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Women's football

From hiring Barcelona's treble-winning coach to bidding for the Euros: Ukraine turning heads in women's football

11:00 SAST 2021/12/16
Lluis Cortes Barcelona
The appointment of a Women’s Champions League winner is just another step forward the country is taking ahead of the 2025 UEFA Women’s Euros

When former Barcelona manager Lluis Cortes was announced as the new head coach of Ukraine’s women’s national team, it was quite a surprise.

A nation ranked 35th in the world that has only qualified for one major tournament, it’s not where many expected the Spaniard to land after leaving Barca, whom he led to an historic treble last season.

But this isn’t the first time that Ukraine has turned heads in the women’s game in recent months.

Just a few days before Cortes' appointment, the Ukrainian Association of Football (UAF) announced its interest in hosting the 2025 UEFA Women’s Euros.

Then, Zhytlobud-1 Kharkiv, the county’s representatives in this year’s Women’s Champions League group stages, beat Icelandic side Breidablik to put Ukraine in pole position to secure another UWCL spot from the 2023-24 season on.

Ukraine are clearly taking plenty of positive steps forward, and it seems that there are plenty more to come.

Asked how the headline-grabbing move came about, Cortes tells GOAL it was “a personal goal” of Andriy Pavelko, the UAF president: “He wanted the best coach for the national team and to build this project.”

That project is to help develop the women’s game in the country while fulfilling his coaching duties, the kind of dual-role with which he is familiar after his time in Catalonia.

“I will try to do the same, but in a very big scenario," he says. “The association is very ambitious in women's football. [It] wants to improve, I want to improve and the most important thing is that players also want to improve.

"It's a good mix that if we work together, we can reach something really good.”

That ambition hasn’t just emerged in the last few months either.

Three years ago, Kyiv hosted the UWCL final and Sergey Novikov, the deputy head of women’s football at the UAF, believes that that event provoked “change”.

“Many presidents, officials and ordinary fans watched this action and realised that women's football has a right to exist,” Novikov tells GOAL.

“Also, more and more girls saw that there is something to strive for and many began to have their own goal – to become a professional footballer.”

Around the same time, Pavelko implemented a new strategy aimed at ensuring that all men’s clubs would work with a women’s team.

“It gives the opportunity for new clubs and new schools to open all over Ukraine,” Valentyna Kotyk, head coach of Zhytlobud-1, says.

Those changes at the top level are filtering down. Kotyk explains that Zhytlobud-1 have ambitions to build a new stadium for the women’s team and a new school for girls in football.

“Taking into account the plans of the president of the club, we understand that we have a lot [of work] ahead of us,” she adds.

Ganna Voronina, a forward for both Zhytlobud-1 and the national team, has noticed the impressive job her clab has done with its UWCL fixtures too.

In the first round of group games, no match had a bigger crowd than the Ukrainian side's meeting with Real Madrid.

Zhytlobud-1's profile has also increased massively across its social channels.

“It’s due to the advertisement all over the city,” Voronina tells GOAL. “People know about this Champions League and our success.

"They follow our games. Because we play in the middle of the city, people have this opportunity to come and visit the games."

Rapid progress is being made but Ukraine still has a lot of ground to make up on more established nations.

“I feel like the country is now like we were in Spain maybe 10-15 years ago,” Cortes says. “It's true that we are far from other big countries where women's football is more popular, but it's true also that we can improve it.

“The first thing we have to start to change is the mentality of people. People must understand that today, a girl or a woman playing football should be normal.

“It's the most important step because after that, you will get more sponsors, you will get more supporters, you will get more of everything around women's football.”

There are more measurable steps that Cortes outlines, too.

“One is to increase the number of young girls playing football,” he explains. "The second is to improve the level of the Premier League, because this will also increase the level of the national team.

“Also, we have to increase the promotion of women's football. We have to make it so that more people speak about women's football in Ukraine.

"That will bring in more sponsors and it will create a bigger budget for the clubs and for the teams, to make their job better and better.

“There are some tournaments, like the Champions League, where we can show our teams in Ukraine to Europe.

"If we improve the level of the league, the participation of these clubs in the Champions League will be better. Everything is connected, but we have to work a lot.”

Progress will be aided by big moments like the Champions League final in 2018, like Zhytlobud-1’s performances in this year’s competition.

Hosting the Euros in 2025 is another a huge possible opportunity. What impact could that have?

“It will give an even greater impetus to development,” Novikov says. “After all, women's football of the highest quality will be seen in many cities of our country.

"Thousands of people will be involved in the organisation. Hundreds of thousands of fans will come to Ukraine.”

These possibilities are exciting and there is a real positive attitude within Ukrainian women’s football, but there is also realism.

When GOAL asks Voronina what she, as a player, thinks are the biggest steps the country has taken in the women’s game, she says: “Women’s football in Ukraine is at a stage where it is at the start of its development.

"I think it will require a minimum of 10 years to be fully recognised and this question will be answered really.”

There is no outlandish aim to win the next World Cup or the Champions League next season. It’s about making the most of the momentum that's clearly building within the women's game in Ukraine.

The UAF and the country's clubs are evidently intent on doing just that. Cortes’ appointment is an eye-catching move, but it’s not Ukraine's first.

“The association had a plan before I started with them,” he says. “This plan was to recognise the real situation of the association. Now, with me, we have to build the road to reach these goals.”