Historian Jean Williams recognizes that the Women’s World Cup has brought increased attention to women in sport in its nearly 25-year history. But she remains wary of the tournament, like all sporting mega-events.

 

The PolyTan Liga Turf field at Vancouver's BC Place will host the final of the Women's World Cup.

The PolyTan Liga Turf field at Vancouver’s BC Place will host the final of the Women’s World Cup.

 

I have been writing about women’s soccer since 1998 and have attended the two Women’s World Cups held in the United States. In 2011, I was frequently asked if I was going to Women’s World Cup in Germany, and I have had the same questions about Canada in 2015. Neither tournament appealed to me enough to make the trip. Like many fans of football, I find a World Cup spectacle as something that I am ambivalent about. It is great to see the best female players in the world, on a global stage, and the Women’s World Cup is becoming an important mega-event for women’s sport more generally. But I also do not want to financially contribute to the already swollen finances of FIFA.

The first FIFA Women’s World Championship took place in China in 1991, sponsored by M&Ms, with twelve national teams competing. There were 26 matches hosted in cities all in Guangdong province. FIFA used the symbolic phoenix, indicating beauty in Chinese culture, as the key theme for the opening ceremony and the trophy. However, the organisers were not convinced of the public appetite for the competition, as 124,000 of the total 310,000 tickets, priced at just one US dollar, were given away for free.

When Sweden hosted the Women’s World Cup in 1995 (for the first time called the “World Cup”) the competition again was compromised by the assumption that the paying public would not want to see women’s football, and a parallel athletics meeting might help here. FIFA experimented with roll-on-roll-off substitutions and a time-out system. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was the most bad tempered of the Women’s World Cups.

The United States has held two Women’s World Cup competitions, in 1999 and 2003. The final of the 1999 tournament nearly filled the Rose Bowl, with 93,000 fans attending, and set an ambitious agenda for future tournaments. At the same time, women’s football was becoming a featured sport at the Olympic Games. The sport was first showcased at Atlanta in 1996, and the following games at Sydney, Athens, Beijing, and London became important milestones in women’s football.

The Women’s World Cup hosted by Germany in 2011 saw Panini stickers issue its first edition for women internationals. That year’s tournament also created a new high for Twitter traffic, with over 7,100 messages a second tweeted during the final between Japan and the US – more than events like the Royal Wedding, the death of Osama Bin Laden, or the Japanese tsunami in the same year

Just ahead of this year’s Women’s World Cup in Canada, FIFA and official licensee Electronic Arts announced that the FIFA 16 video game would feature twelve women’s national football teams for the first time in history. Like Hope Solo appearing on Dancing With the Stars, it seems that both global football and wider cultural industries are increasingly accepting of women’s soccer. However, reigning champions Japan are not part of the planned FIFA 16 game, nor Brazil, or any African nation. Italy, however, has joined a European and North American-led gaming lineup, in spite of not having qualified for the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

In the expanded 24-team tournament in Canada, there are now eight berths for European teams (England, France, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland), and hosts Canada are joined by Costa Rica, Mexico, and the United States from CONCACAF. Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador represent South America, while New Zealand is the sole representative of the Oceania Football Confederation. There are more African nations represented than ever before (Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria). This is also the case with the Asian confederation, with teams from Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand at the tournament. However, many women’s national teams from Africa and Asia did not even get to compete in qualifiers.

Generally, women remain marginalized in world football as players, administrators, officials, and coaches. FIFA continues to undermine the women’s game even at the same time as they supposedly promote it. This will be the first FIFA World Cup played entirely on artificial turf. The elite players of the women’s game recently contested the decision to play on artificial surfaces, and they remain unhappy with FIFA’s way of presenting the championship. As Megan Rapinoe said on her site, “FIFA made a $338 million profit on the 2014 Men’s World Cup. To say that it’s not logistically possible to install real grass at all the stadiums is not acceptable.”

With an estimated 30 million female players globally, the evolution of football as a sport and as an industry over the last 25 years has been dramatic. But amid scandal and bribery arrests at FIFA and the announcement of his planned resignation, it remains to be seen if Sepp Blatter will go to Canada. And if he does, will the corruption charges overshadow the tournament? I hope the main stories will be about the football. And to win? I am backing a Megan Rapinoe and Abby Wambach-led US team.

 

Jean Williams is author of A Game for Rough Girls? A History of Women’s Football in Britain and Globalising Women’s Football: Europe, Migration and ProfessionalizationShe is senior research fellow at the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University. Jean is on Twitter at @JeanMWilliams.