'This is not just to tick a box and look good' - How Visa are changing the landscape of women's football

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Women’s football has been ‘on the up’ for so long that the phrase has almost lost its meaning.

There have been so many watershed moments and turning points over the last few years that it’s difficult to tell which are real and which are not. But the moment that women’s football is in right now feels very, very different.

It’s this moment which has brought together some of the greatest players currently in the game – some, even, of all-time – at Visa’s Europe Headquarters in London.

Visa may be the biggest global sponsor of women’s football, but this isn’t a company that just talks the talk.

“This is not a short-term thing. This is not something just to tick a box and to look good,” Adrian Farina, Visa’s European Head of Marketing, tells the room - but you don’t just have to hear it from him.

What about from Lucy Bronze? Or Dzsenifer Marozsan? Or Eugenie Le Sommer?

All three help make up a star-studded squad of Team Visa athletes, the first of their kind for football, never mind women’s football.

It’s an idea previously used by the company with Olympians, one reinvented after a conversation Farina had with Bronze one year ago.

The England international, nominated for every individual award going after a sparkling 12 months with Lyon and the Lionesses, inspired him with the story behind her journey to the top.

“I’m sure there’s a lot of these stories that people should know,” Farina says, recalling the company’s light-bulb moment. “Why don’t we create a Team Visa?”

The results are impressive and following similarly impressive contributions – be it their support of the World Cup this summer or the fact they are now sponsoring all of UEFA’s women’s competitions until 2025.

But while attendance records tumble, television audiences peak and these athletes begin to get the recognition they deserve - Visa are going above and beyond.

“[This summer] I was going to Kakuma [in Kenya] to this refugee camp. There’s 200,000 people there, most of them under the age of 18,” Nadia Nadim, an Afghan refugee who has represented Denmark almost 100 times, explains.

“I went there because of football, because that’s how you unite, that’s how you teach, that’s how you bring joy and hope to [people’s] lives.

“When I spoke with Visa, they were like, 'How do you want us to help you?'

“They sent an entire camera crew to document what’s going on. I thought that was pretty amazing and I know for a fact it’s going to have an impact.”

Kosovare Asllani, who currently plays for CD TaconReal Madrid’s women’s team from next season, flew out to visit her first ever football club a few weeks ago with Visa too, in a bid to inspire the next generation and give back at grassroots level.

As the stories continue to be told, it becomes all the more apparent that there is something here that is more than just money.

“They’re not just doing it to do it, to say 'we’re part of women’s football like everybody else',” Bronze says.

“They genuinely care about us and they genuinely care about the game.”

Kim Little, captain of Arsenal and vice-captain of Scotland, agrees.

“There’s a lot of surface stuff of people getting involved in women’s football because it’s growing, but it’s the action of what’s going on behind the scenes that nobody sees. It’s how they help us and that’s important,” she adds.

“Especially when things can be quite commercial, it’s really important to keep that in mind. There is a deeper purpose.”

The recruitment of the athletes in Team Visa shows that. After all, the players chosen to be part of this project are not all obvious choices.

“It would have been easy for us to just make Team Visa with players from England and France and we would have had 90% of the market,” Farani explains.

“But we have Didem [Karagenc] representing Turkey, we have Ewa Pajor representing Poland – which is miles, miles, miles behind because the markets out there are not big in scale commercially.

“Kim represents Scotland. It’s not a market we would put up there because of the size of the market, but that’s precisely why she’s here. She’s a great player, by the way,” he adds, much to the amusement of the room.

“We like the mix. Maybe it’s not perfect yet, but the intention is to keep adding and now we’re looking at who is missing.”

It’s those different perspectives which are bringing different ideas to the table.

Nikita Parris, the England and Lyon winger, talks passionately about being a role model for the people in her birthplace of Toxteth, an inner-city area of Liverpool.

“Many people outside of Toxteth would call it deprived but for me it was home,” she explains. “When I go back, I want to make sure that the young girls see an opportunity and a light.

“More brands will come into the women’s game and want to invest but it’s important that you don’t just sign up to any brand, but one that represents you as a person.

“Visa is innovative. It helps change the landscape of not just sport, but people’s lives in many areas that people might not have even heard of and in many countries that people might not have even heard of. That definitely resonates with me.

“It’s important that you have brands like Visa to be able to put a spotlight [on the game] and show that it’s our time. The time is now. It’s not in five years, six years, it’s right now. Let’s make change, now.”

Of course, there is still a long way to go. The players, brimming with ideas on how to improve the game further, are working closely with Visa to make those ideas happen.

But no one sums up how much of an impact Visa can have more than Karagenc.

The Turkish defender is a new name for many - even the most avid women’s football follower - but she delivers one of the most powerful moments of the entire day.

“In the beginning, everything was so hard for us in Turkey. Women’s football was invisible,” she says. “But Visa put a spotlight on this area and made it visible.

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“By giving individual sponsorship to me, Visa created a positive atmosphere for women’s football in Turkey. This process encouraged all the girls in Turkey and now they take me as a role model.

“They want to be like me. In order to develop women’s football, the country needs a role model. I am now that role model and I will do my best with Visa.”

Forgive the old cliche, but this really does feel like a watershed moment.