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I PLAN TO HAVE A BALL PLAYING IN AMERICA; Rising Scots footballer Julie Fleeting is off to the US in search of success.

Byline: SASHA MANSWORTH

THE World Cup may be over, the players may have gone on holiday, but for one young Scottish woman, the dream goes on.

Julie Fleeting is set to take the world of women's football by storm. The Ayr United LFC skipper is to quit Scotland and head for sunny California after signing a lucrative one-year contract with San Diego Spirits in America's WUSA league.

In the US, women's football is a thriving sport, with a professional league and the chance for female players to become as big as Beckham.

It's hardly surprising Julie, 21, ended up playing for both her country and in the US pro league - like Beckham, she could kick a ball before she was potty-trained and the prolific striker has so far notched up an impressive 58 caps for her country.

She said: "I kicked a football as soon as I could walk. It just came naturally. I didn't need any encouragement. I just enjoyed playing football."

She insists her dad Jim, a former Kilmarnock player and boss, did not push her on to the pitch.

Julie said: "My parents let me do what I enjoyed - they never pushed me or my sister Gemma into playing with Barbie dolls and when I started to play competitively, they were at every game."

The tackles and strikes that have propelled Julie into the pro-league were honed on the streets of her home town of Kilwinning, in Ayrshire, where she still lives with her parents.

Her childhood team-mates were younger brother Barry and cousins Gillian and Ian, who live next door.

As they grew older, Julie and her friends moved out of her back garden and on to McGavin Park for the daily kickabout.

She said: "I was just like normal kids, playing after school and in the holidays. I enjoyed it so much that whenever I had spare time and it was a nice day, I'd be out playing. Even now, I still get together with my friends and cousins and have a game."

It's unusual for girls to be kicking around a ball in a game that is still male-dominated.

But things have improved since 20 years ago, when the film Gregory's Girl - with its predictable macho jokes about swapping shirts at the end of the game - revealed the attitudes of the day.

Even now, in the recent girls' footie movie Bend It Like Beckham, the members of fictional female football team Hounslow Harriers still come up against prejudice from some family members.

Training with boys was the only way for Julie to play competitive football. At nine, she joined Cunningham Boys' Club, where she was the only female player in the league.

She said: "I never felt left out - being a girl was never an issue for me or for the boys either. I was just another player and the rest of the team made me feel welcome and no different to the other players."

At 15, she joined her current team, Ayr United - formerly Prestwick Girls - and will stay on as skipper until she heads for the States.

In the same year, she played for Scotland's senior women. Since then, she's scored 78 goals for her national side and almost 300 for Ayr United.

Julie confessed the invitation join The San Diego Spirits has surpassed her wildest dreams. First approached by a US coach five years ago, Julie decided Edinburgh University - where she studied PE - was far enough from home.

But after graduating, she's now free to take her chances in America.

Team bosses had requested a video of Julie in action at one of her international games and were so impressed, they got in touch to offer a one-year contract, with a chance to stay for an extra 12 months if she can match her Scottish success.

Julie said: "It's a great chance for me to play in another country and alongside some of the greatest players in the world."

And if she does strike it lucky in the USA, there is big money to be made from lucrative sponsorship deals.

UNLIKE in Scotland, female football stars in the US are sporting heroines. Top US striker Mia Hamm is on equal footing with Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan in the eyes of her sponsors Nike.

In countries such as the USA and China, women's football is big, but in Scotland, only 4000 players are registered with the Scottish Women's Football Association (SWFA).

Julie said: "It's sad Scotland isn't at the same level yet, but it's only a small country. Women have only been playing football here for a few years and it will get more popular, but not as much as in the USA."

But things are improving. The SWFA created a national team three years ago and there are six development officers to boost girls' football.

Julie said: "Football is still seen as a male-dominated sport, but we are getting there. There's a female coach, people now have full-time jobs in the game and more girls do play in the football team."

And if America doesn't provide the chances Julie hopes for, she's vowed to fall back on teaching football and other sports to kids.

So which male players does she look to for inspiration? Julie confessed: "I like Ronaldino - he's unpredictable, he creates chances and scores goals."

In between watching the World Cup, Julie was busy preparing for her big move to America.

She said: "I'm training every day, trying to keep fit so when I go to San Diego I'll be quite sharp. It's midway through their season and the heat will take a bit of getting used to."

Julie has postponed her move to the US so she could walk down the aisle, but it's not the rising football star who is set to say I do, it's her sister Gemma. It's the last chance for a family bash before heading to the USA.

Like her screen equivalent Jess in Bend It Like Beckham, Julie is leaving behind a boyfriend, 22-year-old Kilmarnock goalie Colin Stewart, when she jets off to America.

They got together just over three years ago after meeting through their dads, who are firm friends.

The fact that Colin can't fly out for two months due to his pre-season training schedule will make the thousands of miles between them seem more of a gulf.

But she won't be living it up in America. While most girls her age are hitting bars and clubs, teetotaller Julie would rather have a quiet night in.

She said: "I don't like the taste of alcohol. An ideal night out would be going out to dinner with my friends and family and their partners or getting a take-away and going next door to my cousins' house. We grew up together and are friends as well as family."
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Title Annotation:Vital Read
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jul 2, 2002
Words:1137
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