Women’s football was the winner
Women’s football was the winner
When the victorious captain claimed the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Lyon today, to raucous chants of “USA! USA!” for the fourth time in eight tournaments, casual observers might have thought of a French saying: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Down Under interest in the four-yearly women’s football competition had waned two weeks earlier. Both Australia’s Matildas and New Zealand’s Football Ferns came into the month-long, 24-team tournament with high expectations.
Unrealistically high, some would say. The Ferns, who sometimes wear the all-black kit of the country’s more successful sporting outfits, were predicted to win through to the knockout rounds; the Matildas were tipped as possible winners.
Both disappointed. The Matildas made the second round but went out in controversial circumstances, harshly treated by the new video refereeing system; the Ferns didn’t play to their potential and failed to progress past the first stage.
The fact that both had sacked and replaced their head coaches months before the tournament did not help their preparations, or their performances.
Beneath the headlines, however, the 2019 competition represented a sea-change for women’s sport. This will be seen as the moment when a female tournament in a major sports code was no longer an add-on to the male game; it became a serious player in professional sport.
This World Cup’s TV viewing figures, social media posts and stadium attendances did more than exceed expectation; they smashed it. And they did it in the heart of the men’s game: Europe.
The USA and its powerful and lucrative college sports scholarship system has dominated the sport for decades, enticing the world’s talent, along with its neighbour Canada.
Soccer – as Americans and Australians call it, the rest of the world prefers football – is also seen as a safer sport for children. SUV-driving, affluent women in the sprawling middle-class suburbs of major cities are known as “soccer mums”.
But in the past few years, Europe’s powerhouse clubs have been pouring millions of euros into the women’s game.
While the sport has traditionally been strong in Scandinavia, French clubs like Lyon and Paris-St Germain began investing in what were quaintly known as “Ladies’ XIs”. Now the big names of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Arsenal have full-time sides playing in professional leagues across the continent.
The telling statistic: at this tournament seven of the last eight teams standing were from Europe. Only the USA represented the rest of the world.
Cynically, the Europeans’ motives were financial. Those “clubs” operate as multi-sport businesses, running basketball, cycling, gymnastic, volleyball and other squads for men’s and women’s competitions. In football, there was a gap in the market and they sought to exploit it.
On TV, France’s match against Brazil saw 35 million watching in Brazil and another 10.6 million in France. In the Netherlands, 3.54 million Dutch watched their Oranje beat Japan, one of the highest rating sports events ever in a country where men’s footballers, cyclists and darts players excelled during 2019. In England, the Lionesses’ semifinal against the USA was the most-watched TV event this year.
Even in the early rounds, featuring less skilled and supported teams such as Jamaica, Thailand and South Africa, crowds in the stadiums averaged 19,500. Supporters from rival teams danced, partied and laughed together before and after games; a far cry from the macho mobs at the European men’s championships two weeks before.
On a Saturday in Grenoble, an alpine city three hours from Paris by fast train, thunder, lightning and monsoons raged through the afternoon. In the evening, more than 14,800 – mostly locals – turned out to watch New Zealand play Canada, hardly a massive drawcard.
Mums, dads, children, many teenagers were among the happy-go-lucky crowd, entertained by skilful professional athletes (the Canadian squad) and plucky, not-quite-up-to-the-mark professional athletes (the Kiwis). Canada won 2-0. The crowd went home as it had arrived, happy.
Next afternoon, in a bar in the Latin Quarter, a Swedish woman, an American couple and I debated various teams’ tactics and styles over beers, below big-screen TVs playing live matches. It was both warm- and light-hearted. The Americans bought a round, then headed to Parc des Princes to support their team against Chile before 45,500 people.
Given these numbers it’s little surprise that players have realised their muscle. The memorable image of the USA’s 1999 World Cup title was Brandi Chastain whipping off her shirt and celebrating in her sports-bra after scoring the winning penalty kick.
The memory of this one will be USA co-captain Megan Rapinoe calling out President Trump on Twitter for his attitudes towards women and minorities, then encouraging her team-mates to boycott a White House reception (burgers, anyone?), calling out the FIFA president over equal pay for women, and her long-time promotion of LGBTQ+ rights.
Talent was not restricted to the Americans: almost every team threw out a star, not least the Swedish striker rejoicing in the Harry Potter-ish name of Stina Blackstenius.
So where does women’s football go from here? The most likely outcome is that at professional level, the European game will take over from the North American system before the next World Cup tournament, to be held in 2023, quite likely in Australia. The financial input, television and media attention, as well as the superior training and coaching standards, point to that.
For Australia and New Zealand, it really is back to the whiteboard. Both countries are hindered by distance from the global game; by the fact that their best players play in the northern hemisphere and rarely unite for training sessions or development matches, except when a major tournament looms; and both have been let down by underwhelming local administrators.
For Australia, the path forward must lie in Europe. Of the 2019 Matildas, 15 play for USA clubs; eight for Australian sides; only its third-choice goalkeeper suits up in the Spanish league.
New Zealand has more players at the new heart of the world game: eight have moved on from American universities to European clubs; only three are based in the USA; but seven play for the lowly-ranked national league and five are “unattached” – don’t have a current club.
Further, the country suffers from playing in Oceania, the weakest of the global confederations. Trouncing Tonga, the Cook Islands and New Caledonia isn’t much preparation for running out against the silky, assured, confident skills and pace of a side like the Netherlands or – as I saw at Grenoble – Canada, with its face-painted, flag-waving, chanting supporters.
In both countries, as in many nations around the world, fewer youngsters are choosing to play competitive sport.
Both Australia and New Zealand’s government-sponsored sports and recreation organisations have carried out surveys of participation in the past year, worrying about its effect on the generation’s present and future health and fitness.
However, football bucks the trend on both sides of the Tasman. More people – men and women – play football than any other sport.
Sport NZ’s 2018 survey of 33,000 adults and young people to January 2018 reported: “Things are still not looking good for traditional club sports such as rugby, cricket and netball, which were all still in single-digit figures for participation. Football bucked the trend though, climbing from 6 per cent to 7 per cent.”
In Australia, the figures are even more startling. Roy Morgan Research reported in 2017 that just one in five Australians now play competitive sport, down from 27 per cent in 2001.
Tennis dropped 35 per cent, cricket 10 per cent, netball 24 per cent, league 27 per cent and rugby union 63 per cent. Football, however, added a stunning 46 per cent of players, making it the No. 1 sport across Australia.
Neither country may have won the Women’s World Cup, but football is the winner.
Ewan McDonald travelled to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup as a guest of Qatar Airways, major sponsor of the tournament.