The eighth edition of the Women’s World Cup has been described as the most important in history. Kicking off in Paris on Friday, the tournament certainly promises to be the best yet.
Never before has there been such a wealth of talent or as many title contenders and, perhaps, never before has women’s football had such a platform. The four-week competition in France offers an opportunity to change attitudes, to push the drive for equality farther forward.
Established in 1991, initially as the FIFA World Championship for women’s football for the M&M’s Cup, only after the tournament in China did FIFA, the sport’s governing body, allow for it to be called a World Cup — the Women’s World Cup is still, relatively speaking, in its infancy.
But there is a sense that France 2019 could be a turning point. Twenty years after the record-breaking 1999 Women’s World Cup which propelled the women’s game into wider consciousness, the next month provides an opportunity to not only build on those foundations but to surpass the achievements of the 1999 groundbreakers.
Global stars will emerge over the course of the 52 games as a bigger audience than ever tune in to watch more countries than ever compete for the prestigious prize.
The capacity of the stadiums in France means that the record attendance of 90,185 set on that sweltering Californian afternoon in the summer of 1999 — still a record for a female sporting event — will not be eclipsed, but the television figures for France 2019 are expected to put the 2015 Women’s World Cup, which attracted a global TV audience of 750 million, in the shade.
In April, FIFA said ticket sales were “smashing records.” The opening match in the Parc de Princes and the semifinals and finals at the Stade de Lyon were sold out within 48 hours of going on sale.
Such is the focus on the tournament, it leaves former players wishing they could play again. For those who grew up in a world where young girls struggled to find teams, the rate of the progress made in recent years has come as a surprise.
Kelly Smith is regarded as the finest female footballer to have played for England, making 117 appearances from 1995 to 2014.
“It’s been an eye opener, just the attention that’s now on women’s football,” Smith, speaking as part of Three UK’s unveiling of three lioness emojis (England’s women’s team are called the Lionesses) on the front of its flagship London store, tells CNN Sport.
“Certain nations are investing more resources. FIFA has opened up the tournament to 24 teams, so more nations are getting to experience tournament football.
“When I was playing, there were only two or three teams who could potentially win a World Cup. Now you could name six to eight teams who could potentially do something special at this tournament and it just makes it more competitive, it makes it better for viewers to watch.
“And there are just so many cool stories out there of the women. There are a lot of social media campaigns promoting the players and teams. There’s a lot more exposure and visibility now, which just didn’t happen when I was playing.”
For England’s squad announcement, famous faces such as former Manchester United midfielder David Beckham and Harry Potter actress Emma Watson revealed each of the 23 chosen players on Twitter, allowing the unveiling to reach a new audience.
Two-time winners Germany have also been part of a powerful and innovative ad campaign, which had the players saying: “We don’t have balls, but we know how to use them.”
The video was made by the team’s sponsors and it is the keenness of business to now be associated with women’s football which partly helps explain the increased investment.
The rise of women’s football is a result of a myriad of reasons, the biggest arguably being societal change (this will be the first tournament since the #MeToo movement), and now sponsors and FIFA are adding their voices.
Last year, FIFA announced a five-pronged global strategy to grow the game, one being to ensure all 211 members have comprehensive women’s plans in place by 2022.
The governing body has said it wants women’s participation to double to 60 million worldwide by 2026, and that the women’s game offers “vast untapped opportunities,” but there is continued criticism of FIFA over the prize money on offer at this tournament.
Raised from $15 million in 2015 to $30 million, the overall prize fund has doubled since 2015, but for the 2018 men’s World Cup it was $400 million, with winners France taking home $38 million.
“Women national team players around the world should receive equal treatment to their male national team counterparts; this should include their travel and accommodation as well as their medical treatment and financial compensation,” said world players’ union FIFPro earlier this week.
“Within the last few weeks, FIFA has agreed to our request to start negotiating new conditions for women’s national team players after the 2019 Women’s World Cup and we are determined to making real and lasting progress on behalf of them.”
In CNN Sport’s “World Cup Continental” series, the thread which entwined female footballers around the world was that the battle for recognition and equality is ongoing.
Yet, not only is there inequality between men’s and women’s teams, but there is also a gulf between the countries competing at France 2019.
Only last month did the Jamaican Football Federation and its Women’s World Cup squad agree contracts which at least ensures the players are being paid for representing their country at this tournament.
Before they departed for France, some of Jamaica’s players held fundraising events, while Hue Menzies has coached the team — the first Caribbean country to qualify for the Women’s World Cup — on a voluntary basis. Were it not for funding from the Bob Marley Foundation, the Reggae Girlz may not have been in a position to qualify for France.
In recent years, Nigeria’s Super Falcons have had to protest over unpaid bonuses and went through 2017 without playing an international match. There has been progress, but for some of the players the fight for change has been exhausting.
“It’s really tiring to keep complaining about the same thing all the time without getting any improvement, but if you want something you don’t stop talking,” Asisat Oshoala, Nigeria’s star striker, told CNN Sport.
The absence of Ada Hegerberg, the first female recipient of the Ballon d’Or and widely regarded as the best player in the world, casts a shadow on the tournament.
The striker has stopped playing for her country because she wants the young Norwegian girls following in her path to have the same opportunities as aspiring young male footballers.
Her stance leads to the question: How would the world react were Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo to refuse playing for their countries at a World Cup on similar grounds?
The lion’s share of the tickets for this tournament have been bought by fans in America, eager to watch the defending champions attempt to win what would be a fourth title in eight tournaments.
But the USWNT’s ongoing battle for equal pay illustrates that even for the most successful and well-funded teams more progress needs to be made.
Female footballers are more visible and powerful than ever before, while the women’s game has certainly advanced, but for how long female footballers will have to fight for equality will depend on how the world looks back on France 2019.