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Football: Big Picture Looks Good; SCOTS ARE GETTING READY TO MAKE A BIG IMPACT AS WOMEN'S GAME INCREASES IN POPULARITY - EVEN AS A TELEVISION SPORT.

Byline: By GINNY CLARK

A NEW viewing record for women's football was set 10 days ago when almost three million watched England beat Finland 3-2 in the European Women's Championship.

The previous mark had been set in May 2004 - when 2.5million tuned in to see Scotland captain Julie Fleeting score an incredible hat-trick to give Arsenal their 3-0 English FA Cup Final win over Charlton.

And attendances at the Euro championships have been beating all estimates - with a continental record of more than 29,000 fans cheering on England and Finland at the City of Manchester Stadium.

There's no doubt the popularity of women's football is steadily increasing. And the game once regarded with cynicism in many traditional footballing quarters is now beginning to receive the support and coverage it deserves.

SFA chief executive David Taylor said: 'The Scottish FA are proud to be at the forefront of the development of women's football in Scotland.

'It is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world and here in Scotland we have seen significant growth in participation levels for both girls and women's football.

'The SFA's appointment of Vera Pauw in 1998 to be the full-time women's coach heralded a raising of standards of the national team and she certainly succeeded in achieving international respect for Scottish women's football.

'Scotland is now in the 25-strong elite group of European nations about to compete for places in the FIFA Women's World Cup. Anna Signeul has taken over as our national coach as we look to build on the progress made in recent years.'

'There are around 4000 registered players competing in leagues throughout Scotland and more than 100,000 primary and secondary pupils playing girls football.

'We also have nine development officers working through local authorities in the SFA's co-ordinated schools programme.'

The Scottish women's game is working towards full integration with the SFA and Sheila Begbie, the SFA's head of girls and women's football, said: 'We are still looking to develop the infrastructure to support what is happening with the reorganisation of the youth game.'

Three years ago, under the stewardship of Pauw, the national side broke through the ratings barrier into the first-strength category of European competition.

And although Scotland narrowly missed out on qualifying for the play-offs for the current European Championships, they exceeded all expectations by battling through to 11th place.

Under new coach Signeul - who took Sweden's Under-18s to European Championship glory in 1999 - they'll play their first World Championship qualifying match away to Russia in August.

Before that, coach Tony Gervaise and the Under-19s travel to Hungary next month for their European challenge.

It's an incredible first from the young lions, who romped through six games in two qualifying tournaments and conceded only two goals.

They now face Group One opposition in France, Russia and England, with the first match on July 20.

Group Two consists of hosts Hungary, Germany, Finland and Switzerland, with the semi-finals scheduled for July 28 and the final three days later.

And Scottish Premier champions Glasgow City will find out next month who they will face in the European Women's Cup in August - the women's equivalent of the Champions League.

Role models are crucial to such a fast-developing sport and the greatest advert for young Scots so far has been the incredible success of Arsenal striker and Scotland captain Fleeting.

Fleeting played as a professional for San Diego Spirit until the collapse of the WUSA league in America almost two years ago. Following her return to Scotland, Fleeting played briefly for now-defunct Ross County before she was signed by top English women's Premiership side Arsenal.

The 24-year-old's performances for the Gunners have been sizzling and last month she was honoured with the English Premier's Player Player of the Year award, in recognition of her 21 goals for Arsenal this season.

A superb striker, who has scored 93 goals in 84 games for Scotland, Fleeting is described by Scotland coach Signeul as: 'One of the world's best forwards'.

There is no doubt Arsenal have provided Fleeting with a bigger stage than could currently be found in Scotland. The development, the structure and the skills for an increasingly successful women's game are now all in place in Scotland.

So when are Celtic and Rangers going to catch on

CAPTION(S):

TOP DRAW: England celebrate against Finland; EURO YES VOTE: Grant can't wait to grace big stage next term Pic: PETER JOLLY
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 15, 2005
Words:739
Previous Article:Football: Football Heaven; SCOTTISH Football Museum curator Richard McBrearty turns the pages on the game's history.
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