The eighth FIFA Women’s World Cup held in France this summer felt like a watershed moment. For the four weeks in June and July, it gained a focus many had desired. TV coverage, VAR and at last some concentrated marketing gave it the kudos which had been missing from previous tournaments.
This is the start of a two-part series focusing on women’s football, both playing and writing. This first part looks at the effect of the women’s World Cup and how the game may now be viewed.
France won the bid to host the tournament, becoming the third European nation to host it, and they also became the fourth nation to host both the men’s and women’s World Cup. The USA won the trophy beating Netherlands in the final, in front of almost 58,000 spectators.
A worldwide TV audience was also impressive and seemed as if the sport was moving to another level. England v Scotland attracted 4.6m viewers. England’s semi-final against the USA attracted 11.73m. It was the BBC’s highest viewed show of the year, beating Line of Duty series finale which hauled in 9.6m viewers.
In comparison, England’s cricket World Cup Final win drew 8.3m viewers, although this was competing with both the Wimbledon men’s Final and the British Grand Prix.
The first women’s World Cup was held in China in 1991, 61 years after the men had theirs. But then women only had an Olympic competition in 1996 – a full 96 years after the men. This seems incredibly slow going when compared with basketball and volleyball: Women’s basketball was first an Olympic sport in 1976, 40 years after the men; and Women’s volleyball made its debut in 1964 – the same year as the men.
Jennifer O’Neill, editor of She Kicks magazine certainly noticed the difference with this tournament
“It feels like this World Cup has gone mainstream”, she told listeners to BBC Radio Five Live’s World Football Phone-in.
“All over France there’s been coverage of it”, she continued, “they’ve got the marketing right this time”
She was also hopeful for a legacy when she said “more leagues have gone professional, money has changed things. The success of the national side always tweaks interest in each country, so hopefully more will want to be more involved in the future”.
She also felt they could learn from the men’s game, as there’s a feeling the game has a better chance of being ‘fairer’ or ‘less corrupt’ as it could “see the evils ahead and hopefully avoid them”.
Jennifer added how more women were prepared to learn from the men’s game these days, citing the Dutch coach, Sarina Wiegman as having spent time at Sparta Rotterdam and then using that experience in the women’s game. The Netherlands runners-up place would be a testament to the success of this approach.
Tim Vickery then gave the South American perspective of the women’s game. He said this World Cup had received more focus than before, with sponsors advertising more. It was shown on free-to-air tv for the first time.
About ten years ago the best player in the world was a Brazilian, Marta. But the governing body got complacent and didn’t really invest in the sport.
“Brazil had a women’s national team without really having women’s football”, he said. “Now to get a licence to have a football club, it is a condition to have a women’s team”.
“They pretty much had the best team around, but now they’ve been left behind. They lost the physical advantage over other sides.”
He expressed his concern that in a results-driven country, if the women’s team continued to struggle then they just wouldn’t get the exposure the game needed.
Chloe Beresford, a freelance Serie A writer, then gave her view of how the women’s game is in Italy.
She said “Italy is behind many other nations. Some of this can be pointed to sexist or macho attitudes still prevalent in the country”.
“The investment just isn’t there yet”, she added.
Heather Garrick, who won 130 caps for Australia and coach of Canberra United, then joined the discussion. She played in her first World Cup in 2003, and by 2012 she had picked up 100 caps. Then she decided to have a baby.
“Child policies are much better now”, she said, “and they facilitate this a bit more. The players feel more looked after than they used to”.
She did make one point which was interesting – only nine of the 24 coaches at the World Cup were female. In England, there is still some conjecture over whether the women’s national side should have a female coach, rather than Phil Neville. When asked about this Heather replied:
“I always felt a male coach was better. They know more about the game. Females are improving but I would prefer to play under a male coach”.
A way to go
There is still some latent sexism around almost any women’s sport. You still read comments from men complaining about the quality of the football or cricket, as if this means the whole thing should be forgotten.
Some men still don’t like female commentators, summarisers or pundits in the men’s game, yet women still need role models in order to get more engaged with the sport.
There is indeed evidence that many women have yet to really embrace the female side of the game in this country, but the professional aspect of the sport should change this.
Taking the England team around the country is having a good effect too. The matches have been well attended with many pointing to the positive and friendly atmosphere as a reason they enjoyed it so much. There isn’t the tribalism with women’s football, and hopefully that can remain the case.
It really does feel as if the women’s game has a bright future and more countries getting involved and competing can only be a good thing. Results of matches are routinely announced on various media platforms.
More people writing about the game would also help. Male journalists still seem to get more opportunities, so maybe more of them showing an interest could progress the sport further.
So that is where this series moves to next – Female journalism.
Join us in our next part when we look at the opportunities for females in writing about football, both men’s and women’s.