Four years ago, the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup, won by the US, was hailed as a pinnacle moment for women’s football. The accolade was deserved. But if 2019 was a pinnacle, what can be said about this year’s even more remarkable contest? The 2023 World Cup reaches a peak in Sydney on Sunday, when England and Spain face each other in the final. Yet if the contest over the last month proves one big thing, it is that, in women’s football, every pinnacle and peak still conceals another even higher one than the summit just reached.
The achievements of 2023 go beyond even England’s understandable delight and excitement at reaching – and hopefully winning – a first football World Cup final since the men’s now long distant victory in 1966. The most important of these wider successes is this tournament’s wonderful confirmation of real strength in depth in the women’s game on every continent. Although two European sides will contest the final, the global attainment gap is everywhere narrowing. Australia, Colombia and Japan deservedly reached the last eight (and Australia went further). Jamaica and Nigeria came close to joining them. China, Morocco, the Philippines, South Africa and Zambia all won group stage games. It can only be a matter of time before an African, Asian, Caribbean or Oceanian team gets to the final.
Traditional boundaries have been breached in other ways too. The breakthrough among the Australian and New Zealand publics has been nationwide and inclusive, with unrivalled eruptions of engagement. Significantly, much groundwork has been done out of sight over long years, in schools and among migrant communities, without the big sponsorship and marketing that follows men’s rugby or Australian rules football. Even so, in both of these sports-mad nations, crowd numbers have been high and TV viewing figures have broken almost every record. A peak of 11.2 million Australians – out of a population of 26 million – tuned in to watch Wednesday’s semi-final against England. There are global lessons here about the potential of new markets for women’s sport.
None of this is to pretend that everything about the 2023 World Cup has been the very best that it could possibly be. The quality of play, and the excitement of the contests, have both been thrillingly high. The beautiful game has repeatedly been seen at its best. But there has also been evidence of some of the cynicism and professionalism that can infect the men’s game. Fouls, dives, time wasting and negativity are no longer confined, if they ever were, to men’s football. Nor, off the pitch, is hyperbole.
Inequality still remains the game’s biggest scandal and the priority challenge that must be overcome. True, powerful lobbying of Fifa, world football’s governing body, by United States women has helped secure significant increases in the Women’s World Cup prize money this year. Teams with negligible financial backing, like Haiti and Jamaica, have genuinely benefited.
But the need to continue to grow the women’s game is held back by structural financial inequality. The disparity in Fifa’s prize money – £86m for the Women’s World Cup against £344m for last year’s men’s contest in Qatar – remains both huge and indefensible. Fifa says its “ambition” is to achieve pay parity by the next World Cups in the 2026 and 2027 contests. That needs to be turned from an aspiration into an achievement that can then be reinvested at the grassroots. If it is, the next Women’s World Cup may be an even greater pinnacle than this one.
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