Former minnows reeling in the elite

2012 was a big year for women’s football, with three major tournaments showcasing the senior and youth ability at the disposal of a huge range of nations, and providing compelling evidence of rapid change and positive developments in the sport.

As an example, the most junior France side emulated the senior team’s heady ascent, even going one better by ending Asian dominance at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Azerbaijan. The vital importance of youth international tournaments in bringing on and honing future generations of senior stars was underlined by Pia Sundhage, former USA and current Sweden boss, when she spoke to at the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala.

“It’s very different from when I started to play, which was admittedly a very long time ago,” Sundhage reflected. “Everything is so much better now. The fact we have World Cups, the Olympics and European Championships not only for the full team, but also for the U-17 and the U-20, is very, very important. I remember back in the good old days they used to say, ‘Ok, you can start to play, and by all means have some fun with the ball.’ But we wanted to compete, and we wanted competitions. And now we do compete, and that’s why everything has developed so fast,” said the 52-year-old, who guided the US to Olympic gold last summer.

“Let me give you an example. When I played in 1995, I was a sweeper. But just look at the way teams defend nowadays, it’s totally different. It’s all happening so fast. If I took a five-year break and tried to come back, I would be old and out of date. I need to keep up with everything that’s happening in the women’s game, because it changes so fast.”

Changing times

Events at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™ and at the London Olympics last summer fully support the seasoned coach’s argument. The days when teams would rattle up double-figure victories at major tournaments seem to be over, as Olympic gold medallist Abby Wambach confirmed.

“I’ve been involved at the national team level for over ten years now. I’ve seen the game take so many giant strides, including the actual play itself,” Wambach told “The top-level teams aren’t as far ahead as they used to be. The teams that haven’t had the funding and the time to play together are getting more funding and more time together. Everyone is getting better, and women around the world have more opportunities. That means soccer is simply getting better. The gap between the top teams and the lesser teams is smaller and smaller by the day. Gone are the days of routinely beating teams four, five or six-nil at the World Cup and the Olympics. It’s very rare now,” the robust striker said.

Brazil superstar Marta, the third player shortlisted for the FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year award along with USA pair Wambach and Alex Morgan, agreed with her North American counterpart.

She said: “I feel women’s football is changing year after year. You can tell by watching different competitions, where some teams you usually wouldn’t expect to get through the group stage actually do so. The national teams are investing a lot more and they’re much better prepared for the big tournaments.”

However, the 26-year-old feels there are still vast reserves of untapped potential, and offered a suggestion for the road ahead: “What we need now is more leagues and more competitions in many countries, to promote development in a positive and progressive way.”