The first Women’s World Cup, then called the FIFA Women’s World Championship, was held in China in 1991. Twelve countries competed and the United States won it.
The U.S. magazine Sports Illustrated devoted a story to the victory that was less than one page in length. That two-thirds-of-a-page piece appeared in print opposite a full-page, stunningly sexist ad. Two attractive women on a ski lift gaze out and the caption is, “I just saw what I want for Christmas, and I bet he drinks Johnnie Walker Red.”
This fact is no buried secret. It was pointed out recently on social media by Sports Illustrated’s main soccer writer. His intention was to contrast 1991 with now, when the entire U.S. women’s team is on the cover of the magazine and there are seven different versions available.
It would be easy to conclude that much has changed since 1991 and there are so many reasons to be happy about the raised profile and coverage of the women’s game. But it would be wrong. The women’s game has grown in stature, evolved and magazine covers every few years mean something, but the ecosystem of women’s soccer is fragile, not robust. As this FIFA Women’s World Cup unfolds in France, there is still something lacking. Mainly, it’s respect.
First, respect from FIFA and the regional governing bodies of soccer. This World Cup is already tainted by a major screw-up in FIFA’s ticketing operation. Many fans attending the tournament printed their tickets in May only to find seats that were bought together were not placed together. Families were separated by rows of seats. Even some couples who bought a pair of tickets together found they were being seated separately in FIFA’s system. FIFA’s first response was to blame the purchasers for not reading the fine print. The response from some was “What fine print?” It was a fiasco that never happens at a men’s World Cup or the men’s UEFA tournaments. It screamed lack of respect for supporters of the women’s game.
And there’s another issue: It is frankly appalling that this WWC is obliged to compete for attention with two overlapping tournaments in the men’s game. While the women’s teams from 24 countries are competing in France, both the Gold Cup and the Copa America will be played. That means men’s teams from North, Central America and the Caribbean are playing for the Gold Cup while most of soccer-obsessed South America will be galvanized by the Copa, one of the fiercely fought regional competitions and this year held in Brazil.
The timing of the Copa is especially provocative because women’s teams from Argentina, Brazil and Chile are competing in France. Brazil’s women’s team is running on fumes. The infrastructure supporting the women’s game there is a shambles and the team has lost nine recent games. Argentina’s team, before qualifying for France, had a two-year period with no games and no coach. Chile’s team was also inactive for more than two years and only when the players themselves took charge did the situation change.
Neglect of the women’s game is rampant in South America. Asking the women’s teams to compete for attention with the men’s team while a continent is at fever-pitch about the Copa, is another insult. FIFA might see some logic to the final match in all three competitions being played on the same day, July 7, but it’s unlikely that a single woman playing the game would view it that way.
What women’s soccer gets from FIFA is a kind of grudging tolerance, as though FIFA were making a charitable donation and expects praise for its efforts.
At least one issue that clouded the previous Women’s World Cup, in Canada, does not overshadow the tournament in France – the matter of women playing on artificial turf. But money is a major irritant as it was in 2015. Consider this: The French men’s team got US$38-million for winning the World Cup in Russia last year, and U.S. women got US$2-million for winning the World Cup in Canada in 2015. The team winning the final in France will get US$4-million.
Doubling the amount seems like largesse but the big picture presents even more glaring discrepancies. The pool of prize money for the 32 teams at the men’s World Cup in 2018 was US$400-million. This Women’s World Cup 2019 prize-money pool is US$30-million. It is estimated FIFA’s profit between 2015 and 2018 was US$1.2-billion. Further, it’s estimated that FIFA is sitting on a US$2.75-billion reserve bank account.
The U.S. women’s team has filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against its own soccer federation, on the issue of money. Professional Footballers Australia has asked FIFA to pay more money to women at this World Cup and it began a social-media campaign to raise awareness of the issue.
It’s the pettiness of FIFA’s treatment of the women’s game that is inescapably insulting. For this Women’s World Cup, most but not all teams will be flown business class to France. Depends on the length of the flight. For the first time, teams will not be obliged to share hotels with teams they compete against, but for some players, their soccer federations decline to pay for such things as WiFi at a hotel.
Two years ago, the women’s team representing the Republic of Ireland, then in contention for a spot at this World Cup, threatened strike action. Among the issues the women raised was having to go into public washrooms in airports to change into, and then out of, tracksuits for international games, as the tracksuits had to be used again by other Irish teams. Also, they were paid nothing for appearances for their country. Nothing. They asked for €300 (about $450). In that instance, FIFA declined to recognize the legitimacy of the women’s players’ organization in negotiations with Ireland’s soccer authorities. That changed but only after the women went public with their story and threatened strike action. They were led in their protest by Stephanie Roche, the player who was the runner-up for the 2014 FIFA Puskas Award for the best goal of the year.
The cover of Sports Illustrated and huge Nike billboards will help send the U.S. team to France with oomph and pizzazz. No player will lack for money or facilities. The same applies to Canada’s women’s team. The women’s game is thriving in France, week to week, year to year. It is thriving in England and other countries, too. But in women’s soccer the high-profile teams and players are anomalies. The international ecosystem is incredibly fragile. Outside the United States and Canada, and a handful of other countries, not that much has changed since 1991.