The Scotland women's national team are gearing up for the start of the UEFA Women's Euro 2017 Tournament this week. The competition, which takes place in the Netherlands, will unfold over the next three weeks with the final taking place on 6 August in the town of Enschede. This will be the 12th edition of the quadrennial football tournament, which is organised by Europe's governing football body, UEFA. The competition was recently expanded to include more teams and this year 16 countries will be represented at Europe's premier international football showpiece.
Germany head to the Netherlands as the reigning champions and have dominated the recent history of the event. The Germans have won seven of the last eight tournaments, including the last six in a row. In the draw for the group stages the Scottish team managed to avoid the German powerhouses, but will still face a series of tough tests if they are to progress. First up for our ladies is a mouth-watering tie against the Auld Enemy, as they take on England on 19 July. This match will be followed by games against Spain (23 July) and Portugal (27 July), with the top two teams heading through to the next round. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will be in attendance for the team's opening game against England, and she is excited for what lies ahead:
"As the proud patron of the national women's football team, I can't think of a better way to spend my birthday than to cheer them on for this very important game against England. It's a fantastic achievement for them to become the first Scottish team in almost 20 years to make the finals of a major international tournament. It is a real privilege for me to be able to watch them in Utrecht."
The footballing rivalry between Scotland and England is long and storied and it would be impossible to discuss the history of international football without them. In 1872 the men's national teams took part in the first ever international match, with game ending in a 0-0 draw. Just nine years later, in 1881, Britain's first recorded women's international match took place between the same two countries. The Scottish ladies were able to go one step further than their male counterparts, winning 3-0. That day, a woman named Lily St Clair secured her name in the history books by scoring the opening goal. In a report following the match, the Glasgow Herald described the Scottish team as "looking smart in blue jerseys, white knickerbockers, red belts and high heeled boots".
Queens of Qualifying
This marks the first time that the Scottish women's team have ever qualified for a major tournament and, understandably, there's a lot of hype and excitement around the squad. Scotland are not the only debutants at Euro 2017, with Switzerland, Belgium, Austria and group rivals Portugal also making their first appearances. All these teams will be looking to make a good impression on a major stage and will be keen to show Europe's footballing elite what they are capable of.
Scotland's qualification for this year's tournament was aided by some stand-out performances. Amazingly, they lost only one of their eight matches, winning the other seven, at times in emphatic fashion. Scoring goals was not a problem that the team had, finishing with an average of nearly four goals per game. As well as this, striker Jane Ross was the joint top scorer in qualifying, with a whopping 10 goals.
Scotland's participation at Euro 2017 is a testament to the progress the women's game has made in Scotland in recent years. When head coach Anna Signeul took over in 2005, Scotland sat at their lowest ever world ranking of 31. Euro 2017 will be Signeul's swansong as Scotland head coach, but the improvements are all too obvious. The team has grown under the stewardship of Signeul, with the ladies not only reaching their first major competition, but also their highest ever ranking of 19 during her tenure.
Scottish footballers are also enjoying unprecedented success away from the national team, both at home and overseas. Midfielder Kim Little, who will sadly miss the tournament through injury, was voted BBC Women's Footballer of the Year in 2016. After being nominated for the second consecutive year Kim won out over some of the top female footballers around the world. As well as this, Scottish female footballers are plying their trade in some the top leagues around the world including England, Germany and the USA.
Building for the Future
This year, UEFA is using the tournament to build a framework for future generations of footballing girls. Their goal is to make football the number one women's participation sport across Europe within five years. The focus is on growing participation and will be built around a campaign called 'Together #WePlayStrong'. This will centre on the three key pillars that showcase the best of football: skill, togetherness and positive attitude.
Closer to home, the Scottish Football Association (SFA) is also looking to build on the success of the current crop of female players. The SFA have developed a campaign called 'Our Girls. Our Game.' which will link girls playing football at a grassroots level all the way through to the national team. The campaign emphasises that, no matter what level 'Our Girls' are at, Scotland is behind them and proud of them. 'Our Game' hints at the differences between the men's and women's games and how young female players don't need to be compared to the men. It highlights that women's football is a different type of game and that they can feel free to play for fun or professionally; free of common stereotypes or misconceptions.
Prior to the tournament starting, the 'Our Girls. Our Game.' campaign focused on engaging with primary school girls up to 12 years old. The girls were encouraged to take up football and get involved through one of the several Soccer Centres across the country. To help promote the campaign, a member of the women's national team was nominated as a football ambassador in each of the six regions of Scotland.
These ambassadors have taken part in training programmes at their Soccer Centres, working directly with the young girls who will one day hope to emulate them as a Scotland national team member. As part of the campaign, the kids were all given Scotland football shirts with their ambassador's name on them and have been given free tickets to Scotland games to see their heroes in action.
With campaigns like this aimed at bringing in a new generation of young female footballers, the future looks bright for the women's game in Scotland. Ahead of Scotland's maiden journey into a major football tournament, optimism is high that we can kick on from our recent successes. Alongside that, the promise of a new generation of footballers inspired by their current heroes means that women's football in Scotland is poised to enter a purple patch and take the game to another level.