How women's football has finally come to matter

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Allysha Chapman #15 of Canada is greeted by fans after the team warm-up prior to the start of the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 Quarter Final match between the England and Canada. Photo: AFP
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Women's football has come to matter. Finally. There's enough money made of it now, enough for people to care and talk about. But that's not why millions tuned in to watch the latest edition of the FIFA Women's World Cup in France. It is in part because there now exists for women sports a community, a camaraderie that had for long been quelled by powers that be, which now demands that these girls, whose names you don't know yet, be given the platform they deserve, whose voices that have been silenced for long, be heard. Sports, like other industries, reflect social inequalities, and just as we are making strides elsewhere, the time has finally come to make progress in sports too, regardless of how you deem them.

The other reason is this – people know good football when they see it. They know, when they feel it. The electric pace, the rush of blood, the tears in the eyes, the taste of sweat and aches in the leg, and the quick, golden joy that one feels when their shot takes the ball past the keeper and to the back of the net. It's been on display aplenty in this World Cup. Lack of talent and skill had long been the placards held up to criticise women footballers. Anyone who has been watching the recent games know that's just utter nonsense – there's the same level of determination, skill and ambition in these young women that you'd expect to see in any men's game, and also something else – the weight of an unknown future. These girls have sacrificed more than most to get to where they are. They are not giving that up, what they rightly deserve, so that you could hold on to crumbling notions and ill-rooted traditions of what you think football is. Football is more!

While it's the recent influx of money and investments poured into the game that has had most of our heads turned, many quiet gears were turning far before money even mattered. They were instrumental in seeing that this sport, which had long remained in the shadows, break free this summer.

Now, FIFA, football's international governing body, would like you to believe that this recent change is the result of their many efforts. It is anything but. Despite FIFA being bombarded with calls to embrace equality in football, it did the exact opposite. They increased the disparity between the prize money of the men's and women's World Cup by $25 million. Even on the ground in France ahead of the World Cup, their negligence towards the women's game showed in the inadequate way with which they handled promotions and ticketing. That's not all. Women's World Cup collided with two significant events in sports - FIFA's own Copa America and the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup – a scheduling error born from an ignorance of the women's game. Women's World Cup thrived in spite of all this and attained unprecedented success.

How women's football has finally come to matter
USA players celebrate after the final whistle during the France 2019 Women’s World Cup football final match between USA and the Netherlands. Photo: AFP

The credit for this increased excitement goes mostly to the overall development of women's football, a growth that was steered solely by the young footballers, who've also become women football's fiercest advocates.

Last year, the champions, US Women's National Team sued the US Soccer for gender discrimination after it came to light (what these women footballers have known all along) that it pays the men's team more money. US women have achieved more success and bagged more trophies than the men's team which had long been relegated to oblivion.

In 2019, the French women's team posed nude for a German magazine throwing light on their 'invisibility'. What would it take, the caption asked, to get fans back home to watch them play a sport that is otherwise a national obsession.

Women footballers, who's always had to fight to merely exist, have now banded together, despite the colours they wear, to make their stand clear – they are not going away, that they will continue to fight. Their many collective actions have made progress possible, with each kick of the ball, with every roar after a goal. But FIFA remains still the gatekeeper, and until it decides to get its act together, sweeping changes are unlikely. The Women's World Cup in France is a watershed moment, not just for football, but also women's sports.

How women's football has finally come to matter
Lyon's Ada Hegerberg attends a press conference in Haugesund, Norway. Photo: AFP

A long and troubled history

Women's football has come to matter. Yes. But to say that this is a recent success would be to dismiss decades of history. Women had been playing football as long as the game existed. The earliest European team was the British Ladies' Football Club founded by activist Nettie Honeyball in 1894. Though successful, it continued without the support of the British Football Association (FA) which openly despised women playing football. According to them, it eroded the idea of masculinity from the game. Some argue that this was probably because women playing took away the audience from men's sports.

It was only during the First World War that women's football became truly popular. Women then found themselves abandoning their posts in the kitchen, their many domestic duties to take up employment in the heavy industry to aid the war effort. There they found the same football-inspired camaraderie that men did fifty years earlier during the industrial revolution. Soon, a team from England played Ireland on Boxing Day in1917 in front of a crowd of 20,000 spectators.

Dick, Kerr's Ladies of Preston, was the most successful team of that era. They played their first international game in 1920 against a team from Paris and later went on to make most of the England team at that time.

Despite being more popular than some men's football events, women in England suffered a blow in 1921 when the FA outlawed them playing the game on Association members' pitches. Similar bans followed elsewhere in the world. But it did little to stop them from playing – a testament to the power of sport and the tenacity of women. The ban, however, demoted women's football to amateurism and obscurity for decades.

