Women’s football takes step forward in Finland | Inside UEFA

The 50th anniversary arrives this year of organised women’s football in Finland – a milestone that the country’s football association will celebrate with the slogan “The game has opened to everyone”. This slogan now holds even more substance thanks to the launch of the first Women’s Football Strategy for the Finnish game.

View Finland’s women’s football strategy (Finnish only)

Finland's National League clubs have benefited from UEFA Grow resources

Finland’s National League clubs have benefited from UEFA Grow resourcesFAF

The Football Association of Finland – or Suomen Palloliitto-Finlands Bollförbund (SPL-FBF) – drew inspiration from UEFA’s ‘Time for Action’ strategy for the period 2019-24 when, two years ago, it appointed Heidi Pihlaja as its first head of women’s football development. Her first action was to develop a new approach for the Finnish women’s league and fundamental to this were certain specific watchwords – equality, a will to succeed, and boldness.

Pihlaja explains: “In the summer of 2019, we started the work of developing the women’s game in Finland by producing a new strategy for the league.” This resulted in the renaming of the league as the Kansallinen Liiga – in English, the National League. The choice of a gender-neutral name was representative of a cultural change, adds Pihlaja, noting that “the name of the game is football, no matter who kicks the ball”.

To provide a stronger economic platform for the new league, the SPL-FBF succeeded in finding a main commercial partner in Subway and a broadcast partner in Sanoma Media Finland, both on long-term deals. To instil a fresh sense of purpose, meanwhile, it gave clubs a series of strategic targets, with financial support dependent on their success in reaching these goals. With the help of UEFA Grow, clubs have been able to access advice in the areas of marketing, commercial and fan engagement.

Throughout 2020, Pihlaja worked on developing her FA’s Women’s Football Strategy. One significant feature of this strategy is its integration into the association’s overall strategy. Ari Lahti, the SPL-FBF president, has said of this: “One of our main goals for the coming years is to increase the inclusion of women and girls in the football family. We have already introduced equal national-team contracts and strengthened the role of the top league for women. Reaching full equality in sports still demands tons of hard work, but we are committed to that development.”

The SPL-FBF has received support in its work from Sissel Gynnild Hartley, a Norwegian football marketing expert assigned a mentor role through UEFA. She has shared her experience of working for the English Football Association, for which she developed the ‘A League Of Our Own’ campaign for the Women’s Super League (WSL).

One of the new strategy's main goals is to make football the number one female sport in Finland

One of the new strategy’s main goals is to make football the number one female sport in FinlandFAF

The early signs for the Kansallinen Liiga are encouraging. With the launch of a new website and better channels of communication with local and national media, the coverage of the league increased by 34 per cent in 2020 when compared with the previous season. Moreover, despite the Covid-19 restrictions, league attendances rose by 15 per cent last year.

Looking ahead, earlier this month the Finnish association began the recruitment process for a new full-time employee who will have the task of helping clubs to improve the coaching of their girls’ teams as well as to better integrate the girls’ operations into their existing club structures. This is fundamental to the stated ambition of the SPL-FBF that clubs across Finland – which normally combine top-level sides with a grassroots section – should have girls’ football fully integrated (and to which end it has released a series of guidelines).

Pihlaja draws encouragement from the number of clubs which are focused on increasing opportunities for girls and she cites the 82 applications received from clubs across the country looking to take part in the UEFA Playmakers programme, set to start this spring. The ultimate goal is to make football the most popular sport for females in Finland by 2027 – which is the year that Finland hopes to be hosting FIFA Women’s World Cup matches as part of a joint-Nordic bid together with Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

A more immediate goal was a place at UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 in England – and it was fitting that on 19 February, the same day that the strategy was launched, Finland secured their qualification thanks to a 1-0 victory over Portugal. Linda Sällström’s goal in the third minute of stoppage time provided another good reason for celebration, leaving Finns looking forward to their first participation since 2013 – and fourth overall.

Find out how women’s coaching is also thriving in Finland