Joining UEFA in 2014 was a milestone that has elevated standards and ushered in a new age of professionalism and opportunity. Last month, against the backdrop of a crowded Tercentenary Hall, the rock enjoyed another watershed moment as Gibraltarian women joined their male counterparts, playing in UEFA competition for the first time.
The National Women’s Futsal Team hosted Belgium at the start of May in a qualifier for next year’s tournament, in a hard fought encounter that went right down to the wire. It can’t be said that things went perfectly – Gibraltar would eventually lose 5-4 on penalties – but the entire occasion was testament to the dedication and ability of all those involved. One of those on the forefront of this progress is Women’s Football Development Manager, Laura McGinn.
Locally, the first female involvement in competitive football happened many years before Laura’s arrival on the rock – the occasional girl would play football in the boys’ junior leagues for a few seasons before leaving the sport for lack of options. In subsequent years, the landscape began to shift as women’s teams formed and standards were raised.
It’s been her mission to continue the work started by those pioneering girls and women.
Since the GFA recruited Laura in 2018, it’s been her mission to continue the work started by those pioneering girls and women, volunteers and officials who lay the foundations for the scenes we saw last month: dedicated players going toe to toe with representatives from a renowned footballing nation, cheered on by a full house of fans, urged onwards by young girls who dream of the day they’ll get to pull on the national shirt and do the same themselves.
Laura recalls the UEFA Women’s Championship of 2005, played across the North West of England, and the personal impact this tournament had. She had always been a football fan, but seeing the Lionesses play that Summer awoke a sense of realisation in her: “ I remember thinking this was something I could be a part of.”
Years later, upon arrival in Gibraltar, Laura’s approach to developing the women’s game reflects this understanding of the importance that role models can play in shaping aspiration in a young mind.
Girls (and their parents) needed to see football as a viable option.
Not only that, getting to young girls and introducing them to football on an even footing with the boys was a priority for other reasons too. Laura recalls the findings of a UEFA study in which it was observed that girls lagged behind boys in their fundamental movement skills (running, balance, kicking and so on) from a young age.
She puts this down to social and behavioural factors – fixable issues. Get girls the right footwear, get them playing the right games in the playground, give them every opportunity the boys have to develop their skills and interest in football, and the discrepancy resolves itself.
Significant steps have been taken towards leveling the playing field and Gibraltar’s inclusion in UEFA has been vital in ensuring that girls now get the same exposure to football as boys during those crucial, formative years. But while the process will continue over the coming generations, a huge amount has already been achieved here and now by those on and off the field, as showcased in the futsal match against Belgium.
“My heart was pounding throughout the entire thing.”
Five aside women’s football has been a feature on the rock for years – the Juan Chipol cup has been played annually with just a couple of exceptions since 2004 – but, as with the men’s game prior to UEFA involvement, there was significant room for improvement in every regard, and a national futsal side was conspicuously nonexistent. Laura was part of the Gibraltar delegation that took a trip to a UEFA conference in Northern Ireland where the seed of an idea was sewn in late 2018. By January 2019, the National Women’s Futsal Team had been born.
Fast forward to their first UEFA sanctioned match and while Laura, Tournament Director, tried to maintain a professional veneer she couldn’t help but cheer as the team fought back to 2-2 in regular time, and then again came from behind in extra time to draw level and take the game to penalties. “My heart was pounding throughout the entire thing”, she laughs.
The shootout would prove a bridge too far in the end, with the visitors eventually taking all three points in sudden death, but a flame has been lit, and there will be much more to come from a young team that has only just set out on their journey.