The sixth FIFA Women’s World Cup is being played in Germany through July 17. Worldwide, some 26 million girls and women now play football and those numbers are growing every year.
While the first women's World Cup was staged in 1991 in China, most believe it was the 1999 World Cup played in the United States that has contributed the most to the growth of women’s football.
The annual total of full international women’s matches more than doubled between 1997 and 2007.
It all starts at the youth level, and FIFA’s head of women’s competitions, Tatjana Haenni, says the growth has been tremendous.
“If you compare 10 years ago or even 20 years ago and then look at the figures we have today, then it’s huge. I think today you can say there’s almost no spot in the world where there’s no women’s football activities,” Haenni said.
Though it is now winter in South Africa, women at the University of Pretoria are practicing outdoors in the elements for the so-called TUKS team.
Manager and former player Tsakani Hlungwani says opportunities for African women footballers are growing.
“It’s really changing because now they’re even promoting female coaches and things like that, so we’ll see more of women’s football recognized, even big companies recognize it by sponsorships,” Hlungwani said.
But TUKS player Gloria Thato thinks growth of the women’s professional game in Africa has been slow. “There’s no equality. Women are not treated the same way men are treated. I think that’s probably why it’s growing so slow,” Thato said.
Here in the United States, women’s soccer is popular in all age groups.
Brett Menge coaches a high-level U-14 team, Real Maryland F.C., near Washington. “It’s huge, especially in the (Washington) D.C. area. There are 70-80 teams in every age group playing elite soccer. And each group younger is better than the one before. So the U-14s struggle to keep ahead of the U-13s because there’s a lot of push. And just as the quality of the coaching gets better, the players are getting better,” Menge said.
Real Maryland player Annie Hasselback started playing soccer at age four. “I love playing against a lot of really good teams. It’s fun to push yourself and try to beat everyone,” Hasselback said.
Teammate Avni Johnson says she learns to improve her game by watching senior players. “I’ve watched the women’s team. I’ve also followed the center midfield, the center midfielders for the U.S. Whenever they come on TV, I watch them. Since I play center midfield, I’m very fond of the way they play, how fast they play,” Johnson said.
U.S. women’s coach Pia Sundhage, who is from Sweden, shared thoughts on her sport before heading to Germany for the World Cup.
“Back in the good old days, I wasn’t allowed to play soccer because I was a girl and you know in different countries it’s hard for a woman actually to get out there and kick the ball. But I think there’s a movement. It’s a people movement so strong right now. It’s getting better and better and grassroots will make the difference,” Sundhage said.
Grassroots is FIFA’s program which since 2009 prioritizes development of the sport for children. Football’s world governing body wants everyone -- both men and women -- to experience the joy of the so-called beautiful game.