth level (Under-17, Under-20), just as we have an equal structure for the annual awards for the best player (male and female football) and coach. Indeed, this year alone we have the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament in London, the Under-20 World Cup in Japan and the Under-17 World Cup in Azerbaijan.

“The tournament in Azerbaijan is a great opportunity to expand the women’s game and take it to new horizons, while the competition in Japan will build on the game’s growing popularity following the Japanese women’s thrilling triumph in Germany last year.

“The programmes we offer cover all areas of football development – competitions, management, education and promotion – and are available to all member associations.

“In addition, the member associations have to spend at least 15 per cent of their financial assistance from FIFA on women’s football. In this regard, it is important for member associations to embrace this regulation and use it to employ dedicated staff to take the game forward in their country. The great strides countries have made in recent years serve as an excellent example for others to follow.

Last year, the FIFA Women’s World Cup was a real success in terms of crowds and TV audience, but it has been also a real jump in terms of football quality. Do you agree and does that mean FIFA is going in the right direction?

“Definitely. We said before the event that the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germanywould be the best ever and that proved to be the case. On the pitch, there was a vast improvement in the standard of the football of the 16 participating teams, who produced a series of close encounters and the lowest goal average in Women’s World Cup history.

“This closing of the gap in quality meant that three quarter-final matches went into extra time as well as the final, producing real drama for the spectators, as I witnessed myself in the stadium. Even newcomers to the tournament such as Colombia and Equatorial Guinea showed no fear when coming up against their more illustrious opponents.

“The media attention and TV viewership figures were also spectacular, with for example more TV viewers in Germanyfor the German women’s national team matches at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup than for the German men’s team at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. This would have been unthinkable before.”

For the next FIFA Women’s World Cup, there will be eight more teams, which is an indication of the game’s development. But is there still a long way to go for women’s football at club and domestic level?

“It is vital to establish women’s football at club level, because clubs provide football’s foundation. If you take Africa for example, there is a lack of women’s clubs and leagues, which means that there is a lack of competition, and you need competition to improve your level of play.

“t is therefore important for member associations and confederations to use the support we provide to assist clubs and leagues. It is also important for men’s clubs to show solidarity with the women’s game by supporting women’s teams and allowing them to share their technical facilities and staff, as is done at European clubs like Lyon, Arsenal and Wolfsburg. Having said that, some of the best European clubs are women-only.

What would you say are the keys to ensure women’s football can make the step up from amateurism to professionalism?

“As I said before, I think the first step is to ensure that the women’s club game takes root across the world before considering the step up for amateurism to professionalism. Having said that, there is a professional league in the USA, although it has been suspended for 2012, and a semi-professional league in England and other associations, so clearly professionalism is a realistic goal for some countries. At the same time, it is important for the more advanced countries to share their experiences with others at events such as the Women’s Football Symposium.

“In this regard, I would again encourage the men’s clubs to get involved. For example, some clubs employ women players on their staff, thus enabling them to earn a living and focus on playing at the same time. I also firmly believe that women’s football has the potential to attract sponsorship and eventually stand on its own – you only have to look at the commercial success of the Women’s World Cup in Germany, which made a gross profit for the LOC of €10 million.”

A lot of girls still have to listen to negative comments about their playing football, what would be your message to these girls and to those who are making such comments?

“My message to those girls is play on, that you are part of the proud history of women’s football dating back a hundred years and FIFA is here to support you and help you achieve your goals. The people who make such comments must remember that women’s football is nothing new and flourished in countries such as England in the 1920s, with matches being played in front of crowds of over 20,000.

“During the First World War, women’s teams played matches to raise money for wounded soldiers, so it is important for the critics to show more respect and understanding for the achievements of the women’s game both on and off the pitch. We men, as fathers, husbands and brothers, should try harder to pay the women back for the solidarity they showed us in the past.”

There is a common wish to increase the number of women in key positions in football, like in every major institution. Will FIFA modify its statutes and push for positive discrimination?

“I think I made my position clear at the FIFA Congress 2011 when I asked if the member associations would agree to a provision being made in the statutes for a co-opted female member on the Executive Committee in future, which I am happy to say the Congress greeted with acclaim.

“This is one of many issues being considered by our reform bodies and for now it is important to allow the Task Forces to continue with their work and allow our reform process to run its course.”

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From FIFA via FIFA.com

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