Thursday , May 13 2021

Women in European football: Five figures leading the way!

To mark International Women’s Day 2021, UEFA launched a new campaign to raise awareness of the game-changing impact that women are making on the European football community.

Each month, UEFA is putting the focus on five individuals, whose work is helping to shape the present and future of football – at all levels of the game. Whether on the pitch, in front of the cameras or in the boardroom, each of our featured game-changers has an inspiring story to tell, setting the perfect example for more women and girls to make their own mark in the game.

In UEFA’s second instalment, we talk to:

• Tess Olofsson, a professional referee in Sweden

• Maria Suchkova, head of women’s football at the Football Union of Russia (FUR)

• Reshmin Chowdhury, sports journalist in England

• Florence Hardouin, chief executive of the French Football Federation (FFF), member of UEFA’s Executive Committee, chair of UEFA Marketing Advisory Committee

• Lidia Alves Baria, media manager of Apollon Ladies in Cyprus

Tess Olofsson: ‘It is great to see a pathway, and my goal now is to reach the highest level’

A former Sweden youth international goalkeeper, Tess Olofsson transitioned to full-time refereeing following injury, having combined both roles since first taking up the whistle at 13. Now, she is a professional official in in Sweden’s second division of men’s football, the country’s Referee of the Year and a regular in the UEFA Women’s Champions League and international fixtures.

You are fortunate to have had role models to emulate throughout your career…

In Sweden, we are lucky to have had high-profile female players and successful teams, to make it feel like a career is achievable. I had many different role models, as a player especially the goalkeepers. I had Caroline Jönsson, she was the Swedish national team goalkeeper, but also Andreas Isaksson from the men’s team was an inspiration because I watched a lot of football when I was young. As a referee, it was inspiring to see Bibiana Steinhaus, the first female referee in the Bundesliga in 2017, and then we saw Stéphanie Frappart in the UEFA Super Cup, another big step for women’s football and female referees. It is great to see a pathway, and my goal now is to reach the highest level of the men’s game in Sweden, referee International men’s games, and also be a part of the UEFA Women’s EURO next year and the Women’s World Cup in 2023

Does it feel as though you have had to work extra hard to prove yourself in the men’s game?

When I go to training sessions and train together with the men, you want to show them that you are as fast as them. But it’s not possible for me to be as quick as them, so of course I need to work hard in every training session to be at the right level. On the pitch, it’s important you can read the game, time your sprints and position yourself well, because if I start too late then maybe I will be too far away when I need to make the decision.

With players, if I referee new teams, they sometimes try me in the first games, but then after a while they can see that I know and understand football just as well – I think they are surprised at the beginning. But then they accept me and respect me as a referee and see that it doesn’t matter if I’m a woman or a man.

What is your advice to anybody interested in following a similar path as a referee?

You have to put in so much effort, train really, really hard, and push yourself to the limit. When I became a FIFA referee, I realised how much I need to train, but also to stay healthy to avoid injuries. I hope that seeing people like me succeed can inspire young girls and boys to start because it’s a really great experience to be a referee. I have the chance to be full-time professional and I hope more women will get this opportunity.

Maria Suchkova: ‘It will no longer cause surprise when you hear that a woman or a girl plays football’

Maria Suchkova is head of women’s football at the Football Union of Russia (FUR), leading the association’s new strategy to raise the game from grassroots to the national team. A former amateur player with a background in international law, she leads a talented and passionate team that is changing perceptions at home and abroad.

How are you attracting more girls to the game?

“One of our focus points is to have girls interested in football from a young age. Some of them will become players, some of them won’t, but they will stay within the game, coming to stadiums and watching football on TV and that is the same for their parents. Having a young footballer as a daughter changes the mindset of parents, and we are now witnessing a shift in stereotypes. We have just launched the UEFA Playmakers programme in Russia –people used to say football isn’t for girls, but now we see none of that and people want to bring their daughters to practice. That’s very important and we can build on that.”

What other changes have you seen so far and what does the future hold?

“We definitely have a lot more visibility than women’s football had even a year before. It’s in the news, we have more top men’s clubs interested in creating women’s teams, we have more followers on social media and more people are interested in watching games. As this growth continues, it will be more commercially successful and there will be more sponsors, with women’s teams sponsored separately from the men. In Russia, in mindset, it will no longer cause surprise when you hear that a woman or a girl plays football.”

What can the women’s games learn from the men’s game to help this development?

“Commercially and financially, women’s football is far from being where men’s football is and there are practices that can be adopted, but this means there are opportunities to try new things that are impossible in the men’s game – it’s cool to have this room for experimentation. Player care standards are also important. Female players have specific needs that are rarely acknowledged, they are not looked after as well as elite men’s players, and this is something that would help if it was to change.”

Reshmin Chowdhury: ‘There is still discrimination, but people are realising that women are here to stay’

Despite studying politics and economics at university, Reshmin Chowdhury followed her passion by pursuing a career in sports journalism. After grasping her chance with Real Madrid TV, she returned home to England where she presents men’s and women’s domestic football, a popular national radio show and has worked across the UEFA Champions League and Europa League for six years. She has also co-presented the UEFA Awards and Champions League group stage draw since 2017 and The Best FIFA Football Awards last year.

