Girls Can Play, too!
CCPA and the Popularisation of Women’s Football in the Balkans
The Cross Cultures Project Association (CCPA) was set up in the aftermath of the conflict in ex-Yugoslavian states to promote peace and reconciliation through football. Although not initially a focus from the outset, the implementation of the project across the Balkans has played a significant role in the empowerment of women in the region and has led to a surge in the number of female footballers.
Having worked for the UN during the conflict between ex-Yugoslavian states, Anders Levinson knew there was still work to be done after the United Nations Security Council resolution had been agreed. The inter-ethnic tensions would still provide a very real and unpleasant undertone to the daily lives of the region’s people, and Anders was determined to contribute to the preservation of peace in whatever way he could.
Leaning on the experiences and contacts he had made earlier in life as a professional footballer in Denmark, Anders set about establishing the CCPA, a non-governmental organisation that would use football as a tool for peace and reconciliation in Sarajevo.
Together with Esad Hadžijusufović a former professional footballer for FC Sarajevo and coach to FK UNIS Vogošća the two men set about building CCPA’s presence across southeastern Europe – mainly through schools, lasting five days in duration (Open Fun Football Schools, or OFFS) – relying heavily on their combined passion and enthusiasm to forge cooperation with municipalities, who could supply the pitches and coaches.
CCPA’s popularity grew from strength to strength, spreading across Bosnia and Herzegovina to other ex-Yugoslavian states – Macedonia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo – and is today in 22 countries having touched over a million children.
Although it was not the main focus of their mission, Anders and Esad sought to encourage the involvement of girls in the schools from the very start because they were aware of the lack of opportunities available at the time. Although women’s football did exist before the conflict – for example, and there were three women’s football teams in Bosnia and Herzegovina (ŽFK Željezničar, ŽFK Breza and ŽFK Fojnica), which were only for adult players – there were no categories for younger players and children.
The pair were fortunate enough to cross paths with the likes of Samira Hurem. Samira was a player for the national team when she began working at CCPA’s schools as an instructor. As Samira explained:
“At that time in Bosnia, women’s football was almost non-existent. The men were always given the priority to play on the pitches that hadn’t been ruined during the war, and the last thing girls’ parents were thinking was to let their daughters go and play football.”
As CCPA’s figures show, only 7% of OFFS participants in that first year 1998 were girls.
Fortunately, the situation changed almost overnight. As word of the schools got around, more and more municipalities welcomed CCPA, and more girls joined – after hearing about the experiences of their peers.
It was in 2000 that Samira permanently made the transition from player to president and head coach of the women’s football club Sarajevo SFK 2000. She remarks on how the garden from which she was able to pick her players blossomed thanks to the growing popularity of football among girls.
CCPA’s goal is to create and leave behind sustainable structures to enable the children to continue playing together after the schools have ended. Generally this involves collaboration between the local authorities, schools, parents, and coaches, to formalise training sessions, and ultimately set up clubs, which are self-sustaining.
To further this aim, in 2001 CCPA set the target for their schools to attract 50% of participants that do not play for clubs. The impact of this new policy on girls’ football was immense because, in the early days, it was much more likely for boys to be members of clubs than it was for girls.
There was a photo taken at a meal attended by the Bosnia and Herzegovina Under-19 team in 2007 to which the expression “a picture speaks a thousand words” certainly applies. In the photo, the young women were asked to raise their hands if they had participated in one of CCPA’s OFFS as a young girl. All but one or two girls has their hands up in the photo.
Such was the demand, that CCPA were able to hold their first female football festival in 2007 in Vogošća, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which saw an unprecedented 300 girls on the pitch on one day. Two women’s football clubs (ŽNK Travnik and ŽNK Mladost Poljavnice) were established by participants, parents and municipalities, as a legacy of this festival. Both of these clubs regularly play in the Women’s Champions League today.