How women's football has finally come to matter
USA fans cheer prior to the France 2019 Women’s World Cup football final match between USA and the Netherlands. Photo: AFP

The revival of the women's game

In the early 70s, interest for women's football began to pick up again. It came off the heels of the 1966 Men's World Cup in England. It was the first time a tournament was held in a country that was directly affected by the Second World War.

Football had by then become so important, so infused with national identity, and ideas about modernity and politics that when England beat West Germany 4-2 in the final, it reignited interest in sports. It opened doors that would have otherwise remained closed. The English Women's FA was set up in 1969, and three years later, the ban was also lifted. The Jules Rimet Trophy is the only title that England has won, but it changed football forever.

In the same year, UEFA recommended that women's game should be taken under the control of the national associations in each country. It was also the same time that women's leagues started mushrooming across the world. It was Italy who first introduced professional women's football players on a part-time basis. They were also the first to 'transfer' foreign footballers from other European countries to play in Italy. The current champions, United States National Soccer Team, was formed in 1985. Four years later saw Japan forming a semi-professional women's football league, the L league, which continues even today.

How women's football has finally come to matter
Supporters pose ahead of the France 2019 Women's World Cup semi-final football match between England and USA. Photo: AFP

FIFA's expedition to China

Even with the ban lifted, it wasn't until 20 more years that the First World Cup was held. It was held in 1991 in Guangdong, China. FIFA selected China as the host nation after the success of FIFA Women's Invitational Tournament three years earlier. A test to study if a global women's world cup was feasible, the FIFA Invitational Tournament had 12 national teams participating. Norway, the winners of the four-nation European Competition, were the eventual champions.

FIFA's test was a success, and later that year, they approved the establishment of an official World Cup in 1991. However, this tournament did not originate from a desire to see women's football thrive. It was an effort to quell the rising popularity of non-FIFA tournaments for women such as the Mundialito in Italy and the Women's World Invitational Tournament in Taiwan.

How women's football has finally come to matter
USA's players celebrate with the trophy after the France 2019 Women’s World Cup football final match between USA and the Netherlands. Photo: AFP

Despite its success, FIFA was still reluctant to bestow their 'World Cup' brand to the women's game. Instead, they named the tournament' 1st FIFA World Championship for Women's Football for the M&M's Cup'. That's a mouthful.

The United States won this inaugural cup. They beat Norway, a dominant team then, in the final in front of a crowd of 65,000. The team's forwards were dubbed the "triple-edged sword" after their powerful performances.

Though the tournament still carried overtones of patriarchy - matches only lasted for 80 minutes considering the women's 'physique' – it also made great strides of progress. The tournament was the first time in FIFA competition that six female officials were included. While all functioned as assistant referees, Claudio Vasconcelos was put in charge of the game that decided third place, thereby becoming the first woman to referee a match sanctioned by FIFA.

Nevertheless, the tournament was considered a significant success in the quality of play and attendances at the games. The then FIFA president Joao Havelange wrote, "women's football is now well and truly established."

This perceived success was a determining factor that saw the inclusion of women's football in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

How women's football has finally come to matter
Fans celebrate during a Victory Ticker Tape Parade for the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team down the Canyon of Heroes on July 10, 2019 in the Manhattan borough of New York City. The USA defeated the Netherlands on Sunday to win the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France. Photo: AFP

'Future of Football is Feminine'

'The future of football is feminine," pledged Sepp Blatter five years later, shortly before he was named the president of FIFA.

Nine years after he had uttered the famous line, the head of global football suggested that "pretty" female players wear "tighter shorts" to create a more female aesthetic and attract more spectators. The history of women's football is littered with instances such as these,  of earnest hopes and crushing harrows.

As is the case in other industries, women's pay and opportunities in sports are much lower than their male counterparts. Women's leagues, even the Champions League matches, have far less television and media coverage than the men's. But as the popularity and participation in women's football continued to grow, the officials wrested power and scrambled to make money out of it, and in that effort, introduced ways to make women's football sexy.

Revolution came much later. Central contracts, funded by the FA to help England's female players earn a living, were as recent as 2009. The story of the World Cup since FIFA's China expedition is one of gradual growth. Attendances have fluctuated between each tournament, but France 2019 saw women's football breaking new ground. Television records tumbled across the world – thrice within this tournament. Nations are taking note and slowly building their own women's sports arm as a means to empower young girls. Many more are using this as a platform to ease development, bridge cultures, and as a diplomatic channel. North and South Korea are considering a joint bid to host the 2023 finals.

