How much progress has there been within women’s football since the first official Women’s World Cup in 1991? Well, for starters, this 2019 edition will actually be known as the ‘Women’s World Cup’. 28 years ago, a tentative Fifa would not call it that. Instead, thanks to a commercial tie-up with confectionery giant Mars, the inaugural tournament was known as the ‘1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup’.
Held in China, with little of the planning and infrastructure provided for today’s competitions, matches were also only 80 minutes long. It seemed organisers were concerned that another 10 minutes might prove too much for the players to cope with. The woman who would lift the trophy, United States captain April Heinrichs, summed this attitude up neatly in an interview with Sports Illustrated: “They were afraid our ovaries were going to fall out if we played 90.”
The story of the World Cup in the years since is one of gradual growth. Attendances have fluctuated, rising and falling between each tournament, but Canada 2015 attracted a record 1.35m spectators and France 2019 is expected to build upon that. Another billion pairs of eyes will watch on television. Meanwhile, more nations than ever before have applied to host the 2023 finals, with even a joint bid by North and South Korea planned.
But perhaps the clearest sign of progress is the increased level of competition. You need three hands to count the number of teams that will travel to France with realistic hopes of becoming world champions. All of them – including England, under the stewardship of Phil Neville – have their flaws and foibles, but all have also benefitted from the increased interest and investment in the women’s game over the last four years.
And yet, claims that the sport is approaching an equal footing with the men’s game need to be challenged. This is, after all, a World Cup that will be without its best player. Ada Hegerberg has not played for Norway since 2017. The recipient of the inaugural Ballon d’Or Féminin is effectively on strike at international level as she feels that her federation fails to create an environment where she and other women can succeed.
It is also a World Cup where the holders and favourites – the United States – are suing their own governing body, alleging “institutionalised gender discrimination” and seeking equal treatment with their less successful male counterparts. Theirs and Hegerberg’s protests are the most high-profile disputes in international women’s football, but they are by no means the only ones among this tournament’s 24 qualifiers.
After winning the Africa Women Cup of Nations in late 2016 and thereby qualifying for this World Cup, Nigeria staged a sit-in at their team hotel over outstanding payments, seizing their recently-won trophy for 13 days until the matter was resolved. A similar course of action was taken by their 2004 predecessors, who remained in their hotel for three days demanding their AFCON win bonuses.
Jamaica’s players only recently signed contracts with their federation which ensure that they will be paid this summer. Their head coach, Hue Menzies, had not previously been paid since funding was cut four years ago. Though the federation claims to have spent $4m on qualification, many put the success of The Reggae Girlz down to Cedella Marley, the daughter of musician Bob and one of the team’s several benefactors over the last few years.
It does not end there. Australia went on strike after the last World Cup, demanding increased pay. Brazil’s players united against their governing body after head coach Emily Lima was replaced by a man. New Zealand and Spain did the opposite, forcing out their respective managers. In 2017, following pressure from below, Norway became the first national team to pay men and women players equally.
And while it is impossible to imagine a World Cup-qualifying men’s team would go years without playing a match, it is not so uncommon in the women’s game. Chile and Argentina will both be in France, yet they were among six South American national sides deemed “inactive” by Fifa three years ago due to a lack of games. Nigeria and Thailand are among other qualifiers to go long spells without playing.
Then, look beyond those nations who will be one of the 24 represented in France this summer. Turn towards the teams who did not qualify for this tournament, that mostly rely upon chicken-feed funding when compared to the game’s most successful international sides, and that more often than not hail from the Global South.
In Pakistan, the women’s team has not played a game in five years. In Gabon, an investigation has been opened into the alleged sexual abuse of Under-20 players. In Afghanistan, the national team accused their federation’s president of sexual and physical abuse in December 2018. Yesterday, The Guardian reported that Fifa may have already known of the allegations 18 months earlier.
All of these flashpoints and incidents have followed the last finals in 2015, the most successful World Cup to date. The 2019 edition will show how far women’s football has come in the space of four years and especially how far it has travelled since those days of 80-minute matches at the M&M’s Cup. But the underlying stories of struggle and solidarity demonstrate that there is still much progress to be made.
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