Not satisfied with the steady growth, in 2008 CCPA established a new rule, which required municipalities and team leaders to seek a minimum proportion of 35% of girls in their programmes. They would have set it higher still, but for the fact that not all communities were ready to put their full support behind girls’ participation. CCPA pushed on regardless, determined to meet this minimum target, turning their attention towards elementary schools and other sports clubs, such as handball and athletics, to offer girls an opportunity to play football.
An immediate impact on CCPA was that there was now a pool of experienced female assistant coaches to help run their programmes – in Serbia, today, roughly 50% of OFFS coaches are now female – these girls acted as role models to the participants and accelerated the momentum further still.
As the girls graduated from the programmes, they naturally would look for more opportunities to play. They began signing petitions, along with their parents, to establish their own clubs.
A recent example is that of Sokolac female football club, based in the countryside surrounding Sarajevo, which was established because the girls had experienced an OFFS but had no where to go afterwards. They started turning up at the men’s team’s training sessions, but of course that meant they could still not compete in competitions. Eventually they put forward a petition to establish a club, which was signed by parents and coaches. A new club was formed in April 2014 and began playing in friendly matches and tournaments. After sending an official letter to the Football Association in August 2015, the club was formally recognised.
Despite an initial bad reaction within the community, negative attitudes towards the team are changing because the families and municipality are firmly behind the players. They were provided with an annual health check, and have access to a van, which transports them to away games, and sandwiches after the game. Despite Sokolac’s first game in the league competition in October resulting in a 6-1 loss, it has been a very positive start!
Unfortunately though, the successful establishment of these three clubs has been the exception rather than the rule over the years. In many cases, when girls want to continue playing football after their experiences during OFFS, they have nowhere to go. There is a lack of female clubs and, of those that do exist, there is a serious lack of infrastructure.
Snezana Rajacic insists there is hope. A doctor and professor of vocational subjects in medical school, Snezana is also part of the Serbian FA’s Women’s Commission. She recalls a women’s football development seminar held two years ago:
“It had tremendous results,” she explained, “a four-year strategy was created, which led to the establishment of a development league, and a campaign to encourage school girls to join clubs, which is supported by FIFA as part of the ‘Live Your Goals’ initiative.”
The campaign “My School – My Club”, involved the organisation of several local tournaments and mini-festivals for girls. The aim of the project was to inspire 10 – 12 year-old girls to join football clubs and, at the same time, to select 70 talented individuals for each regional festival, held throughout Serbia. A final festival was held at the Serbian FA’s football centre, in Stara Pazova. The campaign was a huge success and proved to be an excellent model for the popularisation of football among girls in Serbia. Indeed, the OFFS concept of small groups moving from one station to the next, and thus participating in a range of different activities on one pitch, was used at the festivals.
Seminars focusing on women’s football have since been held across Europe by FIFA and UEFA. They’ve been led by experts such as ex-England coach Hope Powell, and concentrate on important themes, such as training younger categories of girls (from 12 to 15 years old), and, more generally, defining the problems that arise in the development of women’s football. As Snezana recounts:
“These seminars have enabled us to become acquainted with ways in which we can start solving some of the problems we’ve had in women’s football: resistance, negative stereotypes, developing grassroots football, allocating resources, and the list goes on.”
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Azra Numanović, coach, national team player, and general secretary of SKF, working together with Samira, gave a concrete example on the major problem – facilities:
“When there are no females in positions of power within grassroots football, then no pitches can be secured, and, therefore, no schedule can be made available to women’s teams. Essentially, that means there is no growth, because things simply cannot be organised on stand-by. The wave of popularity and development in women’s football cannot be met because the facilities have stayed the same.”
In Serbia, the fate of women’s football also seems, at times, to be in the hands of those organising the men’s game. When FC Borca, a men’s team from Belgrade, were relegated from the SuperLiga in 2013, the management decided to drop their women’s team to save costs. At the time, the women’s team was very successful.
