The global development of women’s football – a review of the strategies being implemented by FIFA, UEFA and in Italy

Published 23 April 2019 By: Lucio Mazzei

Women's Football

In recent years we have witnessed an unprecedented and perhaps unexpected rise in women’s football1 worldwide with participation increasing, new competitions2 emerging and viewing figures growing year-on-year. Despite some criticism, FIFA and UEFA on the whole appear to appreciate the importance of empowering this movement and support it with several programs like the FIFA Women’s Football Commercial Programme and UEFA Women’s Football Development Programme, which aim to make women’s football more competitive, sustainable and appealing. Many national football associations, like the Italian FIGC (the author’s home association), are also following suit and carrying out reforms to try to reduce the gap between the men’s and women’s game and help women to play football in a more professional context.

This article provides a high-level overview of the strategies being implemented by FIFA and UEFA to promote the development of the women’s game, before turning to look at the progress being made in Italy.

FIFA’s strategies to develop women’s football

There is an uneasy tension in the development of women's football. The game has undoubtedly made vast strides in recent years at every level. That said, it still significantly lags behind the men’s game in almost every respect, and there has been vocal criticism over equality and working conditions, in particular from FIFPro, the global player’s union3.

FIFA’s position in relation to the Women’s World Cup captures this dynamic. In October 2018, FIFA announced4 that they would (among other measures) double the prize money available to US$30 million, to be split between the 24 teams taking part at next years’ tournament in France, and would grant clubs financial rewards for the participation of their players in the competition for the first time.

Despite the progressive nature of the announcement, the implementations have still been met with criticism5 from parties including FIFPro, individual players and national governing bodies, with the additional funding not viewed as sufficiently far-reaching and undermining their statutory commitment to equality. To put it in perspective, the men’s World Cup was awarded a 12 per cent rise, taking the overall prize money to US$400 million – a gender gap of US$370 million. The winner of the men’s tournament in 2018 received US$38 million, whereas the winning nation of next year’s women’s competition will earn just US$4 million.

It is against this backdrop that FIFA published a report dated 9 October 2018 and entitled “Women’s Football Strategy6", initiating a strategy for the growth of women's football with the aim of communicating and marketing the game more effectively. In the report, FIFA expressed its intention of working with stakeholders across the board to adopt concrete measures for women and girls and to ensure that football becomes a sport open to all, without any gender discrimination. These measures can be summarized in five main points:

  1. Promoting the growth of the game both on and off the field with development programs, elite academies for women's football and football in schools, in addition to increasing the number of qualified instructors and referees.

  1. Improving women's competitions by redefining the qualifying stages for the World Cup, creating new international competitions and improving the structure of professional clubs with a target of 1 billion of viewers for the 2023 Women's World Cup.

  1. Promoting the image of the best female football players, thereby increasing their reputation, together with that of the women’s game on the whole.

  1. Encouraging equality between men and women, ensuring that women have a role in decision-making bodies.

  1. Educating and empowering women, by using football as a means to draw public attention to concrete social and health problems by collaborating with NGOs to implement sustainable projects that improve women’s lives.

With the adoption of the Women’s Football Strategy, FIFA seeks to double the number of female players by 2026 to 60 million, raise the standards of women’s football clubs and leagues across all member associations, and double the number of member associations that have organized youth leagues by 2026 in order to address the dropout rate and sustain girls’ participation in football. In the shorter term, the objective is to ensure that by 2022, all FIFA member associations have developed comprehensive football strategies and that there will be a greater cooperation, education and advocacy for women’s football between FIFA, the confederations and member associations.

In the author’s view it is indispensable that women are involved in the football decision-making at the highest levels. It is therefore especially pleasing to see that one of the main objectives of the report is to establish a women’s commercial programme (see page 15), the main objectives of which are to:

  • ensure that by 2022, at least one third of FIFA committee members will be women

  • ensure that by 2026, all FIFA member associations will have at least one woman present on their executive committees, with every member association dedicating at least one seat on its executive committee to represent the interests of women in football and women’s football.

  • enhance the commercial value of women’s football shaping new revenue streams and optimizing existing ones around women’s events;

In this regard, the author is of the view that FIFA would do well to take the following steps as an important means towards successfully professionalising the women’s game:

  1. Incorporating the club licensing system, in line with male standards, as a development tool to raise the standards of clubs and leagues.

