Nurturing athletes and leaders. Under this commitment, Lucy Mills seeks to empower girls to make a positive impact beyond women’s football. From Ghana to Denmark, from the opportunity to educate and inspire girls at Right to Dream Football Academy to establish a girls’ academy at FC Nordsjælland. She experienced football as a player and a coach before working on the 2010 FIFA World Cup official legacy project in 16 African countries. On her daily agenda, transforming, leading and giving back.
From your experience as Group Head of Women’s Football for Right to Dream, owner of FC Nordsjælland, how has women’s football evolved over the last years in Denmark?
Danish women’s football has historically been popular and well organised. There is strong participation at the grassroots but the game has yet to really take off at the elite end, unlike what has happened in several other countries in Europe. There are two dominant professional women’s teams, Fortuna Hjørring and Brøndby IF, that compete in the UEFA Women’s Champions League and offer exciting pathways for talented players. Many talented Danish players are playing overseas and there is scope for the 3F Liga to become more competitive to incentivise these players to return home. With professional mindset and investment, it is possible in Denmark to progress as a women’s football club. The success of the Danish women’s national team at the recent EUROs captivated the nation more so than any other women’s football event for years and there is generally good momentum at the moment. This context supports what Right to Dream is all about giving young people – regardless of gender – the right to dream. At our club, FC Nordsjælland, we recently announced our strategic commitment to elite women’s and girls’ football. The women’s and girls’ teams are fully integrated with the boys’ academy and men’s professional club, and the women’s football department has full access to to expertise and resources within FCN. This strategic commitment is backed by the owners / investors of the club, as well as the club’s Chairman, CEO and senior management team, which we believe makes ambitions for women and girls at FCN limitless. We are striving for FCN Women to play Champions League football one day. We are also striving for the newly launched Girls’ Academy to compete in Denmark’s U18 national elite league. We have a long-term commitment to establishing an elite player development model that transforms Danish women’s football landscape, as well as commitment to strengthening girls’ football at the grassroots through our community network comprising many local girls’ teams.
“The success of Denmark at WEURO captivated the nation”
Creating a women’s team is becoming more and more common among European clubs. How can we make these new women’s teams appealing to existing men’s teams’ fans?
We believe that the women’s and girls’ teams at FCN add value to the overall club and community and it is our responsibility to set a precedent and generate interest among our existing men’s fans. One thing we are seeing is that the demand and interest for women’s football is actually there, but that we need to be able to enable people to access it. For example, for existing sponsors of our men’s team, we created an Equality Package as a way for them to support the women’s team. It has been hugely popular. And for existing fans of our men’s team, we believe it is also down to us to set the precedent. Our vision for match days at our stadium, Right to Dream Park, is that we have the men’s fixture and the women’s fixture back-to-back, so that when fans buy a ticket they buy for both games, and gain an excellent fan experience throughout the day. We are in the business of quality football and development, which are genderless. We want our fans to see that both the men and women play the same style of football, have the same character on and off the pitch, and that we nurture talent from within our academies and support young people in an holistic and positive way. We are of course aware that women’s football has the potential to attract new segments of society and engage audiences in entirely different ways, so it seems to be increasingly less the case that women’s teams need to only rely on existing fans of men’s teams for their fan base and commercial sustainability.
Countless student-athletes have lived inspiring stories a Right to Dream academy. How significant can football become to improve people’s lives?
FCN is owned by the Right to Dream Group, which has its origins in running the premier football and education academy in Africa. Right to Dream Ghana runs the first and only residential girls’ football academy for girls in Africa, where girls from Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria access top education alongside football. Right to Dream understands the enormous and transformative potential of football among girls and young women, which is especially so in West Africa where there are social, cultural, educational and economic gender imbalances and pervasive discrimination against women. Because girls are born into a society that de-prioritises the value of girls and women, not only do they encounter challenges associated with growing up in a context of poverty, they also face limitations and restrictions in terms of their mobility, space wherein they feel heard and represented, confidence and self-esteem, and control over their future. Right to Dream’s experience of working with girls has proved to be totally transformational, with a multiplying impact on girls, and indeed boys and wider society. The current academy girls and graduates are powerful female role models and leaders, more than we ever could have anticipated, and we quickly learnt that they are already inspiring other girls and are challenging entrenched perceptions about girls in West Africa. We already have 5 girls who have graduated Right to Dream and awarded scholarships at top schools in the USA totalling $500,000. The girls participated in their first ever international tour in summer 2017, where they participated in a training camp at FCN, competed against top Scandinavian teams, won the Cup No. 1 tournament in Denmark and won B Playoff final in U17 elite category at the Gothia Cup Sweden.
Through running the Right to Dream girls academy, we have learnt the following about how football can improve people’s lives:
- Football has the potential to challenge social and gender stereotypes and perceptions.
- Football brings physical, social and emotional well-being.
- Playing football gives girls and young women a sense of equality and empowerment and, when they are given the opportunity, they become much needed role models.
- Football can be harnessed to tackle stigma and discrimination, advocate on global issues and contribute to social change.
- Football can facilitate girls’ education, which is the world’s best investment with the widest ranging returns in achieving a better, more equitable society.
“We created an Equality package for our sponsors”
You were involved in a legacy project for FIFA World Cup in 16 African countries. What did you learn from that experience?
For over a decade I have been involved in football for development in West and Southern Africa. As a fresh faced 19 year old I first went to Ghana to volunteer with Right to Dream. After completing studies I worked in South Africa for six years, during which time I work on FIFA’s official legacy project for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. As a Programme Manager I supported programme development, funding, workshops and exchanges for 17 community organisations in 16 countries. I gained a unique insight into wide range of community organisations using football to address varied social issues such as health, education and gender equality. I learnt the realities of engaging in community work in disadvantaged contexts, but more importantly I learnt the unique and innovative power of football to inspire people from all walks of life. Working on an international project like that, with many stakeholders and countries involved, was also a valuable education in balancing cross-cultural priorities and perspectives.
Finally, in few words, what is the best of working in women’s football?
Not only is women’s football a wonderful game, I also see it as a movement that transcends the sport. I gain a sense of purpose and enjoyment from making a contribution to disrupting the status quo and striving for equality. On a day to day basis, I guess it’s great to have access to playing or watching football as much or as little as I like!