It has been another defining year for the women's game in Europe as the Netherlands claimed the UEFA Women's EURO 2017 championship and Lyon lifted the UEFA Women's Champions League trophy for the second consecutive season.
But in order to inspire the next generation, young girls need female role models to emulate as they take to the local parks in increasing numbers each and every weekend, and on Wednesday evening in Monaco, Lieke Martens claimed the coveted UEFA Women's Player of the Year award to round-off a hugely successful season for the attacking winger who recently made the switch to Barcelona.
Martens starred for Rosengard in the UEFA Women's Champions League last season as the Swedish side reached the last eight. But it was in her homeland of the Netherlands that Martens really came to prominence as she inspired her side, and a nation, to glory. Martens was one of the stand out performers for the Dutch from the opening match, and her quality service and goalscoring prowess made her a deserved winner as she stood alongside Cristiano Ronaldo at the award ceremony in Monaco.
With three goals from six games, Martens played a pivotal role in the Netherlands lifting the trophy, but with the UEFA women's award now taken centre stage alongside the men's in a sign of equality, she now has the opportunity to inspire an entire generation of young girls. Still just 24, Martens is one of the most recognisable faces in the women's game following her recent individual and team success, and is a excellent example of what can be achieved.
The women's game can point to individual years in recent history as significant moments to mark its evolution and development as Europe looks to catch up with the United States in terms of both female participation and talent. The London Olympics in 2012 proved to be the event that expanded interest to a wider audience, when previously it had been nothing more than a niche sport.
Likewise, the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup attracted record television viewing figures and made players household names as England inspired a nation by reaching the semi-final stage. That tournament alone provided a springboard for the progression and development of the Women's Super League (WSL) in England, and there are similar stories across Europe as the popularity of the women's game reaches new highs.
For years, encouraging young girls to play competitive and organised football in a safe environment was extremely difficult, with few female teams in existence, let alone entire female leagues. This is no longer the case, and there are opportunities for young girls in the majority of towns and cities to get involved. New initiatives have been launched on both national and international platforms, and the game is set to continue to grow at an alarming rate.
The incredible scenes of thousands of people celebrating the success of the Netherlands the day after the EURO 2017 final represented a cultural shift in in terms of respect and popularity of the sport, and as national associations across Europe buy into the benefits of achieving success in the women's game, so the investment increases and the overall quality in the short and long-term improves. These are exciting times for Lieke Martens, and for the women's game as a whole.
The women's game has its critics, but this is largely through ignorance than through educated opinion. Natural comparisons with the men's game are unfair as the physicality and pace will always be significantly different, but there are many elements to the women's game that should be applauded, and the mutual respect between opponents often puts the men's game to shame. Few fouls are ever exaggerated in the women's game, and with the referee having an easier game to manage, this respect also extends to the match officials as a result.
The strength of the women's game in the United States remains the benchmark for European clubs to aspire too, and while it will still take a few years to reach that level, it is encouraging that the women's game across Europe is moving in the right direction.
Having a long-term goal ensures there is a focus and purpose to every initiative introduced, and the game consistently becomes bigger and better with each passing season. “This is so amazing,” said an emotional Martens. “It's a big honour. I'm really proud but I couldn't achieve this without my team-mates. It's like living a dream.”