  1. Introducing training compensation and a solidarity mechanism for women. As it is well-known, these two systems have been designed to reward and encourage academies for developing players and they would be of vital importance for the majority of academies which contribute to the development of women football players as well as it already happens with men’s one.

  1. Increasing the number of qualified female coaches working in the game by creating easier pathways to gain qualifications and employment opportunities. This will help accelerate development at all levels.

  1. Regularly publishing a report charting the development of women’s professional football.

  1. Ensuring that women can use the same facilities and structures as men (and in this sense the author approves the decision taken by big clubs to begin to invest in their female teams).

It is hoped that the Women’s Football Strategy will go a long way towards developing the women’s game globally. In the author’s view, the addition of the points above will help to increase the overall desirability of “women’s football” as a product, making it more appealing and interesting for fans, generating a positive feedback loop as more revenue flows into the space.

How UEFA is promoting women’s football at European level

In October 2018, UEFA also announced7 its own measures to support the growth of women’s football. This included increasing its financial support. Under the UEFA HatTrick assistance programme, which distributes funds to its 55 federations for approved projects, the UEFA women's football development program (WFDP) will increase its funding to each federation by 50%, from 100,000 to 150,000 Euros.

The HatTrick Program is financed8 with the profits of the UEFA European Championship and has reinvested over 1.8 billion euros since its introduction after UEFA Euro 2004. The project has, among other things, helped federations to build national technical centres and invest in basic projects to grow football at all levels.

UEFA's action comes in support of the Women In Football "#WhatIf" campaign, an initiative launched recently with the aim of changing the attitude towards women working in football. Aleksander Ceferin, president of UEFA, stated in this regard:

"The potential of women's football is unlimited and that is why UEFA has moved to increase the funds available to the national federations, in order to help improve the movement female all over the continent”.9

Nadine Kessler, head of the women's football movement within UEFA, added:

"The pace of growth of this sport is impressive and our growing investments clearly show how committed we are to accelerate. We are preparing to face the next challenges and reach new goals. The popularity of women's football is on the rise, with the 2017 European Championship recording an audience of 178 million viewers worldwide, as well as a record number of stadium attendances of over 240,000 fans".10

Furthermore, UEFA has announced11 a historic long-term partnership agreement with Visa, the international payments company, which is the first ever UEFA sponsor exclusively dedicated to women's football. The agreement will help to support women's football at all levels. Visa will become the main partner12 of the UEFA Women's Champions League, UEFA Women's EURO, the UEFA Under 19 and U17 Women's Championships and the UEFA Women's Futsal EURO until 2025, as well as the #WePlayStrong UEFA marketing platform, which aims to engage more and more girls and women in the world of football.

The #WePlayStrong YouTube channel13 has been created to cultivate the growing community of girl and women football players and fans, encouraging more to feel proud to play and feel inspired by showcasing confidence and togetherness. UEFA has recruited some of the biggest names in women’s football to form what it calls the “content creator squad14” for the channel. The channel offers a variety of original content, focusing on themes such as daily insights into players’ routines, funny challenges, beauty and style content, and health and fitness advice, as well as providing a platform for inspiring women and players across Europe, who love football, to share their experiences of the beautiful game.

#WePlayStrong has already achieved considerable success through its collaboration with the world pop star Rita Ora on its European tour and has received almost six million views in the Press Play vlogs, a content series in which some of the best professional soccer players in Europe tell of their everyday life, considering that players like Ada Hegerberg, Lieke Martens and Pernille Harder have become world icons and models to follow for girls from all over Europe.

In March of this year, UEFA also announced15 that it was joining forces with the well-known sportswear brand, Nike, to further fuel this growth by signing a three-year agreement. As an official partner of the UEFA women's football league, Nike will be the supplier of the official match balls, including the Champions League and the Euro 2021 women's championship.

The development of women’s football in Italy

Finally, we move to the progress being made in Italy. Italians have historically viewed the women’s game with degree of scepticism ("not suitable for young ladies", stated famous Pro Vercelli Midfielder Guido Ara in 1908). This is perhaps linked to the society’s patriarchal outlook, which women’s football, among other aspects of Italian culture, is affected by. In recent times, however, it is pleasing to see that the situation seems to have changed, significantly.

