Momentum is one of the most coveted intangibles in sport. And international women’s football has it. If the 2019 World Cup—defined by the Megan Rapinoe-led USA’s ingenuity and impudence—shattered the glass ceiling, the 2023 edition may well see women’s football soar.
The 2023 Women’s World Cup, which will be held in Australia and New Zealand from 20 July to 20 August, is already bigger than ever before. The number of teams has expanded from 24 to 32. The total prize money has shot up from $30 million in 2019 to $110 million; the champions will be awarded $4.29 million, and even teams knocked out in the group stage will make $1.56 million.
For the first time ever, the Women’s World Cup TV deal was not sold as an add-on feature with the men’s World Cup broadcast rights. Australia’s opening match, against the Republic of Ireland on the 20th, had to be moved from 45,000-capacity Sydney Football Stadium to the 83,500-capacity Stadium Australia, Sydney due to the high demand for tickets. More than 2 billion viewers are expected to tune in for the month-long football extravaganza.
FIFA’s chief women’s football officer, Sarai Bareman, believes it could be the “watershed moment” for the women’s game. “And that’s in every aspect—commercially, participation, popularity and growth,” she told Australian press in April.
The popularity of the Women’s World Cup—from its amateur, unofficial start—has snowballed on its own might. FIFA hasn’t always been a willing ally. The foundation of the tournament was laid down in 1970 in Italy by Federation of Independent European Female Football (FIEFF), when seven teams competed for the title. Only in 1988, when the Women's Invitation Tournament brought in an average crowd of 20,000 did FIFA deem that a global women’s competition was feasible.
Even then, the first official Women’s World Cup, in 1991 (61 years after the men’s World Cup was launched), was called the 1st FIFA World Championship for Women's Football for the M&Ms Cup, with the global body wary of devaluing their ‘World Cup’ brand. The matches lasted 80 minutes, less than the regulation 90 minutes.
“If FIFA hadn’t decided to have an experimental World Cup, and it didn’t turn out as exciting as it was…the interest for women’s soccer just wouldn’t have been there,” Michelle Akers, the centre-forward who was the architect of USA’s title win in 1991 told FIFA.com in 2018. “It was like we were too good to ignore.”
Even now, much like their predecessors, women’s footballers are made to prove their worth every step of the way, a burden their male counterparts rarely have to carry. Though FIFA has significantly bumped up the prize money for this edition, it remains significantly lower than the $440 million awarded at last year’s men’s World Cup.
US women’s football’s push for equal pay was strengthened because they won a second World Cup title in a row. Too good to ignore. But only a handful of countries—USA, England, Brazil, Australia, Norway, New Zealand, Spain, Wales—have some sort of pay parity. Nigerian players contemplated boycotting the World Cup due to a pay dispute by their federation. A searing indictment that women’s football’s progress will always be met with pushbacks, was when the Canadian football federation cut the team’s funding after they won the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
In sordid reminders of misogyny and abuse, Haiti and Zambia’s joyous World Cup debuts were marred by instances of sexual harassment. Haiti’s ex-football chief Yves Jean-Bart was found guilty of sexually abusing female players and handed a lifetime ban by FIFA ethics committee, while The Guardian reported that Zambia’s coach Bruce Mwape was accused of asking sexual favours of players if they wanted to stay in the team.
Despite the persistent problems—and many of them will likely never go away—women’s football has gone from strength to strength. Along with the anticipated and much-needed commercial upswing, the 2023 edition promises to be the one of the most competitive World Cups.
USA, the four-time winners and two-time defending champions, remain the team to beat. Many from the trailblazing 2019 World Cup team have left and coach Vlatko Andonovski has chosen youth over experience. While Naomi Girma is expected to anchor the team in defence, Sophia Smith will spearhead the attack.
Earlier this month, Rapinoe, the purple-haired leader of the women’s football revolution in USA, confirmed that this would be her last World Cup. The 38-year-old forward played a key role in her team’s 2019 triumph but is more likely to step in as an impact substitute this time around.
A big threat to US supremacy may come from their North American neighbours. Having won the Olympics in 2021, Canada’s ambitions have grown. The team will rally around 40-year-old forward Christine Sinclair, who has scored the most number of goals in international football, among men or women, at 190. She made her World Cup debut in 1999 at the age of 16; this year’s edition will be her fifth.
Among the European nations, Germany seems to be peaking at the right time, while Euro 2022 winners England, and Spain have been besieged with problems. The core of the team that won the European Championships will be missing—captain Leah Williamson, Beth Mead, midfield dynamo Fran Kirby are forced out with injury while veterans Ellen White and Jill Scott have retired. England is still a team in transition and it was evident when their 30-match unbeaten run was halted by Australia during a friendly in April.
While two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas will join the Spanish ranks, after missing out on Euro 2022, but the team is in disarray due to a player revolt against coach Jorge Vilda. After 15 established stars spoke up against coaching and injury management methods, the federation backed the coach, leaving twelve of the players that complained—including Barcelona star Mapi León—out of the squad.
Though the world keeps reminding them of their differences, the romanticism for the game is universal for the men and women of football. After Messi’s fairytale finish in Qatar—winning the World Cup for Argentina on what was possibly his last attempt—the Brazil team are working hard for similar farewell for their legend Marta.
The 37-year-old is the leading scorer in World Cups, men or women, with 17 goals. And the six-time FIFA World Player of the year has won the Golden Boot and Golden Ball at World Cups. Regarded as the one of the greatest players in the world, Marta has one trophy missing in the cabinet: the World Cup. “What they (Argentina) did for Lionel Messi, we want to do for Marta,” Brazilian forward Kerolin said in June. “She deserves it for who she is.”
In Marta’s sixth World Cup, the South American giants are shaping up well under Swedish coach Pia Sundhage, who arrived in Brazil after guiding USA to two gold medals in the Olympics. The most successful team in men’s football with five titles, theSeleçãoare yet to win a women’s World Cup. Even as Brazil are preparing for a perfect finish for one of their legends, the 2023 World Cup could signal the start of something big for women’s football.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.