Women in sport: England may not be in the European final today, but the future of football is female

As many women will be playing football as men in five years. And in every field of sport, they are beginning to beat them at their own games

The future of football is female. As three million viewers prepare to tune into the final of the European Womens' Football championships today, star figures in the game have their eyes on a much bigger prize: an all-women revolution for the so-called beautiful game.

While England's women may have already been knocked out of the tournament,The Independent on Sunday can reveal today plans backed by the Football Association to capitalise on the success of Euro 2005 and eventually bring seven million girls to the game. The spearhead will be a massive marketing campaign, which includes sending British footballing stars to schools.

But footballing for girls has a momentum of its own. In 2003 there were 4,820 female football clubs, more than double the number in 2002. Now there are 8,000 with 131,378 affiliated players. If the figures continue to double, the girls will match the boys' number of 40,000 clubs in five years.

In an exclusive interview with the IoS, Sir Trevor Brooking, the former England star who is now the FA's director of football development, called on the Government to back these efforts to promote the game to women with a massive cash injection.

"We're trying to improve the coaching at grassroots level," said Sir Trevor. "But we suffer from a lack of investment in things like training pitches and changing rooms. We need £2bn."

But football aside, women are making huge strides in conventional male sports. For more than a century they lagged far down the field in terms of both spectators and performance, but they have shown such a phenomenal improvement rate over the past 50 years that they are now almost on a par with men.

Analysis of statistics over the past 50 years reveals they are hitting much harder, running much faster and leaping much higher than ever before. Paula Radcliffe can beat any British man in the marathon and is faster than the 1954 male world-record holder, Jim Peters.

Even the testosterone-fuelled world of motor racing is not immune. Danica Patrick, the only woman in elite motor sport, led the field in last month's gruelling Indianapolis 500 in the US, eventually finishing fourth.

Interest in women's sport is also on the rise. More than 22 million American television viewers watched Jane Couch, Britain's top female boxer, in her recent title fight.

Sports scientists say the vast improvement in women's achievement - Radcliffe's marathon record is a full hour faster than the women's 1967 record, while the men have shaved just five minutes in that time - is put down to changes in society.

Sarah Rowell, a sports scientist at the English Institute of Sport, said: "Over the past 20 to 30 years women have been able to train and get the same support services that men have had for longer."

But sports fans hoping for the day when men and women will compete together are going to be disappointed. England winger Rachel Yankey said the women's game has to be seen as different to the men's.

"I'm one of the quick ones, but I can't get past a 16-year-old boy."

Additional research by Aline Nassif

The runners

Paula Radcliffe

Age: 31 Country: UK

Fastest time: Marathon world record of two hours, 15 minutes, 25 seconds

Medals: Gold in the 5,000m at Commonwealth games and in the 10,000m at the European Championships in 2002

versus

Paul Tergat

Age: 36 Country: Kenya

Fastest time: Marathon world record of two hours, four minutes, 55 seconds

Medals: Silver in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics in the 10,000m

The football players

Rachel Yankey

Age: 25

The most capped player in the England squad, and the first Englishwoman to turn professional, she has been named the International Player of the Year. Has sponsorship deals with Nike and Umbro. "I don't think there is much difference between the skills of men and women," she says. "But in speed and power, men just have the advantage."

versus

Steven Gerrard

Age: 25

European Cup winner and Liverpool captain. Made his England debut in 2000 and an automatic choice for the first team. One of the most coveted players in the world, he is currently wanted by Spanish giants Real Madrid.

The golfers

Michelle Wie

Age: 15 Country: US

First PGA tour: Aged 14

Performance: Shot 72-68 in two rounds of the Sony Open, finishing two under par. Missed the cut by one stroke

Average drive: 271 yards

versus

Tiger Woods

Age: 29 Country: US

First PGA tour: Aged 16

Performance: Shot 72-75 in two rounds of the Nissan Los Angeles open. Missed the cut by six strokes

Average drive: 299 yards

The tennis players

Venus Williams

Age: 25 Country: US

Height: 6ft 1in

Serve: World record 127.4mph

Highest world ranking: One

Singles titles: 32

Career prize money: $14,815,188

versus

Andy Roddick

Age: 22 Country: US

Height: 6ft 2in

Serve: World record 155mph

Highest world ranking: One

Singles titles: 18

Career prize money: $8,399,951

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