The interest in the women’s football is growing, as evidenced by the large following of important international events, such as the last FIFA Women's World Cup and Champions League and from the acquisition of the TV Rights for the Women’s Italia Serie A from Sky Sports. In fact, Italy is definitively aligning itself with the other European countries that are at the forefront of women’s football like Holland, France and England if we consider that the number of female athletes registered with the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) currently totals 23,000 and the number is increasing constantly (up 80% from 201316). Just this month, the Juventus stadium sold out for Juventus vs. Fiorentina, where 40,000 fans turned out to watch the decisive match for the Scudetto, breaking all the past records of attendance in Italian women’s football17.

8 September 2018 will remain a historic date for Italian women's football, with CONI (the Italian Olympic Committee) officially mandating18 that women’s football be managed by FIGC rather than the LND (Association of Italian Amateur Football), as was earlier the case. This represented a further step away from amateurism and towards professionalization, which first started in 2015 when FIGC gave professional men’s clubs the option to buy a women’s team provided they assumed the obligation for its debts and held its shares. The women’s teams were permitted to use the name, logo and branding of the men’s clubs that acquired them (Lazio and Fiorentina were the first two Italian clubs to take this decision). Moreover, FIGC imposed on all Serie A and Serie B clubs a requirement to grant membership to a determined number of women athletes, and to compete in various tournaments, especially at youth level, with female teams. In fact, one of the requisites for professional football teams being admitted to take part to the Italian First Division and Second Division is to ensure with a written declaration provided by the Club’s Lawyer that they would enrol at least 40 women football players Under 12 and to create an Under 16 Team (Allieve Nazionali) and Under 14 Team (Giovanissime Nazionali).

In addition to this, last year FIGC spent €4.2 million on the development of women’s football, which demonstrates a desire to improve the game, even if they are still some way behind other European contribution (England €15.4 million; France €9.9 million; Norway €7.7 million; and Sweden €5.7 million).

It is hoped that these decisions will help to change the mentality towards the status of women in football, while creating a wave of reform in women’s sport in general, where many female athletes are still considered as amateurs. This approach is linked to the anachronistic Law 91 of 1981 which in Article 2 states

athletes, coaches, technical - sports directors and athletic trainers who carry out sports activities for consideration, with continuity in the disciplines regulated by the CONI and who qualify by the Federations, are professional athletes; National Sportsmen, according to the norms issued by the Federations themselves, with the observance of the directives established by the CONI for the distinction of the amateur activity from the professional one19.

The legislator preferred to regulate sports at a higher level, allowing national federations to decide whether its athletes were considered professionals or not. Actually, only four Associations in Italy recognize their athletes as professionals and they are FIGC (Football), FCI (Cycling), FIP (Golf) and FIP (Basketball), considering that motorcycling and boxing have renounced their professionalism respectively in 2011 and in 2013.

Almost 40 years after the entry into force of this law, however, CONI has not yet clarified what distinguishes a professional activity from an amateur one, and this lack of clarity has led to serious discrimination over the years, penalizing many athletes, in particular women. The paradoxical result is that many female athletes who spend the same amount of time as their male colleagues in the gym or on the playing fields are not, despite the same dedication and commitment, recognized as “professionals20.

The discrimination does not end there – amateur athletes are unable to command a monthly salary, but only a reimbursement of expenses. Moreover, they do not receive the benefit of health insurance policy, unless subscribed to personally. Therefore, in the event of an accident/ injury, the costs of treatment and rehabilitation are borne solely by the athlete. Amateur athletes are not entitled to make pension contributions and not afforded state-sponsored protection in the event of maternity and invalidity so the only possibility to go on with their career is to joining the army or the navy where they can train every day and have at the same time a remuneration.

To make matters worse, amateur athletes are often subject to "anti-pregnancy" clauses21 in their contracts, providing for its automatic termination in the event of maternity. It is no wonder then, that the decision to professionalise Italian women’s football was met with many plaudits, having addressed the many discriminatory aspects of amateur status with a progressive policy decision.

It is the author’s hope that FIFA and UEFA, together with their National Member Associations, will respect the promises and achieve the goals expressed in their respective programmes and that the evolution of women’s football becomes a driving force for the equality of rights and pay world-over.

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Lucio Mazzei

Lucio Mazzei is a trainee lawyer specialized in Sports Law. He graduated in Law at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy with a thesis on “The professional footballer’s contract”.

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