Footballing history was made in Azerbaijan between 22 September and 13 October 2012. Azerbaijan hosted the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup for the first time; in fact this was the first time the competition had been held in Europe. It was held over 21 days and was remembered for three reasons: tense, interesting matches, great support from the fans and the high-level of organization.

How do women play football?

If you have never watched women playing football in a stadium, then you will not fully understand the charm. When you think of women’s football, don’t imagine a dull, boring, tentative event; whatever ideas you have of the feminine, women’s football is a joy to watch; sometimes more attractive than the men’s game. However, teaching women to play football and training them for tournaments and championships is harder than it is for men, because women can be sensitive and slighter. The biggest challenges in the process come from psychological factors; given social expectations, it can be difficult to get the women psychologically focused on the game and to boost their confidence. Women’s football is most developed in the USA, Germany, Brazil, Japan and France, while it does not have such a long history in Azerbaijan. Although women have played football here, 2010 represented a completely new stage. This began on 19 March 2010 when FIFA’s Executive Committee decided to hold the U-17 Women’s World Cup in Azerbaijan. The management of the Association of Football Federations in Azerbaijan (AFFA) initiated the formation of an Under-17 national women’s team and German expert Sissy Raith was appointed head coach. As soon as she arrived in Azerbaijan, Raith toured the different regions of the country and held trials for girls aged under 15 who could play football. The years 2010-2012 could be regarded as the renaissance of women’s football in Azerbaijan. From a base of 25 registered professional female footballers, the number soon rose to 1,700.

The teams

Now let’s take a look at the teams that participated in the U-17 World Cup. Besides the Azerbaijani national team, who automatically qualified as hosts, 15 other teams were in competition: Japan, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, China, Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, the USA, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay, Columbia, New Zealand, France and Germany. This was only the third time this World Cup had been held. In 2008 in New Zealand the DPR Korea triumphed and in 2010 in Trinidad and Tobago it was the turn of South Korea to take the trophy. However, it was interesting that this time the championship was held without the reigning world champions; the South Korean team did not get through qualification. The matches were held in two cities – Baku and Lenkeran. The capital had two new stadiums, specially built for the World Cup: the Bayil Arena and the 8 km Stadium. The Tofig Bahramov national stadium had also been completely renovated. In a word, everything was ready for the opening on 22 September.

The President watched

The opening ceremony at the Tofig Bahramov stadium was certainly memorable. The organizing committee had ensured a colourful and interesting opening programme. Following a specially-designed programme from Canada’s Cirque du Soleil was singer Jennifer Lopez. Her grand entrance to the stadium caused great excitement among the 30,000 fans who had come to watch. Of course Azerbaijan’s government, as well as the heads of FIFA were in attendance at such a prestigious tournament. President Ilham Aliyev, who has done much to support the development of sports in the country, was present together with First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva and other members of the family. Fifa president Joseph Blatter and AFFA president Rovnag Abdullayev were also in the VIP stand.
After the grand opening, the national teams of Azerbaijan and Columbia entered the arena. Head of state Ilham Aliyev and the presidents of FIFA and AFFA greeted the sportswomen on the pitch.

African sensation

Azerbaijan were drawn in group A with Columbia, Nigeria and Canada. France, the DPR Korea, the USA and Gambia were in group B; Japan, Brazil, Mexico and New Zealand made up group C; and China, Germany, Ghana and Uruguay formed group D. Unfortunately, the Azerbaijani footballers could not match their fans’ hopes. The team was only formed two years ago and had very little international experience; they gave their all but lost their three group games. The qualifiers for the quarter-finals were Canada and Nigeria from group A, the DPR Korea and France from group B, Japan and Brazil from group C and Germany and Ghana from group D. The fans were in for a treat with some tough, tense matches. There was also a real sensation in the quarter-finals. Ghana beat the favourites, Japan, with the only goal of the game and became the first ever team from Africa to make it to the semi-finals. The Ghana team went on to register another ‘first’ later in the championship. In the other quarter-final matches, previous champions the DPR Korea beat Canada (2:1), Germany overcame Brazil (2:1) and France eventually saw off Nigeria (0:0, then 5:3 on penalties). The semi-finals went to form. The DPR Korea beat Germany (2:1) and France despatched Ghana (2:0), but the African team was not finished yet. In the bronze medal match, despite losing a player to a red card in the 32nd minute against Germany, they demonstrated a real will to win and scored the only goal in the 38th minute. Thus they became the first Africans to take a world cup medal.

