Girls United Football Association are a unique and inspiring non-profit group, who aim to bridge the gap between football and education.
Their mission is to empower girls in predominantly low-income areas through football and, in doing so, cultivate confident leaders on and off the field.
Founded on International Women’s Day in 2017 by 25-year-old Romina Calatayud, Girls United now has bases in England and Mexico and coaches from over 30 countries.
“We started with about 100 girls in the southeast Mexican town of Bacalar, but now England is our global hub” says Mexican-born Calatayud.
“We always look to go beyond the tactical or technical and give both players and coaches the tools to pursue life skills – and ultimately their dreams. We want happy footballers, but more importantly confident girls and women.”
To celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day, Girls United hosted a series of events and workshops, culminating in their International Women’s Day Football Tournament at Alleyn’s School in Dulwich.
“In the build up to International Women’s Day, we had a panel with former Spanish national team captain Vero Boquete and a football clinic with Crystal Palace captain Freya Holdaway,” added Calatayud.
“This provided access to strong female role models. It also tied in with our Trailblazers programme where we pair girls aged 7-14 with female industry leaders in and outside of sport. Direct exposure to a mentor is one of the fastest ways to inspire and empower young girls.
“What’s great about England is there are plenty of amazing trailblazers to choose from. Alex Scott stands out for me. She’s gone from the pitch to the media stage and shown others clear pathways in all kinds of different areas.
“I’m also hugely inspired by the FA's [Women's Football Development National Manager] Rachel Pavlou - she has developed so many incredible programmes.
“As for the International Women’s Day tournament itself, that was more focused on adults, but we put on sessions for our younger girls as well. We had 24 teams and over 250 players. There were beginner and intermediate female categories and a men’s tournament, too. After all, it’s important to have male allies.”
Entrants included Football Without Borders – an organisation who use sport to help disadvantaged or disengaged kids finish school and transition into adulthood – and inclusive football team Lush Lyfe.
“We love playing at tournaments like this,” says Lush Lyfe’s Chicago-born captain Alex Eckhout, who also works as a project manager for the Premier League.
“We’re a football team for women and non-binary identifying people. We play in Kennington and have about 25 players.
“Obviously coming here allows us to meet new teams, of all different standards, and potentially even recruit some young players. And, of course, we get to celebrate International Women’s Day with other amazing women and men.
“The key, though, is to ensure that this isn’t just a day. My advice is to make a pledge on International Women’s Day to improve the women’s game – almost like a New Year’s resolution – and give yourself until 2021’s International Women’s Day to achieve it. Then you can be proactive for an entire year.”
“We love what Girls United are doing,” adds Football Without Borders’ head of female participation Ceylon Andi Hickman. “Their mission has quite a bit of crossover with our own.
“I think the beauty of tournaments like this, and the women’s game at large, is it still has that community feel. There is a real warmth and unity. Of course, we aspire to grow both the investment and audience around women’s football. But what we can’t lose is that strong connection between the grassroots and elite because that is what makes the women’s game so special.”
Football Without Borders reached the female intermediate final, where they lost to J-Flo FC, while Pitch Please secured the female beginner trophy. Kai Hung Salt & Pepper Chicken claimed the men’s title.
The quality on show was extremely high, but for Calatayud and Girls United the tournament, and more broadly International Women’s Day, is about far more than just football – it’s a chance to celebrate their achievements and empower the next generation of talent and leaders.
“International Women’s Day allows us to put out all our messages – and, through the tournament, partners – in one place,” says Calatayud. “That’s exciting and empowering. But my true passion is just the day to day.
“We run seven sessions per week for girls aged between 5-16 as part of our so-called Play Like A Girl initiative. Sundays see us train at an FA Wildcats centres giving younger girls their first experience of football. It’s a safe, fun social space where they can fall in love with the game.
“I applaud the FA’s efforts because the Wildcats centres across England have done an incredible job of getting more girls involved. As a female, starting football during your formative years is so crucial to feeling comfortable in your body. As you get older, if you haven’t played at all, it’s much harder to feel confident on a football field.
“With our younger players, their evolution is incredible. They start by hiding behind their parents’ legs, but after a week or two they have dozens of friends and can’t wait to show you all the new tricks they know.
“One of the reasons I founded Girls United was because I didn’t have that safe football space. I grew up playing with boys and had to be really brave just to step on the pitch with them.
“I was shoved in goal because I suppose it kept me out the way, and even when outfield almost no-one passed me the ball. So many girls and women have exactly the same story. And some I know even dressed up as boys just to be more accepted and see more of the ball.
“What we’re trying to do is normalise the image of a girl playing sport and show that football is for all, regardless of sex, race, sexual orientation or ability.
“International Women’s Day, and tournaments like this, give us that platform. But the hard work continues after 8 March and during the other 364 days of the year.”
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