Women’s football has been among the fastest growing sectors of the sport, both in terms of the number of players and those who watch the female game worldwide.
That too is mirrored in the 2017 COSAFA Women’s Championship to be staged in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe from September 13-24, which will see a record 12 teams compete.
That is up from eight in the previous edition in 2011, also staged in Zimbabwe, and shows the development of the sport in the Southern African region.
This has come about through greater access to the game for female players via a concerted effort from FIFA to be inclusive of women in the sport.
One of these programmes is the Live Your Goals campaign that was launched at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany in 2011 and has evolved into one of FIFA’s most recognised women’s football initiatives.
It is a global campaign that aims to strengthen the image of women’s football and increase the number of girls and women participating in the game.
Member associations implementing Live Your Goals receive support over a period of four years with concept development, football equipment, funding and expertise. And the fruits of that campaign are seemingly there for all to see.
In the last survey conducted, there were 30-million female players worldwide, but FIFA hopes to have 45-million by the time France hosts the Women’s World Cup in 2019.
The last World Cup, staged in Canada in 2015, saw 24 teams compete at the finals, double the number that appeared in the first tournament in 1991.
Just 45 nations entered the qualifiers for that 1991 World Cup, but that was nearly tripled to 128 for the 2015 finals.
Just eight African nations entered the qualifiers for the 1991 tournament, and four of those, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Congo-Brazzaville and Zambia ended up withdrawing before they had even played a game.
The qualifiers for the 2015 finals came via the African Women’s Championship, which saw 25 nations take part in the preliminaries, almost half the continent’s membership to the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and a 625 percent increase on the first World Cup.
According to figures released by FIFA, the 2015 World Cup had a viewership of 764-million people globally, making it the second most watched FIFA tournament after the men’s World Cup finals.
Broadcasters showed a total of 7,781 hours of coverage, a 31 percent increase on the levels of content broadcast during the 2011 World Cup.
The final between USA and Japan was the most watched football match – for both men’s and women’s football – in USA history.
It is against the backdrop of this massive growth that for 2015-2018, FIFA has doubled its funding for women’s football-specific programmes.
In 2015 alone, FIFA implemented more than 400 activities worldwide in at least 120 countries. Among those, 94 women’s football competitions benefited from equipment and financial support.
All of this investment speaks to the power of the women’s game growing and why the 2017 COSAFA Women’s Championship is such an important tournament is ensuring that growth is felt in Southern Africa as well.
The COSAFA nations that have entered the championship are Botswana, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and hosts Zimbabwe.
They will be joined by East African guest nation Kenya to make up the field of 12 sides, with the first round draw set to take place on Wednesday in Johannesburg.
The sides will be using this tournament to build towards the qualifiers for the 2018 Africa Women Cup of Nations, which is to be staged in Ghana from next November.
Those qualifiers start in February next year, with the tournament also serving as entry into the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France.
The first COSAFA Women’s Championship was held in Zimbabwe in 2002 and was won by South Africa, who beat their hosts 2-1 in the final.
Four years later and the South Africans triumphed again at the finals in Zambia, when they beat Namibia 3-1 in the decider. South Africa then made it three in a row when they beat Zimbabwe in the finals of the 2008 tournament in Malange, Angola.
But Zimbabwe will be defending the title they won last time the tournament was played in 2011, when they also acted as hosts. They defeated South Africa 1-0 in the final.