U-17 Women’s World Cup: Spain reaping rewards for its investment in women’s football and youth development

A total of 91,648 attended a UEFA Champions League semi-final last season. 91,553 attended the quarterfinals.

No, it wasn’t the semi-final between Real Madrid and Chelsea or Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City. It was a match between Barcelona and Wolfsburg and the quarter-finals, an El Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid, in the women’s Champions League.

Participation in the semifinals set a record for a women’s soccer game. The good news, however, was that it wasn’t an isolated case. Neither were the attendance numbers during the El Clasico quarterfinals.

Stadium attendance for women’s football matches in Spain has gradually increased over the past five years (excluding matches played in biobubbles). It also reflects the nation’s focus on women’s football and the seriousness with which they promote it.

However, it wasn’t always like this. A decade or so ago, Spain wasn’t really among the elite in women’s football. Fast forward to today and while their senior team has yet to win a FIFA World Cup, they have won a World Cup in every age group.

The U-20 team recently won the World Cup, while their U-17 team are the defending champions of the tournament, which is being held in India.

On Wednesday, they opened their campaign in a Group C match at the DY Patil Stadium with a 1-0 win over a very athletic Colombia. Substitute Jone Amezaga’s goal in the 85th minute was the difference after Spain’s earlier goal was ruled out by VAR for a handball in the lead.

Ahead of matchday, their coach, Kenio Gonzalo, explained why Spain have become one of the leaders in women’s football and why they have been so successful at the age group.

“We have very strong territorial (interstate) competition in Spain in age groups where the teams play a similar style of football. We send scouts to these tournaments and they pick the talented players there. We try to integrate them into our national setup from the age of 14. We try to keep them in our national setup until they reach the senior team.

“Over the years they have been given the best possible conditions to improve. This allows them to understand football very well. This advanced age group in football alone is the reason why we produce so many players and why we are so successful,” said Gonzalo.

Clubs at the forefront

Just being in the national team doesn’t necessarily mean the players will improve. After all, they need playtime. The state association has found a solution for this as well. They have asked all Spanish clubs to include all players in their age group at least in their junior team, if not in their main team.

For this reason, all these U-17 players play in Spanish league teams, six of which play for Real Madrid B, five for Barcelona B and four for Athletic Bilbao.

Gonzalo admits it’s the clubs that have helped women’s football the most.

“Men’s football has all the resources it needs. So if the men’s club has a women’s team, they can provide all the facilities to the women. This means that the ladies will not lack for anything, at least when it comes to fitness preparation.

“In addition, the clubs can give the teams visibility. This is very important for the sport to grow. That’s why we’re seeing record attendances at women’s games,” he said.

Higher crowds at the stadium means more moolah for the clubs. It’s one of the reasons Barcelona were able to lure England midfielder Keira Walsh from Manchester City. Her move cost the Catalan club a record €460,000.

The Spanish federation is also setting the bar higher and higher. Like the US women’s soccer team, they announced that women players would be paid the same wages when representing the country.

Asked what lessons India and other developing countries can learn from Spain for the overall development of men’s and women’s football, Gonzalo said the most important thing is to follow the process.

“Women’s football doesn’t have such a long history. There is gender inequality and it is not easy for women to find a place. We need to make this space much bigger so that women can enjoy football and feel comfortable playing it. Once we do that, women’s football will evolve,” he said.

In order to develop football as a whole, the process must start with the younger age groups.

“The crucial aspect, in my opinion, is the whole process. Take men’s soccer in Spain, for example. They’ve managed to dominate all age groups, but in all those years they’ve only won one Senior World Cup. But the only reason we can fight for it at every World Cup is because we have a robust youth line-up where we have a new group of players for each age group every year,” he said.

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