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Apr 12, 2011

Opportunity knocks for women's game

It is rare indeed that the sporting juggernaught that is men's football finds itself off the agenda, but the summer of 2011 will be a fallow one. With no World Cup or European Championships, and 12 months to go before the Olympics, instead it is the women's game that is jostling for recognition with a World Cup finals in Germany.

Given that context, the Football Association hopes that the summer of 2011 is viewed retrospectively as a decisive one in England. Women's football has identified a gap in the market. As well as the World Cup, England also witnesses on Wednesday the launch of the FA Women's Super League [WSL] - a revamped division of eight clubs which will operate during the summer months and replace the FA Women's Premier League. Furthermore, the Champions League final will also be held at Fulham's Craven Cottage on May 26.

It is no wonder that an opportunity has been sensed, a chance to grasp attention spotted. Parallels are being drawn with the UEFA Women's Championship of 2005 that was held in England and attracted substantial media attention, as well as very healthy crowds for the home country. A player like Karen Carney, whose last-minute winner in England's opening game against Finland has become iconic in the women's game, saw her profile increase dramatically. It was a trend reflected in interest in the game at all levels.

Though as yet there has been no announcement regarding domestic television coverage of this summer's competition in Germany, England manager Hope Powell hopes to see another expansion of the women's game following the World Cup.

"We got the message out there [in 2005], people recognised that women's football does exist and actually, it's not that bad to watch," Powell tells ESPNsoccernet. "There was a real swell in interest and as a result of that, leading into 2007 and the World Cup as well, we became the highest participation female sport in the country, and that isn't an accident.

"I think if we get good television coverage of the World Cup, historically what has happened when we have seen England teams on telly is that we have seen a real surge in young girls that want to play the game, and hopefully this will be no different."

Powell, of course, has contributed greatly to the evolution of the women's game herself. Appointed in 1998, she became the first woman to achieve the UEFA Pro License and took England to a record high of eighth in the global rankings following a defeat to Germany in the final of the 2009 European Championship.

As the women's game stands on the cusp of what could be a vital summer, Powell is not ready to rest on her laurels.

"I think [the game] is in a better place than it has ever been, historically," Powell says. "I played and have been involved in the England set-up in this role now for 12 years. I think Germany will put on a fantastic tournament, arguably second to none, and so we have a lot to look forward to.

"We just have to continue to work, year in, year out, to make sure the game is promoted, received, the produce is good and keep the profile high and get a really good product at the end of it ... I think the momentum that we generate here, the interest, the media attention, we have to keep that momentum going."

The responsibility for helping the game to grow is not one that the England players take lightly, especially a veteran such as Faye White, who has seen the complexion of women's football change enormously over recent years.

"I have always felt that [pressure], personally, because I started when we were a team who never beat anyone," she says. "There was no expectation, no interest, but yet you always willed for it to get to a level where you would have that. I think the expectation is the same really. You have got to look at it in a positive way and use it to say, 'there is all this support and they want us to do well, so let's go out and do it'.

"Nothing captures the nation like a World Cup does. It unites everyone, and we certainly hope we can get an experience of what that feels like, and I have seen that in each tournament we have played in, the coverage keeps getting bigger and better ... you have to be successful and you have to deserve to get that coverage."

In the 5-11 age group, football has already overtaken netball as the biggest girls' sport in the country, but structural issues have hindered the development of the game at the elite level. It is hoped the new WSL will address these issues.

Its summer schedule has been designed specifically to attract more families on days and evenings where the weather is far more conducive to a trip out, as well as courting sponsors during a hiatus in the men's calendar. Warmer weather should also guard against excessive cancellations, which have plagued the current league over the winter months, while narrowing the focus to eight teams, placed strategically around the country, is expected to increase competition and prevent a side like Arsenal attaining virtually complete dominance, as they have done in recent seasons.

The league commences on April 13 and will break in order to accommodate the World Cup, meaning the new competition has the perfect chance to absorb a new audience on the back of England's potential exploits in Germany.

It comes as little surprise, then, that the FA's director of football development, Sir Trevor Brooking, recognises the women's game could be approaching an important juncture in its history in England.

"We are excited about how the women's game has developed and for us, not only is this summer a great platform, but of course in a year's time we host the Olympics where a women's team would seem to be taking part for the first time as well," Brooking says. "We see the next couple of summers as a big platform for us to promote the women's game ... I think the next two or three years are very important for us to try and cement and capitalise on the growth we have had."

Hope Powell, Faye White and Sir Trevor Brooking were speaking at an event organised by the German National Tourist Office to promote the World Cup finals taking place in the country. For more details visit the Facebook page.

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