The FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 has finally reached its frenetic conclusion, with Spain outplaying England’s Lionesses to secure the title. It’s a monumental milestone in women’s football, but for some, the final left a sour taste.
Spain’s win, while thoroughly deserved, was clouded by ongoing tensions between the first-team players and their coaching staff, led by Jorge Vilda. The Spanish FA president Luis Rubiales then drew heavy criticism for appearing to kiss Spain’s Jenni Hermoso on the lips during the post-match ceremony. “I did not enjoy that,” Hermoso said afterwards, before later clarifying (via the Royal Spanish Football Federation, RFEF) that “it was a natural gesture of affection and gratitude.”
It wasn’t plain sailing for the England squad, either – even aside from the gut-wrenching loss of a World Cup Final. The Lionesses have consistently outperformed their male counterparts for only a fraction of the respect, shown once again on the world’s stage through Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Prince William's (President of the Football Association) conspicuous absence from the final. The England squad also returns home to an ongoing dispute with the FA over its refusal to pay bonuses for their achievements in the tournament.
Despite the rumbling controversies, the Women’s World Cup has demonstrated a tantalising appetite for women’s football worldwide. A total audience of 21.2 million tuned in to watch the BBC's televised tournament coverage, while almost two million fans made their way to Australia and New Zealand to watch it in person – an upgrade of 600,000 from the last iteration in France in 2019. "This momentum is unstoppable," said FIFA chief women's football officer Sarai Bareman of the tournament’s success. "The numbers and data and everything about this World Cup has eclipsed 2019.”
At a time when we should be celebrating how far we’ve come, we’re instead reminded of how far we have to go. The next Women’s World Cup is in 2027, but as yet, there’s no one to host it. While FIFA figures that out – quickly, please – we’ve identified three areas that are *crucial* to the future of women’s football.
The football at the Women’s World Cup may have been exquisite, but off-field gaffes and disputes have exposed a persistent disrespect for the women’s game: Right-wing factions of the US media delighted in the “woke” USA’s early exit from the tournament; the Nigerian team were praised for their ‘physicality’ over their talent; and Nike still won’t stock a replica goalkeeper shirt for Mary Earps – despite her winning the Golden Glove Award.
But respect comes from the top, and that’s exactly where Gianni Infantino, President of FIFA, sits. For many, his comments about women’s football are dripping with disrespect. Days before the final, Infantino lectured “all the women” to “pick the right battles. Pick the right fights. You have the power to change. You have the power to convince us men what we have to do and what we don’t have to do.” Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg spoke for us all when she tweeted: “Working on a little presentation to convince men. Who’s in?” Yes, Infantino is prone to a gaffe (or 12), but his rhetoric is particularly troubling within the context of the women’s game.
Indeed, his calls for women to “just push the doors” diverts attention from his responsibility to open the damn doors himself.
All athletes deserve to feel safe – physically, emotionally, and financially. But the Women’s World Cup was marred by multiple safety concerns, which must serve as a wake-up call for women’s football.
Zambia’s historic debut at the tournament came amid accusations of sexual misconduct against head coach Bruce Mwape (which he denies). This was followed by reports that he rubbed his hands over the chest of one of his players, which FIFA is now investigating (Mwape has yet to respond to this allegation). Make no mistake; we need to talk about sexual harassment and abuse within football – and FIFA must play their part by finally installing a global safe sport entity.
Elsewhere, players are being forced to choose between sport and their mental health. Spain’s triumph was inevitably tainted by the RFEF’s refusal to engage with 15 first-team players who called out Jorge Vilda’s management tactics last year, alleging a detrimental impact on their physical and mental health (which he denies). Meanwhile, France’s captain Wendie Renard initially refused to play at this year’s tournament if then-coach Corinne Diacre remained in charge, citing it as “necessary to preserve [her] mental health.” Following Diacre’s departure, Renard returned to captain the squad for a second consecutive World Cup. Footballers have done the hard part by speaking up about mental health; it’s up to governing bodies to listen.
And finally, it’s time meaningful action is taken over the injury crisis plaguing the women’s game. This year, we were denied many of the sports’ biggest talents (including England’s Leah Williamson, the Netherlands’ Vivianne Miedema, and the USA’s Christen Press) who were ruled out of the competition with anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries. Whether it’s commissioning more research or creating better apparel solutions, these players deserve better.
This year’s Women’s World Cup must be the last tournament where female footballers thrive despite their federations – rather than because of them.
England and Nigeria each went into the tournament with uncertainty – albeit at opposite ends of the financial spectrum – over their pay: the former unsuccessfully calling for a win-bonus of £100,000 (a fifth of what was on offer for the England men’s team in Qatar last year) and the latter chasing years of back-payments and unpaid bonuses – not to mention protesting about the appalling lack of resources. As forward Ifeoma Onumonu said after Nigeria’s defeat to England. “Our training fields aren’t great. Where we sleep isn’t great. Sometimes we share beds.” Nigeria isn’t the only team calling for change: Khadija Shaw is one of the world’s most exciting footballing talents – imagine how much more clinical she’d be if her team, Jamaica, hadn’t had to crowdsource their path to the World Cup?
Magic happens when you invest in women’s football. Morocco’s Nouhaila Benzina made history as the first player to wear a hijab while competing at a senior international tournament – would this have been possible without grassroots funding, the professionalisation of the country’s top two women’s leagues, and the appointment of an elite coach? And we needn’t look much further than Australia and New Zealand, co-hosts of the tournament, to see how fast the appetite for women’s football is growing.
We’re entering a new era for women’s football. Are you in?