And yet sexism and neglect remain. The World Cup in France was without its best player. Ada Hegerberg, recipient of the inaugural Ballon d'Or Feminin. She has not played for Norway since 2017 and feels that not enough is being done to further the women's sport.

How women's football has finally come to matter
US forward Megan Rapinoe celebrate scoring from the penalty spot with her teammates during the France 2019 Women’s World Cup football final match between USA and the Netherlands. Photo: AFP

The future is what we make it

The recent surge in interest has made France 2019 one of the most exciting World Cups in women's football history. These brave girls are now inspiring an entire generation of girls to dream big dreams.

They know what they must do – play good football, play with heart. But the real answer to whether women's football can become the sport it deserves to be lies with us, the spectators. If mass audiences do start to watch women playing top-flight football, the rest – equitable sponsorship, packed stadiums, decent player salaries may all follow.

France 2019 has given impetus to new hope and a determination to see the future made bright. Two good years are on the horizon for women's football. Next year, the Tokyo Olympics will showcase women's football again. And in 2021, the UEFA Women's Euro is set to be hosted in England. The many teams that did not take a trophy home from France will get another go. In any case, they would be injecting new oxygen of publicity and popularity into a sport that had flayed over recent decades.

How women's football has finally come to matter
Head coach Jill Ellis of the United States speaks during the United States Women's National Team Media Day ahead of the 2019 Women's World Cup at Twitter NYC. Photo: AFP

Europe wakes up

When Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle scored against the Netherlands in the final on Sunday, the US scripted history, extending their record to a fourth win. They were once again perched on top of the world. This had become the norm in women's football. On European soil, five of the best teams the continent had to offer could not stop them.

How could they? The US has one of the most talented rosters in the world. Nothing could dispell the confidence that they have in themselves, nor shake the belief that they are going to win. They are the best women's football team in the world at the moment. And this is precisely what's worrying their head coach, Jill Ellis. That this is for but a moment and that moment will soon come to pass.

The European giants are slowly waking up to what women's football could be. France, England, and the Netherlands have come such a long way in such a short time. While the US has had two decades to be what it is today.

Imagine what will happen if Europe shows women's' football the same care that it does for men's'. The world of football will forever change. We could even witness mixed gender matches. The wheels for this have already started turning. Olympique Lyon, winner of the Champions League in each of the past four seasons, lead the way. Manchester United recently added a women's team. Real Madrid will field one soon – in 2020.

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France, who had long been the flag-bearer of this change in Europe, will be gutted to have lost out on a chance to deepen that message at home, on the big stage. They lost to the US in the quarterfinals despite their valiant efforts. However, many have taken up that baton. England's successful run this tournament will have them turn domestic investment into international glory soon. The Dutch, who had not made a World Cup before 2015, came close to winning a world title this time.

But empires rarely vanish overnight. The US still has massive advantages in women's soccer. Even in France 2019, the story of how the US will continue to influence women's football is illustrated in length. Seventy-three players – that's about six teams of the 24 - competing in this year's World Cup are currently employed by US clubs alone. And that's no surprise! Everything's just better for female football players in the US than they are in most other countries. The ban that was imposed by football associations to discourage women from playing had little significance in the US where football only began in the 1970s. By then the ban had already been lifted, and women's football was flourishing in most parts of the world.

With more and more teams participating, Women's Football, and especially the World Cup, will in no time share the same glory as of the men's.

How women's football has finally come to matter
US forward Alex Morgan (L) vies with England's defender Steph Houghton during the France 2019 Women's World Cup semi-final football match between England and USA. Photo: AFP

Still a long way to go

This euphoria of France 2019 will soon pass, and people will return to their regular habits. Many will forget that women's football exists on a domestic level. Years of societal conditioning has taught us not to care. This is not going to change until we get more women interested in elite sport. However, getting past deep-seated stigmas and stereotypes that prevent women from watching or engaging with the game will take time, and more importantly, some inventive thinking.

As long as we don't see women's sports on the back of national papers, or see it on TV as regularly as the men's games, the only stories we are going to remember about female athletes are the misogynistic comments on what they are wearing or how they look.

The BBC has done a terrific job already – by declaring it the summer of women's sports, it has made an entire nation to sit up and take notice. The Telegraph's launch of its dedicated women's sports platform has also been equally spectacular.

France 2019 also had some big companies including VISA cottoning on as ambassadors of women's sport. The past year alone had seen a worldwide scramble across industries as companies tried to adapt and develop a higher level of nuanced, specifically-female content to keep up with changing times.

Equality in sports is in the cards. It will happen. We have had empires go to ruin for far less. France 2019 will be the catalyst for this change, this new fabric of inclusion. For now, dear football lovers, we must hold dear this community that we have built and embrace the victory we have earned.

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