Ada Hegerberg, Alex Morgan, Lieke Martens, Lucy Bronze – as the fortunes of women’s football continue to rise, so does the profile of its leading players.
In a world where calls for gender equality grow increasingly louder in all aspects of our lives, the current wave of feminism is having a big impact of sport in general, and football in particular.
More young girls now wear club shirts with the names of their favourite female stars emblazoned proudly on the back, where once it would have been their male counterparts.
As the women’s game grows, aspiring female footballers can look up to those players as role models for who and what they want to be.
Many of Europe’s leading clubs are now taking big steps forward in terms of nurturing and developing young players who can make it to the top in women’s football.
The likes of FC Barcelona’s Claudia Pina (born in 2001) and Manchester City’s Georgia Stanway (born in 1999) are part of a new generation being given opportunities to shine at the highest level.
Carlota Benet recently signed her first professional contract at Pallejà, who play in the Spanish Women’s Super League 2.
The 17-year-old told me: “Young girls now see football as a unisex game, and more of them are deciding they want to be part of a team. Little by little, women’s football is becoming a mass sport in its own right.
“When people get involved in this kind of things and society sees it, it creates a push towards investment in new projects to help its development, and this is giving women’s football the push it needs towards becoming more professional.”
The recent Under-17 Women’s World Cup, hosted by Uruguay, offered a reflection on how women’s football is improving and growing in stature on the global stage.
It showcased the talents of young players from around the world, none more so than Barcelona’a Pina, who inspired Spain to become world champions for the first time in this age category, beating Mexico 2-1 in the final, and played great football throughout the tournament.
Pina’s amazing skills and growing maturity have already seen her jump into Barca’s first team to play alongside established internationals such as Toni Duggan or Lieke Martens.
As well as skippering Spain to success in Uruguay, the 17-year-old was also crowned player of the tournament and was its second top scorer behind Mukarama Abdulai of Ghana.
Benet added: “Some years ago, when talking about the Spanish women’s national team, they could not be compared to the likes of Japan or the USA, but now the footballers here are seen as professionals with a really well-developed background, and they can make their mark on today’s game.
“To see Spain U17s beating the former world champions North Korea on their way to winning the tournament gives our football a chance to succeed.”
She is not wrong. With France hosting the World Cup next summer, the spotlight in women’s football is now firmly on Europe.
Increasingly, the world’s best players are joining the continent’s leading clubs, and Europe’s most exciting young talents are pursuing their dreams at home, instead of heading for the United States and its well-funded college sports system.
The organisations and clubs are making big improvements, although there is still a lot left to be done.
For example, just as football finally got round to creating a Ballon d’Or award for the best female player, its first recipient, Ada Hegerberg, was left embarrassed at the ceremony.
The 23-year-old Olympique Lyon and Norway striker was asked by the host, DJ Martin Solveig, if she knew how to twerk.
His attempt at humour was widely criticised as pathetic and ridiculous, but it only served to show how that the fight against sexism in football is far from over.
After the ceremony, Hegerberg did her best to leave the controversy behind, saying: “I’m extremely proud to win this trophy. This is a reward for all the hard work the team puts in. Today is a very emotional day. It’s historic. It was a big night for women’s football.”
Surely, the 2019 Women’s World Cup is the perfect opportunity to show the world how far the women’s game has come, particularly in Europe, and why its players deserve to have the same rights and be treated with equal respect.
Benet summed things up: “Germany, England or Spain are now top national teams. Girls no longer have international players from outside Europe as their idols, but ones from here.
“It makes me so happy to see a girl wearing a Fran Kirby or Alexia Putellas shirt. But it would make me so much happier if women’s games attracted the same level of attendance as men’s, if female players could earn the same amount of money, or if they could have the same rights as all professional athletes.”
Yes, big improvements have been made, but women’s football still has some way to go to achieve its full potential as a global sport on a par with the men’s game.