You have overcome many obstacles to reach a prominent position in a challenging industry…

“Mine is a story of graft, hustle and proactively opening doors for myself. When I started in this industry, my experience was that you either needed to know someone or be in the privileged position of growing up around sport: I had neither! Nobody presenting sport looked like me or had my background. I always knew I was good enough, but I’ve definitely been overlooked at times and feel I had to work harder to get here than many others. However, my family were incredibly supportive, I always believed in myself and I was driven by my passion and that is so important for anybody who wants to succeed.”

Does your role present tougher challenges as a woman and as a mother of two children?

“When you’re travelling all over Europe or the world, it can be tough for anybody. But it is honestly different when you’re a mother – it’s biological. Those early years were hard, mentally and physically. The situation has improved recently and bosses do now ask how you are and if you need help managing your schedule. I am also kinder to myself and prioritise differently. But previously the environment was such that it was hard to say you were struggling, because the likelihood was that you would just be replaced and might not get another chance.”

How do you see the future for women’s football and women working in football?

“People are realising that women are here to stay. We’re not going anywhere and in the coming years, I think things will keep improving. It’s not a shock now to see a woman hosting a football show, or as a pundit in a studio, or women’s football on TV. There is still discrimination, there is still sexism, there are a lot more hurdles to overcome, but things are improving. I have been presenting football for over 13 years and I have seen a lot of changes. However, being a British Asian, a mother and from a Muslim background means I view things with a different lens. So on top of broadcasting, I feel I have a role to play to help others find their opportunities, whether that’s in an advisory, administrative or mentoring capacity, I’m not sure which yet! I really hope there are more girls and women that will be inspired to get involved and follow their dreams. It is a tough journey, but nothing is impossible!”

Florence Hardouin: ‘Nobody gives you the power, you have to take it’

A former world champion fencer, Florence Hardouin started her professional career at the French ministry for sports and youth, and worked for different private sector companies before joining the French Football Federation (FFF) as head of marketing and commercial development in 2008, since rising to her current position as chief executive. She became the first elected female member of the UEFA Executive Committee in 2016 and chairs UEFA’s Marketing Advisory Committee.

Has a sporting background helped you break down barriers in the boardroom?

I think so, because as an athlete you need to have a lot of determination and never give up, and I think this is the same in our working lives as well. To be successful as a sportsperson gives you confidence outside sport too, and there are skills you can transfer. The other thing is that you set goals for yourself, you constantly want to achieve and meet the next challenge, and this attitude is really important when you are in charge of an organisation. You don’t want to stand still.

What is your advice to women looking to pursue a career in sport?

Nobody gives you the power; you have to take it. I think it is very important for women to trust themselves. Sometimes it is easy to doubt ourselves or lack confidence, but it is important not to have any regrets, so if you want a job, want a promotion, you have to dare to go for it.

How would you like to see the role of women in football develop in the coming years?

I would like to see more women involved everywhere in football. It is important to raise this number. It would be good to raise the number of women working at national associations and on the UEFA Executive Committee. I am grateful to UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin for supporting the presence of a woman on the Executive Committee – I was the first elected, and at first maybe it was strange, but now I don’t think anybody thinks about it and it will be beneficial to have more female representation, at all levels of football, and not just in the women’s game.

Lidia Alves Baria: ‘We can be opponents on the field but off the field we work together to grow the game’

After relocating to Cyprus in 2016, Brazilian-born Lidia Alves Baria’s degree in social communication prepared her well for life as media manager of UEFA Women’s Champions League competitors Apollon Ladies. However, a passion for football and a strong team ethic ensure Lidia’s influence extends far beyond the press box.

Did you ever consider when growing up that a career working in football was a possibility?

“In Brazil, football was part of our lives growing up, I would go to the stadium to watch men’s teams but I never dreamed it could be me working in the game, it was just a hobby to play at the weekends and watch with my family. There was no role model working in sports, and if a female player couldn’t make enough money, then it was impossible to imagine it in any other role – but you can see how sport brings people together and improves relationships. This is why I wanted to work in sport, because it’s such a great tool to develop people. We need good professionals in the game, men and women, and the important thing is your expertise, but it’s crucial to have the presence of women.”

Your role allows you to see the human side of elite players…

“There are fascinating stories to tell within the team. We have girls playing overseas for the first time, without speaking the language, so they need someone to support them off the field – it’s important to understand the human as well as the game, and I love this part of my job. Because of the COVID-19 situation, a lot of girls couldn’t travel or were stuck, so my place was a second home for some of them during holidays, otherwise they would be on their own. Player care is so important and it’s an area we need to explore more in women’s football.”

What do you see that makes you sure women’s football can keep growing?

“One thing I love about women’s football is the connection we have. Like many women I meet in the sport, I am here because I am passionate about women’s football and want to make a difference. We can be opponents on the field but off the field we work together to grow the game – it’s fantastic to see this closeness and involvement. The players deserve so much respect, if you see what they go through just to play the game they love, often without the financial incentives or the sponsorship – it’s pure passion and hard work. We don’t know the potential of women’s football yet, only what we have achieved without investment and infrastructure.”

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