Female leaders lighting the way across Europe

Female leaders lighting the way across Europe

When Donata Hopfen, the new CEO of the German Football League (DFL), said in an early video address that “We want to continue to inspire people”, she was making a general point about the power of football. Yet for many women listening or watching, Hopfen’s words could apply just as readily to herself in her role as the first female CEO of the DFL, a role she embarked upon on 1 January this year.

As a consequence of her appointment, Hopfen has also become a vice-president of the German Football Association (DFB) and a member of the association’s executive committee.

It was a milestone appointment in German football, and it coincided with another similarly significant landmark in England in January, as Debbie Hewitt began her work as the new chair of the English Football Association, becoming the first woman in the post in The FA’s rich 157-year history.

The following month brought further evidence of a positive trend involving women in key football leadership positions with Vanda Sigurgeirsdóttir’s re-election for a two-year term as president of the Icelandic Football Association (KSÍ). Another Nordic nation followed suit on the first weekend of March with Lise Klaveness’s election as the first female president in the 120-year history of the Football Association of Norway (NFF).

All four women offer encouragement to others – and point to a new chapter of women becoming ever more involved in the governance of the game as part of European football’s natural evolution.

Highly positive message

In the case of Debbie Hewitt, she had already spoken about her excitement on her appointment to the role, when it was ratified last summer. “I’ve been passionate about football from a very young age and I’m excited by the opportunity to play my part in shaping the future of something that means so much to so many,” she said, adding that The FA had “the potential to be a very positive force for good throughout the game and across society.”

The presence of women with excellent CVs holding such important positions in major football nations like Germany and England, as well as these other significant examples above, certainly sends out a highly positive message in itself – one that will provide a spur to other women seeking a career in the game.

Road to the top

For Hopfen and Hewitt, their opportunities arrived after impressive careers in business. Hopfen entered the football world from a position as managing director and partner at BCG Digital Ventures, a company of the Boston Consulting Group. Previously, she had been managing director of the Bild Group, which includes Germany’s biggest-circulation newspaper.

Her predecessor at the DFL, Christian Seifert, has described Hopfen as “totally versed in digital and strategic issues”, and she touched on her wish for innovation when discussing her appointment last August. She said: “German professional football has a great tradition and is deeply anchored in society. The Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2, like the DFL, enjoy an excellent reputation worldwide. All of this must be preserved against the background of technological, societal and media changes in the football environment – and at the same time be further developed in an innovative way.”

Wealth of experience

Hewitt can draw on a wealth of experience from a career which has included a spell as chief executive of the RAC, the British automotive services company, and – more recently – as non-executive chair at Visa Europe, the clothing brand White Stuff and the financial services group BGL, which owns price comparison site Compare The Market. In 2011, she was awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for services to business and the public sector, Now, she is relishing this fresh challenge at the helm of English football.

“It’s an honour to be confirmed as the new chair of The FA and Leader of Council and I’m looking forward to getting started in the role,” she said. “It’s an important time for English football, with an opportunity to work alongside all stakeholders to make a positive difference at all levels of the game.”

Women leading elsewhere

Looking at the broader picture, it is now possible to find other positive examples of women in leadership positions across the European continent. In Norway, Lise Klaveness became the first woman to head the NFF after her election as president on 6 March.

Capped 73 times by Norway, the 40-year-old has a master’s degree in law as well as the UEFA Executive Master for International Players (MIP). Previously the NFF’s director of elite football, she reflected that “this is something bigger than me”, and added: “We don’t just want to keep things as they are. The mandate I am given demands that we are courageous. We must be willing to try and change things both internationally and nationally.”

“I feel that I’m stepping into the line of many other leaders, both women and men, who have worked for women’s football. Football is the biggest women’s sport in Norway, and it’s not like we are a minority. I’m proud to be able to work together with all those who have already broken the gender barrier.”

“I hope it gives a strong signal, because it’s needed. For girls and women to be able to dream the full dream, they have to be able to see that they have career opportunities in football.”

