Another of football’s world cups reaches a climax tomorrow when North Korea play France in the Tofig Bahramov stadium in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, on the west bank of the Caspian Sea.

Centuries ago merchants brought their camels loaded with precious gifts from the Orient to rest awhile before heading on west along the legendary Silk Route.

The ‘precious gift’ over the past three weeks was brought by FIFA and has been the Under-17 Women’s World Cup which, in only its third ‘edition’, is the newest and most junior of the world federation’s catalogue.

It existence has served to underline however – whether traditionalists like it or not – that Sepp Blatter was not wildly off track when once he declared “the future of football is feminine.”

This year’s under-20 event in Japan was successful, so – most notably – was the Olympic women’s tournament in London while the under-17s has signalled a minor breakthrough with its staging in an Islamic country.

Standards of young women’s football vary immensely, depending largely on the attitude of national associations.

Given that 15pc of FIFA’s annual handout to its 209 members must be spent on women’s football it’s easy to see why associations are lured into making some sort of effort. Policing the expenditure is another issue, but the concept is in place.

FIFA also has the benefit of some accomplished advocates of women’s football in Cuban Mayi Cruz Blanco, its international development manager, and Tatjana Haenni, its Swiss head of competitions. Haenni reminds one of the Duke of Wellington’s comment about his own infantry: “I don’t know what they do to the enemy but, by God, they frighten me.”

Azerbaijan is the latest nation to launch an aggressive strategy of using sport as a short-cut to general international visibility.

The country has made vast strides since escaping the Soviet/Russian sphere in the early 1990s and still has a very long way to go. But Baku has bid twice to host the Olympic Games and will no doubt back again: even bidding represents a presence at the top table of international sport.

Doubtless the Azeris would have welcomed a higher-profile FIFA event but they had to build from scratch even the three stadia which have hosted most of the games. Now they represent a legacy factor on which local clubs will capitalise happily because even historic local power Neftchi play their ‘ordinary’ league games in a venue which is, literally, the wrong side of the railway tracks.

Local organizing official Elnur Mammadov described the event as “a big step in the promotion of women’s football in Azerbaijan and now we have had this [organizing] experience we are confident we are ready for the next challenges in holding more ambitious other tournaments.”

That, of course, does not mean only football.

By Keir Radnedge

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