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AP Interview: Espelund brings high ideals to UEFA

With the reputation of world soccer leaders at an all-time low, Karen Espelund's elevation to high office was well timed.

The newest member of UEFA's executive committee brings expertise and experience that few men inside the apparently dysfunctional world soccer family can match.

Espelund was a Norway international player, ran its respected soccer federation for 10 years and now works for regional government in her home country, recognized as one of the world's least corrupt.

"I think it is (good timing)," Espelund told The Associated Press of her recent invitation to join European soccer's high command. "On an international level, UEFA is doing some radical thinking."

UEFA President Michel Platini announced in March that the European body would add its first woman to serve as a 17th member of his ruling committee.

By the time Espelund joined in June, a series of FIFA corruption scandals meant UEFA was alone among soccer's six continental bodies in not having its president suspended, accused of corruption or resign while under investigation in recent months.

"We need more than ever in football words like transparency and democracy," Espelund said. "Commercialization has been extremely strong. With money, or course, you also get elements who want to take a position in that."

Espelund has long called for transparency within world soccer.

At the volatile FIFA congress in 2002 — a presidential election year, like 2011 — the Norwegian official was among the few people allowed to publicly confront Sepp Blatter before he defeated African challenger Issa Hayatou.

When FIFA's president called her to the platform in Seoul, Espelund urged FIFA to explain its fragile finances after its marketing partner collapsed into bankruptcy.

"It was my way of asking critical points, saying we need to have clarification," she recalled. "Of course, you were a little bit nervous entering it. The Africans were sitting there whistling (at Blatter).

"That congress made changes because FIFA did change at that time," said Espelund, an enthusiastic speaker who is optimistic that she can help make a difference.

Espelund talks of her "moral obligation" — a rare phrase in soccer circles — to encourage female players.

"Every girl should have the opportunity to play football if she wants to," she said.

Her mission is driven by her own experience with the Norway Football Federation, which did not formally recognize and organize women's soccer until 1976, when Espelund was 15.

She had joined a female team in her native Trondheim one year earlier, having grown up playing in street games alongside boys.

"I must admit I played illegally for a year," she said. "I was a hardworking midfielder. I played against opponents double my age and double my size."

Espelund showed tenacity off the field as well, becoming club vice president at 17 and joining the NFF women's soccer committee at 24.

Helped by employment quota rules, she became the federation's first female general secretary in 1999 and delivered success. Norway is the only country to win women's Olympic, World Cup and European titles.

Now, as UEFA women's committee chairman, Espelund has a two-year mandate to serve in Platini's inner circle.

Her role includes helping UEFA's 53 member nations spend the $142,000 each get annually for women's soccer development.

At UEFA headquarters last week, Espelund advised Azerbaijan officials who will host FIFA's Under-17 Women's World Cup in 2012, only two years after creating a girls' national team.

However, she believes there is much more to do.

"I think you will never have a former female player around 50 saying it has progressed fast enough," Espelund said.

Still, Blatter has said FIFA's ruling panel could also have a woman member. Likely candidates are Burundi FA President Lydia Nsekera and Australia's Moya Dodd, who was elected as an Asian Football Confederation vice president two years ago.

Espelund is encouraged that the French Football Federation appointed Brigitte Henriques as its top administrator, while Germany's Steffi Jones led organizers of the successful Women's World Cup last month.

A next step is for European federations to promote women who could win an election against the men.

"When UEFA is setting an example," Espelund said, "it is easier for the members to follow."