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Fitness goals... why football is the beautiful game for women

With the 2017 Uefa European Women’s Under-19 Championship in NI starting next Tuesday, Lauren Taylor on why more girls should be out on the pitch

In case it’s passed you by this summer, women’s football is a big deal right now. The Uefa Women’s Euro 2017 saw record numbers tuning in to watch the matches on Channel 4.

And with Northern Ireland playing host to the 2017 finals of the Uefa European Women’s Under-19 Championship from August 8-20 at the National Stadium at Windsor Park and other Irish League grounds, there is good reason for women here to get involved. Eight national teams, including us, will participate in the prestigious 16-day tournament for footballing glory.

England may have lost to Holland (who went on to win), but the Uefa game drew the biggest-ever UK audience for a women’s football match — and the Lionesses had an impressive run in the tournament. They smashed Scotland 6-0 in their opening game and Jodie Taylor scored the first hat-trick by an English footballer since Gary Lineker in 1986. The quarter-final saw their first victory over France in 43 years.

“To see such powerful, athletic and talented women performing on an international stage is nothing short of inspirational,” says Lisa Pearce, CEO of London FA, the first woman to hold the position.

It’s an exciting time for women’s football — and not just professionally. In the face of dated stereotypes that sadly still hang around, the likes of captain Steph Houghton, Jodie Taylor and Lucy Bronze campaign tirelessly to grow the profile of women’s football and drive participation at grassroots level.

But if you were never encouraged to play football as a child, donning a full strip and jumping on a full-sized football pitch for 90 minutes of dribbling, tackling and heading a football might seem like a pretty alien concept.

What football can do for your fitness

Running for 90 minutes, or even less in a five-a-side match, is always going to be good for anyone’s fitness, but the twists, turns, sprints, kicks and stop-start nature of the game have additional benefits.

“In a game of football, a distance of roughly 13km is covered, with around 15% of that distance covered at high speeds,” says Jonathan Hawkins, fitness adviser at Discount Supplements (www.discount-supplements.co.uk). “The stop-start nature of the game taxes the cardiovascular and endurance systems of the body similar to HIIT. For the average female, roughly 780 calories are burned in an average 90-minute match.”

A 2010 study by Copenhagen university, involving 50 researchers in seven countries, found football “provides a broad spectrum of health and fitness effects that are at least as pronounced as for running, and in some cases even better”. A study earlier this year by the same university also found that playing football two to three times a week is just as effective as tablets for countering high blood pressure in women. Professor Peter Krustrup told the Medical Press: “Football can rightly be described as effective and broad-spectrum medicine for women with high blood pressure.”

But how many women actually play?

Nearly three million women play some form of football in England. There are nearly 6,000 women and girls’ football clubs at the moment and the FA are aiming to double that by 2020, and this year there’s a big push to make that happen through recreational football opportunities and at club level.

Earlier this year Simone Magill, (22), from Magherafelt, became the first female footballer from here to sign full-time for a Premier League team, Everton proving girls have a future in the game.

Lisa says: “Women’s football is the fastest growing sport in the UK in terms of participation for a reason and there’s no easier sport that you can pick up and play.

“Whatever age or ability you are, all you need is a football and a free bit of grass area, even in the privacy of your back garden, and you can get going on the basics of the game.”

And the Lionesses are a big part of making it happen, says Kelly Simmons, the FA’s participation and development director.

“They’re really aware of how important their role in promoting the sport is. They all want this generation of girls to play and we know we have to break down barriers,” she says. “The players want to promote the sport in the right way. You very rarely see things you don’t want to see on the pitch — if they’re fouled, they get up straight away. If you were a parent, you’d think that’s a sport that has good values and ‘I’d like my daughter to play it’.”

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Stephanie Houghton with her MBE at Buckingham Palace

Why we need to encourage young girls to get involved

It’s not uncommon to hear women say they never got the chance to play football at school and that girls were sent to do gymnastics or play netball instead. Kelly says that now 96% of primary school boys play football, compared to 41% of girls.

“It is a bit of a postcode lottery,” she says. “We have got girls’ football teams in primary and secondary schools, but it’s not universal. You still hear of schools where there’s only a boys football team or girls are offered the more female sports in the curriculum.”

Kelly adds: “There are parents who still think football is for boys and we know there are girls who think, ‘I really like football, but it’s for boys’.” But things are changing. There are programmes to help provide teaching resources in schools, and the FA are working with Premier League clubs to ensure there are pathways for girls to play club football. They recently launched a programme called Wildcats for five to 11-year-olds.

“There’s been a lot of research into the barriers to girls playing football and what they want, which is fun, friends and fitness,” says Kelly. “But if we don’t get them by eight or nine, then they think, ‘It’s a boys sport’ or ‘I don’t want to make a fool of myself’.

“It’s about giving every girl the opportunity to play whatever sport they fall in love with, because we know there are a lot of girls who don’t do anything. And others are desperate for strong, positive role models.”

Be part of changing perceptions

You only have to look at Twitter during the broadcasting of a women’s football match to see that some men don’t think women should be playing football at all. “It’s absolute nonsense,” Kelly says with a laugh, “and you can’t win some people over, but I think it’s changing. You don’t get many comments from people who have seen it and are critical, it’s normally people that have a preconception.

That’s not just a problem for women’s football, though, there’s women’s rugby and cricket too.

“There’s also a lot of positive comments about the women’s team — from men and women — and people who haven’t seen the sport before who are impressed with the standard and the physicality of it.”

What does the future hold?

Kelly thinks we should look at the US, where soccer is very much a male and female sport, and always has been.

“They’re number one in the world with mass participation numbers, and there isn’t the same gender divide around it. (Football) is seen as a very strong girls’ sport, at junior level,” she says.

“But everyone is talking about the Women’s Superleague (the top women’s league in the UK), how the England team is rising through the rankings and getting a bronze medal in the Olympics.”

So whether you have a kickaround in the park, join a five-a-side league, or just cheer a local team on, consider getting involved.

Anyway, with the England men’s team’s recent lack of success, it’s worth listening to the tagline of the advert that kicked the tournament off and “support a team that might actually win ...”

To find a women’s football club near you, visit the www.thefa.com/womens-girls-football/get-involved

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