One of the great joys this summer has been the chance to watch the Women’s World Cup. Terrific professional athletes once again adorned our screens, yet this time people seriously tuned in and watched. Attitudes altered, and stereotypes shattered and not before time. One can feel attitudes changing by the match, the gradual erosion of football as the privileged male-only enclave.
Will the women’s game reach a par with the men’s? Perhaps, though there is a long way to go. It might also avoid some of the pitfalls in the process. It was refreshing for example to watch matches where diving or simulation was a rarity not the norm. Yes, there were some low points including the attitude of the Cameroon players against England, but overall it was a welcome change from the spoilt legends and celebrities of the male game. For the moment at least, it is driven as much by the love of the game not the Croesus level riches on offer. Sadly, it is hard to see this remaining the case as money starts to drive the women’s game too.
It is also a great moment to take stock of how far the women’s game has come. It was back in 1970 when the first unofficial women’s world cup was held in Italy. It is not clear what today’s viewing millions would have made of the one on Mexico in 1971 with pink goalposts, and the pink uniforms worn by all the tournament staff. Imagine that the English players were initially banned by the Football Association for participating in an unsanctioned event, a decision wisely reversed. Then again, for 50 years from 1921, the Football Association refused to support the women’s game in England and women could not play on football league grounds. Apparently, "the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged." In France women’s football was banned in 1932 until 1975. The German association did the same from 1955 to 1970.
The first official edition of the World Cup was in 1991 in China with only a dozen teams competing. Matches lasted just 80 minutes, and prize money had not come in yet. By 1995 matches ran for the full 90 minutes. Yet it was the 1999 World Cup in the US that saw viewing figures soar, with an average attendance of around 38,000 a match. Over 90,000 watched the final in California, a figure that dwarfs many men’s games. Millions have watched the 2019 edition, with 11.7 million watching the US-England semi-final alone, more than watched the Champions League final in May between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. The US-France attracted similar viewing figures. Overall a billion may have tuned in to watch this world cup according to FIFA, impressive but short of the 3.5 billion who watched the men’s version.
The core reason why the US dominates the women’s game as evidenced by their fourth World Cup victory is that from the outset, women could play and were encouraged to do so. Perhaps they benefit from the less entrenched attitudes to ‘soccer’ in the US, where American Football and Baseball are the dominant male pastimes. Scandinavian countries have also had a more positive attitude and reaped the success, with Sweden coming third this year. Europe as a whole has progressed but the hope is that Africa and Oceania will also step up to the plate and be more competitive. It would be thrilling to see teams from the Middle East challenge as well.
The club game needs improvement. Building on the world cup and the surge in interest, marketing and advertising must get bums on seats every weak. Coaching must reach down to the grassroots and schools do more to encourage participation amongst girls.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino has now pledged to increase the number of teams to 32 from 24 and double the prize money, clearly a vote for the success of the competition. This must be a step in the right direction but it also must include greater support for grass roots women’s football and measures to address a pay gap that hovers around.
To challenge the men’s game. Greater efforts must be made to establish equality between the two, or at least bring them closer to parity. US fans were screaming for "Equal pay!" after the match. The total prize money of $30 million for this Women’s World Cup was somewhat pitiful compared to the $400 million for the men at last year’s World Cup. It was just $6 million in 2007, so it is improving. Much more needs to be done though, but on the evidence of this World Cup the effort will be worth it.
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