Florence Hardouin and Anne Rei – trailblazers in France and Estonia

In France, Florence Hardouin has served as CEO of the French Football Federation (FFF) since 2013. A former international fencer, she joined the FFF in 2008 as head of marketing and commercial development and was promoted to deputy CEO in 2011 before the elevation to her current position. Since 2016, meanwhile, she has been contributing to European football’s development as a member of the UEFA Executive Committee.

A year before Hardouin became the French federation’s CEO, Anne Rei blazed her own trail in Estonia when becoming general secretary of the Estonian Football Association (EJL) in 2012. This followed roles as a member of the EJL board and in the association’s youth, women’s and amateur departments. Since July 2017, Rei has also been chair of the UEFA Women’s Football Committee.

“It is an extremely welcoming development to see that a growing number of women are taking on senior leadership roles within European football,” Rei reflected.

“Their presence provides ample proof that women can make a significant impact within the game – not only on the field, but also as part of the key decision-making processes off it,” she added. “I feel that a clear pathway is being opened for a future generation of female leaders – and I strongly believe that the example being set currently will serve as an immense source of inspiration for women to play a full part in shaping the future of the game on this continent.”

An important signal

Returning to football in Germany, Donata Hopfen is, happily, not alone in occupying a crucial and high-profile leadership position. In 2020, Heike Ullrich took on the role of deputy general secretary of the DFB, and since last year she has been serving as its acting general secretary – highlighting the progressive outlook of the German national association in rewarding and promoting women who show professional excellence and sound leadership qualities.

“We have come a long way regarding women in football leadership, but there is still work to do,” said Ullrich. “The increasing number of women in leadership roles is an important signal to other women to get involved and take responsibility. To further advance, and maybe show new perspectives to the football business.” The presence of four female members (out of 14) on the DFB’s current presidential board provides shining proof of the healthy direction that the association is taking in this respect.

Iceland’s female duo at the top table

There is an even more striking example in Iceland, where the KSÍ has not just the re-elected Vanda Sigurgeirsdóttir in the post of president, but also Klara Bjartmarz as its general secretary. Once a goalkeeper, Bjartmarz has held the role of general secretary since August 2015, having first joined the association in 1994 and gained experience as team manager for Iceland’s women’s national teams, as well as the KSÍ office manager.

Bjartmarz said: “I think that for the FA, which is a high-profile organisation in Iceland, not only in sports, but also in society, it is a strength to be able to present myself as general secretary and Vanda Sigurgeirsdóttir as president, to show that women do have the opportunity to go far within sports, and if this is possible within football, then it is possible anywhere. Vanda and I enjoy a good understanding, working closely together. Maybe the fact that we are seen working together as female leaders within a high-profile, male-dominated sport will inspire other women to join the football family.”

Sigurgeirsdóttir joined Bjartmarz on the KSÍ top table last October with her initial election as the association’s first female president at an extraordinary congress. A former Iceland national team player and coach, Sigurgeirsdóttir is delighted to have another woman working alongside her, saying: “Klara’s insights into FA operations and procedures and her overall knowledge and experience have been priceless. I feel pride in the fact that we are the only football association within UEFA where the president and general secretary are both women.”

‘Women in football must be visible’

“The voices of women in football must be heard at all levels,” Sigurgeirsdóttir added, “And that includes the decision-making level, which is something I and many others have spoken of for a long time. Women in football must be visible – on boards, committees and councils. Their voices, their views and their vision for the future must be heard. We are important role models and, in my opinion, UEFA should praise this positive development, as that could inspire women to aspire to such roles.”

“Usually, the most qualified person is elected, but sometimes there are glass ceilings,” the KSÍ president said after her initial election last October. “Throughout time, I’ve witnessed instances where women can’t climb higher even though we are qualified.” Not any more in Iceland – and, thankfully, not any more in a growing number of nations elsewhere in Europe too.

UEFA’s women in football leadership drive

UEFA is also seeking to play its part, not least with the Women in Football Leadership Programme, which it started up in 2014 and now organises in collaboration with FIFA.

Part of the ambitious UEFA Academy, this programme is designed for women in football who have the potential and motivation to progress into senior leadership positions within their organisation, or who are already in such roles.