The France-based 2019 FIFA World Cup is garnering unprecedented attention for women’s soccer–although the fight for equality continues.
The eighth edition of the Women’s World Cup, currently being held in France, has been described as the most important yet. Having kicked off in Paris on June 7, the four-week tournament is providing an unprecedented platform for female athletes in a sport traditionally dominated by the men’s game.
A record twenty-four nations are competing for the top prize in women’s soccer across fifty-two matches in nine cities–and over half a million fans have turned out to watch the games thus far.
While the Women’s World Cup was inaugurated in 1991, there is a sense that the France 2019 edition of the tournament could be a turning point for the women’s game. 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.
The capacity of the stadiums means that the record attendance of 90,185 set in the summer of 1999–still a record for a female sporting event–will not be broken this time around, but TV figures are expected to blow away those for the most recent World Cup, in 2015, which attracted a global audience of 750 million.
An eye opener
“It’s been an eye opener, just the attention that’s now on women’s (soccer),” Kelly Smith, a retired English soccer player, told CNN Sport on the day the England roster was announced. “Certain nations are investing more resources. FIFA (soccer’s world governing body) has opened up the tournament to 24 teams, so more nations are getting to experience tournament football.
“(Furthermore), 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.”
The rise of interest in women’s soccer is arguably the result of a number of factors, 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 strategy to grow the game globally, one being to ensure all 211 members of the governing body have comprehensive plans in place for women’s soccer by 2022.
FIFA 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.”
The battle for equality
Nevertheless, 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 make real and lasting progress on behalf of them,” the statement added.
The upshot is that women’s soccer is more visible today than ever before, but while the game has certainly advanced, how long female players will have to fight for equality may well depend on the lasting impact of France 2019.