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Has Women’s football come of age?

Opinion and analysis
By Stephen Ignacio

Last week saw Gibraltar celebrate the achievements of a young female futsal team who made their debut in the Futsal Euro competition. This was the first international competitive match which women’s football had experienced since Gibraltar first entered UEFA as a member back in 2013.
For those who had not been following women’s football, many of those watching it seemed, there was deep surprise at the fact that a Gibraltar women’s team had taken on the might and experienced Belgium and not only taken them to a sudden death penalty shootout, but had also delivered a consistent, disciplined performance the next day during a friendly in which Belgium, even prepared for what they were going to face, could only come away with a respectable 3-1 win.
To those who have followed women’s football locally, seeing the players lining out for the national team and understanding the complexities of what is a small group of players who play across both futsal and eleven-a-side whilst many still cut across both the youth and senior categories, it came as no surprise.
Whilst some contemplated even a 25-0 victory for Belgium, as one observer commented before the match, others such as Paula Costa, a young player who also works with the national team technical side, a win for Gibraltar was very possible. For others who had watched women’s football regularly, reaching the next stage of the Futsal Euro competition was not a fantasy but an expectation, even knowing that the squad before them had little experience internationally. Yet those who believed in such a result where few in numbers.
On the court of play were among the best of Gibraltar’s female footballing talent. Unlike senior men’s football, to which the women’s game is continuously compared to Gibraltar women’s football is a young vibrant sport where it is the developing youth which is emerging without a large set of experience or veterans to fall back onto for support.
Whilst senior men’s football has been able to pull the young blood in slowly, in comparison to the female game, using the experience afforded by having a pool of players from pre-UEFA days from which to pull from as a stopgap, women’s football has not had the same luxury.
Instead removing the handful of veteran players, most of which had little football experience due to a lack of resources and competition, the players now emerging are young teenagers and young women in their early twenties who have been pushing forward the game mainly through their love of the game and their continued determination to become the foundations for its future development. And, although disputed by some, with greater resources becoming available as they develop.
Just last week Belgium faced players who were in their early teens and whose only international experience had been development tournaments or the rare futsal international against Northern Ireland back in 2019.
Yet these teens have slowly become the iconic image which generations after them will soon be looking to emulate. In the short years they have been involved in football, many of the players on the pitch have become a group of young talents inspiring even younger girls to take up the sport creating with them the generations to come of new upcoming talents.
Women’s football, is however, far from achieving its true pathway and it is not because of a lack of quality and talent but because of perceptions and ideologies.
Like women’s football across the globe Gibraltar’s players have many an obstacle to which they must climb, amongst which is to create the foundations which will one day see the sport treated as equals and not compared to the men’s game. These are the shackles holding back the development rather than the quality and commitment.
The Gibraltar futsal squad last week went a long way in creating a foundation block for the future. The determination, grit, and attitude of the players on the court transmitted an image which eradicated many a perception that women’s football was different from men’s football. The tackles, the shoves, the pushes, the grit, ferocity, and passion where just the same albeit it was female against female. The ambitions and sacrifices were all the same, yet very different for those on the field.
There were no monies due for playing, there was no mandatory press conferences before and after the match. There had been, however, six to eight weeks of intense training immediately after coming out from a lockdown. Training six days a week mostly late into the evening between nine and eleven at night. For many in the squad these were hours which although they freely accepted also meant that they would be juggling with their studies and work commitments, some knowing that they might not even make the final cut.
Yet none of these really were an issue either. The biggest sacrifices these players had made had already been laid down and imprinted into the history books. Years of playing in a development league which only had three teams until this year, in which initially eleven-a-side matches was not allowed, training for a national squad in which international fixtures were rare if any, training for a club in which a mid-week league fixture schedule meant that you might spend two weeks without playing already underlined their commitment. Their future in many cases dependent on friends or relatives seeking new routes for them outside Gibraltar or hoping for a rare glimpse from some rare scout watching any of their matches. Reaching the professional levels of football was still as far a distant dream for them as it had been for the men pre-UEFA.
It was not just the sacrifices of the players, but also for those building the blocks for the future that already existed. Protecting and developing the game at the same time was a balancing act few would cherish to have to be responsible for. For many it had been a poison chalice where ideologies on which way to head before taking the next step was always going to find its critics. Where even building and growing the numbers involved from a community which itself had already labelled football as a man’s sport was always going to be a challenge. Changing minds to win hearts to be rewarded with new members was something people were still trying to muster even in the biggest nations.
But it was decision made in 2019 which turned a page for Gibraltar’s female football history, a decision that provided confidence in the players ability to be thrown into the hot ambers of football and hope that they were ready to take on the challenge.
There was one reason for the sacrifices, for the efforts, and for the commitment. Those playing, and those behind the scenes building a future, had one thing in common with Gibraltar’s senior men’s football. They both have the same ambitions, to play at the highest stage of world football and become the best player they could possibly become. To win a World Cup if given a chance.
There was and still is one difference, whilst the men can hope and try and achieve this, Gibraltar’s women’s football has yet to be opened to such opportunities. The biggest difference being that whilst the shackles which are aimed at protecting the sport exist the opportunities of professional football will continue to be limited. A sport where money influences and pushes development such restrictions means that dreams of a World Cup will remain just dreams for some players. The question many players now ask is where and when will development take them further?
The biggest question football in general in Gibraltar should be asking itself is when will both be treated as equals and offered the same opportunities to succeed and fail as the other and can it afford to do so?

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