France – Champions!

The last game of the championships was played on 13 October and produced a game worthy of a World Cup Final. The DPR Korea and France drew 27,000 fans to the Tofig Bahramov stadium to watch. Among them was President Ilham Aliyev. Also in attendance were UEFA President Michel Platini, FIFA Executive Committee member Lydia Nsekera, AFFA President Rovnag Abdullayev and officials from other international and national football organizations.

The DPR Korea were determined to beat France and take the trophy for a second time. However, they were under pressure from the opening moments and went behind in the 33rd minute to a goal by Lea Declercq. They fought back and finally managed to equalise in the 79th minute through RI Un Sim, and that’s the way it stayed to the end of normal play. So the final was to be decided by penalties. The Europeans turned out to be luckier in the lottery – 7:6 – and France were world champions for the first time. The Korean girls could not hold back their tears; they cried their hearts out, showing the bitterness of defeat in such an important competition.

Celebrating with Shakira

The victory ceremonies began with medals for the final’s officials. Then Japan were presented with the Fair Play trophy. The Golden Boot went to Korean striker Ri Un-Sim, the Golden Glove was won by France’s goalkeeper Romane Bruneau and the Golden Ball for best player was awarded to French defender Griedge Mbock Bathy. Ghana then received their bronze medals, the DPR Korea the silver medals and, finally, World Champions France were given their gold medals and the World Cup. The ceremonies over, it was time for celebration. The stage at the Tofig Bahramov stadium was given to Shakira and the Columbian star singer proved to be a true show stopper. By the way, during the championship, besides Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna and Shakira, the German singer Oceana was also in Baku to give a concert in the tournament’s Fan Zone.

Joseph Blatter: Azerbaijan is an extraordinary country

The whole championship was organized to an exceptionally high level. The fans who attended the matches, each one more interesting and captivating than the last, over the three weeks, witnessed sporting history being made. AFFA’s management showed their organizational skills in hosting an international football championship for the first time in the country. So it came as no surprise that FIFA and UEFA officials spoke very highly of the event. FIFA President Joseph Blatter said that the competition being organized in Azerbaijan was of great significance:

Azerbaijan is an extraordinary country. This was the first time we have held a high-level women’s world championship in a Muslim country. This event will be of great importance for the development of women’s football and will have a positive impact on the promotion of women’s rights in the world.

UEFA President Michel Platini was also impressed by the organization of the championship. FIFA Vice President and Executive Committee Member Issa Hayatou declared that the country had great prospects for hosting further competitions:

The sports infrastructure, hotels and the level of organizations – all speak of the fact that Azerbaijan has strong enough potential to host other international events.

Anastasia Tsichlas, a member of the Organizing Committee for the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, said that she was positively impressed by everything she saw in Baku.

What did Azerbaijan gain from the World Cup?

Many people wonder what Azerbaijan gained by hosting the World Cup. First of all, its reputation among international football organizations rose significantly. It is no secret that the U-17 women’s world cup was a future-oriented tournament. In taking on this responsibility, AFFA officials sent a message to the FIFA and UEFA administrations. - We have proved that our country can host any international competition we wish to. There were no shortcomings or complaints. This competition attracted more fans than previous world cups, so the Land of Fire is ready to host even bigger football tournaments. Azerbaijan is determined to organize the European Football Championship in 2020. A successful World Cup proved that Azerbaijan can be trusted. So all we can say is - See you very soon!

Interesting facts and figures about the World Cup

- It has been held twice before; this was the first to be held in Eurasia.
- It was aired live to 165 different parts of the planet over 21 days.
- About 1,000 volunteers helped in the organization of the tournament.
- The Azerbaijan-Columbia match was watched by 30,250 fans, a record attendance in the history of the tournament.
- The Gambian team faced financial problems and only managed to find the necessary 2 million dalasi (approximately 50,000 AZN) for transport to participate in the championship at the very last moment.
- Another African representative, Ghana, which arrived in Azerbaijan having travelled 11,000 km, wrote a new page in women’s football. The team took third place to become the first African team to win medals in the U-17 World Cup.Footballing history was made in Azerbaijan between 22 September and 13 October 2012. Azerbaijan hosted the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup for the first time; in fact this was the first time the competition had been held in Europe. It was held over 21 days and was remembered for three reasons: tense, interesting matches, great support from the fans and the high-level of organization.