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A PITCH BATTLE; Meet the women who are battling to make football a game of two sexes.

Byline: LINDSAY CLYDESDALE

FOOTBALL stars Rose Reilly and Julie Fleeting really have what it takes to shine - on and off the pitch.

Both have achieved more in the sport for their country than most of their male counterparts.

But their skill and success have received little recognition from the Scottish public who continue to view women's football as a minority sport.

Julie, who won her first senior Scotland cap as a 15-year-old and Rose, once voted the greatest female footballer in the world, now think it's time the country started paying attention to their footballing talent and got behind the women's teams.

Rose, 47, has now retired from her glittering career, most of which was played in Italy.

But she serves as an inspiration for every other aspiring female footballer. Rose joined her first team aged six, but as she grew older and talked seriously about being a professional footballer, her parents thought she was wasting her time.

But Rose stood her ground and was rewarded when a French women's team signed her after watching one match. Soon after, she was snapped up by an Italian side and went on to play in the country's national team.

Rose said: "My mum told me that when I was only three, I'd take my football to bed with me. I was never without it. I was football mad.

"I was only six when I played my first official football game with the Stewarton Boys team.

"I was treated exactly the same as the boys except I couldn't use the changing rooms - I had to get dressed in my strip at home.

"The boys all accepted me, but many parents weren't happy their sons were sitting on the bench, while I was playing. After all, I was a girl.

"Then a few years later, a women's team was started in Ayrshire, called Stewarton Thistle. It was one of the first of its kind in Scotland and I started training with them instead."

If Rose hadn't stuck to her guns, her career could have taken a very different turn. She said: "I was picked to compete in the pentathlon at the World Championships. My athletics coach told me I had to stop football because I was developing muscles that were bad for an athlete.

"But I couldn't give it up. I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life. My parents wanted me to pick athletics, but once I'd made my decision, they supported me completely.

"When I was 17, I went to France for a trial with Rheims. They signed me right away. I knew I'd have to leave Scotland if I wanted to make a career of it.

"After six months, FC Milan sent a scout to watch me. Before I knew it, I'd moved clubs and fell in love with Italy. In the space of a year, I'd gone from playing in Stewarton to scoring goals at the San Siro stadium.

"During the next 20 years, I played for Milan, Napoli, Trani, Prato, Lecce, Bari and Catania."

Rose was the first foreigner to play for the Italian national team and was named captain of the side for the World Cup in China in 1991.

They reached the final, but lost to the USA in front of 90,000 fans. That year Rose was voted the best female football player in the world.

Although she retired at 40, "to give the younger girls coming through a chance", Rose still trains every day.

SHE goes jogging every morning and plays football with her young daughter, Meghan, who will soon celebrate her second birthday.

Rose admits she was lucky to fall in love and fall pregnant when she did.

Rose said: "I met my husband Norberto, a physio, when he treated me for an injury. I was very lucky to meet my husband and even luckier to fall pregnant at that age.

"I had planned to become a coach when I retired from playing, but I need to concentrate on my family now."

Rose believes support now in place from the SFA, UEFA and FIFA, should get more people interested.

"There's a lot more women playing these days but the Scottish women's teams only have a handful of fans."

One of the younger girls coming through the ranks, is Julie Fleeting, 21. But she certainly doesn't fit the stereotype of a female footballer.

With long straight hair and endless slim legs, Julie joined her first team when she was nine, Cunningham Boys Club, after being encouraged by the boys in her class.

Like Rose, she'd been kicking a ball around for as long as could remember. And although her dad is Jim Fleeting, the former player and manager of Kilmarnock, he didn't encourage her talent.

Julie said: "I can't remember a time when I didn't kick a ball around. I was always playing with my friends or my cousins in the park, in the street.

"The coach at my first club was great and had no hesitation in putting me into the team. It was an absolutely brilliant time and I stayed with the club for four years until I was too old to be allowed to play in boys' teams.

"So I signed for Prestwick, who I still play with."

Julie won her first Scotland cap with the senior squad when she was 15, although she'd already pulled on a Scotland shirt for the under- 16 team and under-20s.

Her world revolves around football. Her boyfriend is reserve goalkeeper with Kilmarnock and she studies PE at Moray House in Edinburgh.

Julie said: "I'm lucky because I've never had any bad comments about what I do. Friends who have grown up with me are used to it, they've always known me as a footballer.

"My boyfriends have always been fine about it, too. Surprisingly, it was my dad who wasn't keen. He only let me join the boy's team hoping I would lose interest. But now mum and dad are great and I wouldn't have got this far without them.

"There's not a lot of attention given to women's football. I don't have a sponsor and neither do any of the girls in the national squad, never mind getting paid. But it's almost impossible to have a job while you're in the squad.

"It's frustrating that I'll have to move abroad to make a career of it. The average crowd at one of my league games is one man and a dog.

"Compared to places like the USA, we are on such a small scale. Most countries abroad take women's football a lot more seriously.

"The girls in the Scotland squad do it as a hobby. Most of them do a full day's work, come home and then go out to train at night. It would be a dream come true to get paid for playing football and not have to work."
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Title Annotation:Vital
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Feb 27, 2002
Words:1151
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