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The rise of role models in women’s football

A generation of women’s players who mostly had men as idols will be the ones inspiring the next.

When Chelsea Ladies goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl was growing up in Sweden, presumably aspiring to help her team be the first to shock Germany at the 2017 Women’s Euros, there were three keepers she idolized as she was learning the tricks and trades of playing between the sticks: Oliver Kahn, Peter Schmeichel, and Iker Casillas.And this wasn’t just because they’re three of the best keepers in the world. “It would have been nice to say a female player, but we weren’t able to see so much,” Lindahl said. “I had some female role models but they were sports stars from other sports, and one wasn’t even a sports star — she was a presenter on TV.”Lindahl’s admission isn’t a surprising one, nor is it a unique one. Besides in the United States, where young girls have been able to look up to Women’s World Cup winners such as Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Michelle Akers for over two decades, women’s football has been a relatively up-and-coming sport in most countries across the globe. Similarly, Norway’s Ada Hegerberg and England’s Fran Kirby idolized Thierry Henry; for Sweden’s Kosovare Asllani, the idol was Brazilian Ronaldo; David Beckham for Jill Scott, because she loved the way he “chased every ball down”; and England Captain Steph Houghton looked up to both David Beckham and Steven Gerrard, whom she considered “real leaders of the game.”Kirby and Houghton did, however, give a couple of women a shout: both mentioned Kelly Smith, with the captain also giving a nod to Faye White.“I think for a young girl growing up in England, wanting to play football, they were always the names that you heard of and wanted to emulate,” Houghton elaborated. “And thankfully I got the opportunity to play with them and speak to them quite regularly, and can always ask them for advice.”But as in the U.S., these players are the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, it is this generation of current players — the Lindhals, the Hegerbergs, the Asllanis, and still the Kirbys and Houghtons — who have really helped get women’s soccer even more on the map in their respective countries, and who will be perhaps the first female players that young girls will be able to name as their idols when they grow up and make the national teams themselves.Therein lies the importance of the growth of these kinds of tournaments, from an increase in coverage that allows more and more fans to tune in — and the audience this year is already up 116% from 2013 — to increased investment that allows more parity and competitiveness among even the non-traditionally dominant forces: the Women’s Euros are not just about the results on the field but also the lasting impact that high-profile women’s soccer can have on those, especially those young girls, watching.As Harjeet Johal writes of Abily, who recently retired from the France national team after 16 years and 183 caps following their quarterfinal exit: “The next generation of young football players in France have been able to watch her live, wear her kit, and support a superstar female footballer. In conservative France where male footballers dominate the press, Abily has provided a role model for girls and boys to look up to.”

The continued expansion of the tournament, up to 16 teams in 2017 from 12 in 2013, is important for this as well.While a young girl from Scotland can watch a player like Abily and have her dreams reaffirmed by women’s soccer in general, it is just not the same as seeing your own country take the big stage for themselves — which Scotland did for the first time in this tournament, having never qualified for a World Cup and having never before qualified for the Euros.Gerry Cummings, head of the Children’s Section of the Gaitcarn FA in Airdrie, Scotland took advantage of this debut and what it could mean to his young footballers by taking a group of them down to Netherlands for the group stage.

These young Scottish players got to see their countrywomen score their first Women’s Euros goal, too. And with the reassurance and encouragement that comes with seeing a player like yourself reflected on a stage like the Euros, perhaps they will be impassioned to stick on the football path and score a few for the national team themselves a few years on.