Maria Lazovic was a late converter to football. At 21, she decided that she wanted to play football. At the time she was studying to be a civil engineer, and her parents were worried that it would get in the way of her studies. In one month, Maria was captain of her team, and in three months she’d been picked for the national team. Soon afterwards she joined CCPA as a coach for their schools. She reflected:
“You must really love women’s football to be involved. In the end, I couldn’t carry on. I couldn’t support myself financially and had to focus on my studies. But they were the best days of my life.”
Vildana Delalić-Elezović, project manager at CCPA, framed the problem in economic terms. She said:
“Only 0.49% of the Sarajevo cantonal budget is allocated to sport and culture. Imagine the measly amount that trickles down to Samira.”
“We have had good results under bad conditions. Just think how we can do under good conditions.”
There are currently 50 female clubs in total in Sarajevo; many of which are still using CCPA’s equipment. To compliment CCPA’s efforts, there have been positive steps in Bosnia and Herzegovina in recent years. The Premier League imposed a rule that every club playing in the league must have an associated women’s team. In Sarajevo, this has led to encouraging talks between FKS, the men’s team, and SFK. A new investment in to FKS has ensured a new training centre could be built, which itself opens up opportunities with SFK. At the time of writing the two clubs have signed an MoU to use these facilities to train and develop both the men’s and women’s teams.
For the future, Samira, Vildana, Esad and Anders look no further than Azra. She was born in Zvornik, a city on the border between Bosnia and Serbia. At the very beginning of the war, her family was expelled from their home and, after being moved from one refugee centre to another, they fled to Germany where Azra spent her late childhood.
When the war ended, Azra and her family returned to Sarajevo. Azra soon found out that, as a girl, she did not have anywhere to practice sport, let alone football. So after she heard about SFK in the news, a newly formed female club, she hurried to join. At the time, SFK was helping to organise an OFFS programme, so OFFS was Azra’s first introduction to the beautiful game!
Azra was so enthralled by the game, and empowered by the new sense of freedom that it offered, that she kept playing. She said:
“Through CCPA and SFK, I was able to play and develop in the game I’d always loved. That’s why I had no doubts about embracing the opportunities when they arose. To begin with, I thought I’d do other things in life, so I went to study German at university. But, as it turns out, my life has definitely taken the path of football.”
Azra became an OFFS coach, senior player for SFK and the national team, club coach, general secretary and, recently was awarded her refereeing licence!
Azra is an example of how projects, such as CCPA’s OFFS, can use football’s inherent values as a tool for social development. Her story, and the positive impacts on female football in general, and on empowering women in southeastern Europe, underlines the importance of developing a robust and sustainable framework so that others like her can benefit in the same way.
Back in Belgrade, When Snezana was asked what she would do tomorrow to change women’s football in the region, without any hesitation, she said that she had two dreams:
“First, establish one location to educate trainers and professional players. Ensure that these players are employed after their playing careers, and used to go around the country and promote women’s football. And, second, establish a women’s football department in the football association. Why? Because the people working there will have the power and the experience to really make a difference.”
1998 – CCPA is established and only 7% of OFFS participants in that year are girls
2000 – Samira makes the transition from player to President and Head Coach of the women’s football club Sarajevo SFK 2000
2001 – CCPA set the target for their schools to attract 50% of participants that do not play for clubs, a move which consequently had a huge impact on girl’s football
2006 – Azra is first introduced to the beautiful game through participation at a joint CCPA-SFK OFFS
2007 – Photo taken of the Bosnia and Herzegovina U19 women’s team – “A picture speaks a thousand words”
2007 – CCPA held its first female football festival in Vogošća, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
2008 – CCPA established a new rule, which required municipalities and team leaders to seek a minimum proportion of 35% of girls in their programmes
2013 – FC Borca management decided to drop their successful women’s team to save costs after the men’s team was relegated from the Serbian SuperLiga
2013 – Football development seminar held in Serbia, which led to four-year strategy
2015 – Sokolac female football club officially recognised by the Bosnia and Herzegovina Football Association