There are few sweeter joys than a good sporting summer, and without a doubt, the most important sporting tournament this year is the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Running from 7 June to 7 July, the pinnacle of the women’s game will be shown on the BBC. With more prize money (this year’s winners take home £3.1m, compared to the £1.6m of 2015) and increased commercial opportunities and media attention, this marks a paradigm shift.
Many experts view this tournament as the exclamation point on a fantastic story. As sporting historians will inform you, after becoming a widely popular sport in the late 1800s (surpassing the men’s game in match attendances in the 1920s), women’s football was twice banned in the UK, with the Football Association decreeing in 1921 that football was ‘quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.’ It wasn’t until 1971 that the ban was relaxed, and European governing body UEFA recommended making the women’s sport professional. But the years in the wilderness had done irrevocable damage. For too long women’s football has been scoffed at, dismissed and derided as an inferior production.
One cannot bemoan the quality of the tree without mentioning years of neglect in watering the oak. Women’s football isn’t worse because women play it and men aren’t more entertaining to watch. Lack of funding and sponsorship is the biggest factor in the gap between men and women’s football. As a 2015 report revealed, the US women’s team received only a quarter of the remuneration their male counterparts earned that year, despite winning the World Cup and generating $20million for US soccer. Inconsistent medical provision has left a number of players at risk following injuries, in some cases, leaving them to crowdfund as they try to recover on public-health waiting lists. If you’ve ever derided participants of a sport for being ‘in it for the money’, bear in mind a 2018 Statista report showing women’s sports receive only 0.4 per cent of total sponsorships. Anyone involved in this game is truly in it for the love of it. Women’s football is not an inferior version of the men’s game. It’s a growing, captivating, magnificent strain of the beautiful game that finally gets its dues this summer.
It also boasts some of the most ardent fans on the planet: 39,000 supporters packed the Allianz Stadium in Turin this March as Juventus Women faced Fiorentina. In Spain, 60,739 people watched Barcelona beat Atlético Madrid 2-0 at the Wanda Metropolitano. The Women’s Super League and Championship now have multi-million-pound sponsorship deals. It’s a glorious reawakening.
This year’s World Cup will be the most competitive in years. Reigning champions the USA are slight favourites, but face stiff competition from resurgent France, battlehardened Germany, and youthful Australia.
England also have a decent chance of winning. Managed by former Manchester United full-back Phil Neville, the Lionesses went undefeated by the USA, Japan and Brazil this March to claim the SheBelieves Cup (a World Cup amuse bouche). They’re fourth favourites to lift the trophy. More importantly, the Lionesses will inspire a new generation of sporting superstars. When the Women’s Super League began after the 2015 Women’s World Cup, attendances were double what they’d been before. Talent is distributed evenly, opportunity is not.
This is it. This is the year. This is the sporting event to build your summer around. Get excited. The Women’s World Cup is here.
The Ones To Watch
There’ll be plenty of superstars making a name for themselves in France this summer. Here’s our look at this year’s blue-chip players.
Age: 25 / Country: Australia / Position: Forward
The captain of the Australian team (the Matildas) is known for her celebratory front flip. Few athletes are as dominant. A record goalscorer in the Australian W League, she also manages to find time to play for Chicago Red Stars. This summer, there’s a good chance she’ll cement her status as world’s best striker.
Age: 25 / Country: England / Position: Forward
One of many Lionesses sure to become a household name this summer, Chelsea forward Fran Kirby is a testament to the power of community and sport. Spotted at the age of seven by scouts in Reading, Kirby has defied setbacks, injury, and fools in the men’s game to reach the top of the English Super League with Chelsea. As we go to print she’s nursing a knee injury. Wrap her up in cotton wool before the World Cup, England will need her at her best.
Age: 28 / Country: France / Position: Defender
Possibly the best centre back in the world. Born on the Caribbean island of Martinique, Renard’s love of the game took her on a 8,000km journey to France and her footballing home of Lyon. A 12-year veteran of the game, Renard exudes the type of footballing cool you see once in a generation. Rarely flustered, a master of timing, the four-time Women’s Champions League winner will be key if France hope to improve on their 2015 finish.
Age: 24 / Country: China / Position: Forward
The Wuhan born winger Wan Shuang is nicknamed ‘Lady Messi’ by her fans and can be just as mesmerising in front of goal. Currently playing for Paris Saint-Germain, Shuang has been a trailblazer for the women’s game in China, averaging a 1-in-4 goal tally for the national team, and scoring the goal that ended the United States’ 104-match home game winning streak in 2015. After becoming 2018 Asian Footballer of the Year, Shuang said, ‘Football is a sport that stands for equality.’
Age: 21 / Country: United States / Position: Forward