NICOLA ABERCROMBIE / AIPS Young Reporters* / BAKU:  After enjoying a record women’s World Cup at Germany 2011, maintaining the top quality standard of play is the biggest challenge ahead of the 2015 tournament in Canada says FIFA women’s football development manager Mayi Cruz Blanco.

The World Cup will increase from 16 to 24 teams in 2015 for the first time at any FIFA women’s event.

Speaking to AIPS Young Reporters inBaku,Azerbaijanon Monday during the U-17 Women’s World Cup, Blanco said the quality of the eight extra teams would have to be top notch to attract support inCanada, which is not a traditional footballing nation.

Germany 2011 was a record-breaking event for women’s football Blanco said, but it had the advantage of a nation passionate about the game.

“There were two to three thousand accredited journalists at the World Cup and games were broadcast live,” she said. “There was about 50m in total TV viewers. It was really a record when it comes to women’s football.

“There were also about 800,000 spectators at the stadia with an average of 26,000 per match – and these were not double headers, that is important to know. These were single matches.”

Germany 2011 was also the first FIFA event outside the men’s World Cup to make a profit, bringing in around E54m.

The challenge for 2015, said Blanco, was to ensure the quality of the football remains at a high enough level to build on the progress made inGermany- “This is the biggest challenge for 2015, making as competitive as possible those teams who have the potential to qualify forCanada.”

Grassroots emphasis

Blanco said tournaments such as the U-17 World Cup were an important factor in ensuring this success.

FIFA places a strong emphasis on women’s grassroots football in order to develop players from a young age, through the age group tournaments and into their top national teams.

Blanco singled out the recent domination ofJapanin the women’s game as the perfect example of what a successful grassroots programme can achieve.

She said: “Japanhave really done a good job in the last 10 years at grassroots level and this is the key to their success. The assistant coach told me the U-17 side is better than the U-20s and the U-20s are better than the national team. The U-20s played against the senior team and they won.”

In 2008, FIFA launched their own grassroots programme and this year introduced a programme especially for girls which, said Blanco, was aimed at encouraging those from as young as 6-years-old to start playing football.

“Where possible and where religions and cultures allow, we really encourage girls and boys to play football as much as possible together; if a girl starts playing at 14, she has a lot of years to make up so they need to start earlier.

“We think that grassroots has a really strong link with further development.”

Blanco said she was excited by the progress women’s football has seen in the past decade, with 29m females now playing worldwide compared with 22m in 2000.

“You have so many great players who are now big, big players around the world. We want to show girls there are so many things that you can do through football, not only through playing but also for the future.”

** AIPS, the international sports media association, is running a Young Reporters course at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup with the co-operation of FIFA and supported by the Azeri Ministry of Youth & Sport

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