A day before a group stage match against Jamaica, in what turned out to be the final World Cup match of her career, Brazil forward Marta reflected on her journey in women’s football. “When I started playing, I didn't have an idol, a female idol. You guys didn't show any women’s games,” the 37-year-old said in a press conference. “How was I supposed to see other players? How was I supposed to understand that I could arrive at a national team and become a reference? Today we have our own references. This wouldn't have happened if we had stopped in the first obstacles that we faced.”
During her career, Marta has seen women’s football go from primetime pariah to television’s top billing. More than a billion viewers tuned in for the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup, while a total of 1,978,274 spectators attended the games in Australia and New Zealand. In stadiums, at homes, in bars, in public squares, even 35,000 feet up in the air, people watched the month-long extravaganza unfold. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
They watched in awe as Australia won a nerve-wracking and exhausting 20-shot penalty shootout against France to advance to their first semi-final. They watched as Lauren James undid all the good work on the field by stamping onto Nigerian player Michelle Alozie’s back and was sent-off. They watched as Megan Rapinoe, the face of the football revolution at the 2019 World Cup, missed a penalty against Sweden as defending champions USA went down 4-5 in the shootout. They watched as an injury-inflicted England gritted and battled their way to the summit clash. Finally, they watched a Spanish side rise above a traumatic twelve months to conquer the world.
Invoking the spirit of 2010, when their men’s team finally came of age on a World Cup stage, La Roja played the beautiful, mesmerising game only they can. Technically superior, tactically sound. On Sunday, they drove a battle-hardened England dizzy as they passed the ball, up and down, around and around. According to the statistics released by Fifa, Spain held 60 per cent attacking possession, made 485 passes (362 for England), of which 405 were completed (272 for England), and Golden Ball winner Aitana Bonmati was at the heart of it.
Despite chances at both ends, it was Olga Carmona’s strike that separated the two teams. With more than 75,000 in attendance for the final at the Stadium Australia in Sydney, the 23-year-old Spanish captain beat England’s indefatigable goalkeeper Mary Earps in the 29th minute to score the winner.
The triumph meant that Spain are now the women’s world champions at all levels: they won the U-17 World Cup held in India in 2022 and the U-20 World Cup held in Costa Rica last year. “Today we have this star and this medal and this cup, but it’s for all of them, all of those who have fought for more equality and to get us to a better place,” Bonmati said after the win. “We love that we could contribute our part to be role models for all those girls and boys. Very emotional to have achieved something so extraordinary.”
The 2023 Women’s World Cup will go down in history as the most successful, most watched edition of the tournament yet. There was also a transitional feel to it.
Icons like Marta—who has scored the most number of goals (17) in a senior World Cup for men or women—and two-time World Cup winner Rapinoe bid farewell. New stars like Spain’s Salma Paralluelo, cancer-survivor Linda Caicedo of Colombia and Casey Phair of South Korea were discovered. A former athlete, 19-year-old Paralluelo, called ‘Usain Bolt’ by her teammates, tore through opposing defences with speed and power. She helped Spain snatch a 2-1 win over the Netherlands in extra time in the quarter-finals and then broke the deadlock in the 81st minute against Sweden in the semis.
As more investment and talent has flowed into the women’s game in the last five years, teams have caught up to dominant power like USA, Japan and Germany. The World Cup expanded from 24 to 32 teams this time. Of the eight debutant teams this year, Morocco, who performed exceedingly well in the men’s World Cup as well, made it to the knockouts. But big teams like Brazil, Germany and Olympic champions Canada were all done by the group stage.
The biggest revelation of the tournament, were co-hosts Australia. The ‘Matildas’ captivated the nation and played to sell-out crowds in each of their matches. They were also co-authors of the most memorable moment of the World Cup, along with France. After extra-time ended at 0-0, the teams were locked in an epic penalty shootout, that held the attention of the football world and a plane-full of passengers. Everyone on that flight was tuned into the match. The teams took 10 shots each and Australia’s Cortnee Vine scored the winning spot-kick as Australia surged to the semi-final for the very first time. They also became the first hosts to enter the final four.
Their semi-final clash against England broke TV records in Australia. With an average viewership of 7.13 million, free-to-air host broadcaster Channel Seven said it was, “the most-watched programme, sport or otherwise, since the current rating system was established in 2001.”
A dogged England side however brought the ‘Miracle of the Matildas’ to an end with a 3-1 win. Going into the final, European champions England had an impressive record—they had lost only one of the 38 matches since coach Sarina Wiegman took over in 2021. But, in the final, Spain took the sting out of their counterattack. Though Earps saved a penalty from Jenni Hermoso to stall the Spanish momentum, another World Cup heartbreak awaited England.
Even on the occasion that was seen as the biggest, most global celebration of women’s sport, the grim reminders of sexism and patriarchy lurked just beneath the surface. Last year, when fifteen of Spain’s their first team players, one of whom was Bonmati, wrote to their federation demanding better facilities, funding, infrastructure and coaching staff, the federation instead banned them from the team. Of the 23 players that were sent to the World Cup, 17 were first-timers. Despite the quick-fix solutions between the two sides, the players produced a classy and cohesive performance. They bounced back from a 0-4 drubbing against Japan in the group stages to script an unlikely turnaround.
But the fissures in the unit were all too visible. After the win, the Spain players, dressed in red were huddled together and celebrated away from the support staff, who had enjoyed the unquestioned support of the Spanish federation. During Sunday’s presentation ceremony, Spanish Football Federation President Luis Rubiales sparked outrage as he kissed Jenni Hermoso on the lips, which the Spain midfielder asserted she “didn’t like”.
As for Fifa president Gianni Infantino, if last year’s “Today, I feel Qatari”, speech wasn’t cringeworthy enough, he used the, “I have daughters too”, crutch to embark on more tone-deaf comments in the run up to the final. “With men, with Fifa, you will find open doors. Just push the doors,” he told the women footballers. “And I say to all the women—and you know I have four daughters, so I have a few at home—that you have the power to change. Pick the right battles. Pick the right fights. You have the power to convince us men what we have to do and what we don't have to do.”
Infantino, and the suits at Fifa, are busy patting themselves on the back for a job they should have done decades ago, and explaining to women why they still don’t deserve equal prize money. Little do they know that women footballers have marched on, with or without their support. Creating a more equal world, more opportunities for themselves; creating their own destiny.
Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai.