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FOOTBALL: THE RISING WOMEN OF FOOTBALL

August 04, 2019

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The US women’s national soccer team celebrate their World Cup triumph
The US women’s national soccer team celebrate their World Cup triumph

There was a huge sporting event this summer, featuring the best from across the world vying for global supremacy. No, not the Cricket World Cup. This one took place in France. No, not the Tour de France. Last hint: it strengthened the dominance of the eventual winner who successfully defended the title. Nope, not the French Open.

I am, of course, referring to the FIFA Women’s World Cup: the best 24 football teams from across the world partaking in the biggest spectacle for women sports after the Olympics.

THE HISTORY OF WOMEN’S FOOTBALL 

Women’s football gained popularity during the 1970s as more and more national teams were formed and countries lifted any bans or restrictions against female teams. After several unofficial tournaments were successfully hosted in Asia and Europe during the ’80s, it became imperative that FIFA started taking serious steps towards arranging proper tournaments.

This year’s edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup showed conclusively that women’s football is on the up and up

The efforts of FIFA, aided by activists from around the world led by Ellen Wille, materialised in the form of the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup hosted by China in 1991. The United States eventually triumphed and national legend Michelle Akers won the Golden Boot. Now that the wheel had been set in motion, the tournament began taking place after every four years, just like the men’s equivalent.

In the 1995 edition held in Sweden, a dominant Norway side romped to the title, scoring 17 goals in the group stages alone (a joint record with Hungary in the men’s World Cup in 1954). The World Cup came to American shores for the first time in 1999 and the hosts won the final in front of 90,000 supporters, the highest attendance for a women’s sporting event.

The next two tournaments were both won by Germany, Birgit Prinz playing a crucial role in both tournaments. She is currently the second highest scorer in the tournament’s history, equal with US heroine Abby Wambach, and only behind one of the greatest players in the women’s game, Marta Vieira da Silva. Marta has 17 World Cup goals in total, more than Miroslav Klose’s record of 16 in the men’s tournament, and she played a central role in Brazil reaching their best finish in the tournament when they lost to Germany in the 2007 final.

Then started the US-Japan rivalry. The two proud nations, both of whom have appeared in all World Cups played to date, squared off in the finals of the 2011 World Cup, the 2012 Olympics and the 2015 World Cup. Japan won the first time on penalties, while the United States regained their dominance in the latter two. In fact, the 2015 World Cup final was a bit of a nightmare for the Japanese; they trailed 4-0 after 16 minutes and their arch-nemesis Carli Lloyd had already completed her hat trick. They eventually lost 5-2.

WOMEN’S WORLD CUP 2019

The United States landed in France for the 2019 edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup as strong favourites. Boasting superstars such as Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe in their squad, some analysts went as far as to say that the US bench — it’s substitutes — could even win the tournament. But there were notable challengers prying to take the crown off the defending champions. England, coached by former Manchester United great Phil Neville, came in on the back of an emphatic tournament win in the US. France were fiery competitors bolstered by magnificent home support. Netherlands, the defending European champions, looked to complete the double. Other notable sides included Germany, Sweden and Brazil, all hopeful of long campaigns.

The tournament was well-hyped, tickets to games involving France and the US selling faster than hot buns on a cold day. And boy, did it live up to the hype. The pre-tournament favourites, United States, started off with a 13-0 hammering of helpless Thailand, the heaviest margin of victory at a World Cup game. Morgan scored five of them, while Lloyd also grabbed one to become the second oldest goal scorer in Women’s World Cup history. That record belongs to Miraildes Maciel Mota, commonly known as Formiga, the Brazilian age-defying superstar who has now appeared in a staggering seventh World Cup. Two other Brazilians also made records; Cristiane Rozeira de Souza Silva became the oldest player to score a hat-trick in the World Cup, eclipsing Cristiano Ronaldo (who else?) while Marta became the only player to score in five different World Cups.

Despite the fact that all the games were not met with the same enthusiasm as the ones featuring the hosts (evident from the mere 8,000 spectators at the Cameroon vs New Zealand match), the football was spectacular. For example, take the same game: a must win for both teams to keep their hopes of reaching the knock-outs alive, the game seemed to be petering out towards a 1-1 draw. In the fifth minute of added time, however, striker Ajara Nchout scored one of the goals of the season to send Cameroon through. You really have to see it to appreciate it.

The knock-out stages progressed smoothly, showcasing the strength of the European powerhouses. Seven of the eight quarter-finalists were European, the odd one out being the United States. The favourites beat the hosts in the quarter-finals and England in the semi-finals before meeting Netherlands in the final. In front of a packed Parc Olympique Lyonnais, the United States became just the second team after Germany to retain their title. And they did it with a blend of the swagger of the veterans and the exuberance of the youth, showing that their future is in good hands moving forward. The United States have now won half of the eight World Cups played to date.

STARS AND STRIPES

What’s a world cup without its athletic characters, and the biggest story from this World Cup was arguably US team co-captain Megan Rapinoe’s. An integral part of the women’s football circuit for the past 10 years now, Rapinoe has never been one to shy away from the big stage — or from controversy. From coming out as the first openly gay football player to supporting (American-style ‘football’ star) Colin Kaepernick in ‘taking the knee’ (kneeling in protest) during the national anthem, she’s been in the headlines since forever. And just before the World Cup, she got into a much-publicised spat with the US President. Asked if she would accept an invitation to the White House if the US won the tournament, Rapinoe shrugged it off by saying, “definitely not.” This is a woman who has previously called out Donald Trump for being misogynist, racist and small-minded. Unsurprisingly, the notoriously thin-skinned Trump responded through Twitter — but of course — telling the American player that she should win before she talks and should not “disrespect the flag.” 

Now that the World Cup is over and the United States has indeed won it, Rapinoe has become the centre of attention. She’s been preaching the concept of “love more, hate less” at the victory parades, and has also highlighted the issue of unequal wages for male and female players. While it is true that the men’s game brings in a lot more revenue than the women’s game globally, this equation is reversed in the US, where the main driver of domestic soccer revenues is the women’s game. In any case, it does not begin to explain the difference between the $60 million winning prize for the 2023 Women’s World Cup and the $440 million winning prize for the 2022 Men’s World Cup. FIFA must take steps to bridge this gap, considering that market revenue paradigms are beginning to be overturned now, encapsulated by the record-breaking, most sold USWNT (US Women’s National Team) jersey.

A lot of fuss was also raised on the issue of “excessive celebration” throughout the tournament, aimed particularly at the US players. When Morgan scored the winner against England in the semi-final, she celebrated by pretending to sip tea from an imaginary cup. Compared to celebrations in the men’s game, it was fairly subtle; but not to the critics. It received intense backlash, so much so that Morgan herself had to comment on the hypocrisy. “You see men celebrating all around the world,” she said. “I’m a little disappointed to see all the criticism.”

A huge positive from the World Cup was, however, the increase in viewership. It provided matches that broke the records for the most-watched women’s sporting event in multiple countries such as Brazil, France, England, Argentina, Italy and Australia. All in all, this edition saw an approximate 25 per cent increase in viewership from around the world, a stat that will help fuel the debate around unequal wages. 

For the moment, however, relish this as one of the greatest women’s world cups of all time. Women’s football is definitely on the up.

The writer tweets @tahagoheer

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 4th, 2019