So, it begins. The FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off tonight with hosts France taking on Korea Republic (AKA South Korea). This tournament promises to be a watershed moment for many countries developing their women’s game – both as a professional sport and in building wider audiences domestically. This is extraordinary when you think about it, given that the first competition was way back in 1991. So, why now? Why is this one going to break the mould? Here’s five reasons why WWC 2019 could propel women’s football into the mainstream…
1. The tournament is the most competitive it’s ever been
In a field of 24 teams there are at least two very decent sides in each group, something that was unlikely even eight years ago. There may be one or two walkovers in the opening games but the Round of 16 knock-out stage has the potential to be highly watchable, and will contain teams that have won at least one group match or drawn all three as a minimum.
Bookies favourites and defending Champions, USA, start out as the ones to overcome – indeed they have only lost once since 2017 – but are on a theoretical collision course with 2nd favourites France in the quarter finals, the team that beat them earlier this year. Meanwhile it’s not unreasonable to assume that anyone of Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, England, Australia, Canada or Brazil could roll up in the final. And wild cards such as Sweden, Nigeria or even debutants Scotland could make life interesting in the knock-out phases.
2. The players are better
More gifted players are seeing reasons to get into the game around the world and, even if their own leagues aren’t operating at a high standard, are taking opportunities to travel to other countries where they can learn, develop and play in more competitive professional, semi-professional or senior college leagues.
Where federations are investing, everything is improving – players, coaches, facilities, match preparation. There’s still a long way to go in many countries but the best talent is finding its way.
The last competition was in Canada – ideal for North American audiences where the women’s game was perhaps a little more established at the time.
This time France hosts which not only provides the perfect gateway for visiting fans of all the Western European sides involved, but a timely boost for promoting Europe as a place to play and watch women’s football – you have only to look back at Euro 2017 for evidence of how momentum was building.
So, expect the ‘pomp and ceremony’ of a FIFA event to take this groundswell to the next level.
The BBC’s Tom Garry reported only this morning that “a total of 950,000 tickets have been sold so far for the month-long tournament.” Canada had 1.3million spectators in total with far lower pre-tournament sales recorded. Bigger crowds will make for a more memorable spectacle.
4. The hosts are very good
France are second favourites and have a very, VERY capable squad of players. This is important because France’s ability to go as far as possible will obviously keep French fans coming through the gates to provide that little bit of, um, je ne sais quoi (sorry) that comes with home advantage.
If Les Bleues play to their potential and do end up taking on the USA in the quarter finals, they might just have already generated the kind of 12th femme on the terraces that can roar them all the way to victoire. If not, well by then it’s the semi-finals and who wants to miss a semi-final?
5. Social media and on-line content
More and more people (particularly younger generations) are consuming their news and sport on-line. Those with an interest in women’s football don’t want to have to spend too much time hunting information down. They needn’t worry, there is a massive amount of noise on social media enveloping this World Cup, coming from all directions and raising the competition’s profile.
Even since 2015, federations have got better at managing their on-line content, ensuring international teams are more accessible and trusting their players to communicate directly with their fans.
Effectively it’s empowered the sport to reach out and develop its own following without having to break through the blockade of old-school news media channels. Anyone and everyone can get involved and have their say. In fact, the sheer scale of on-line news has given the ‘traditional’ organisations more scope to join in.
Up to this point, the tone across all digital media has been overwhelmingly positive. Ultimately, of course, good quality football matches will be the marker by which the more casual observer judges women’s football. The teams at WWC 2019 are better prepared than ever before to deliver that quality…