For the past month or so, all eyes—or at least those belonging to people who cared about “the beautiful game”—have been on Paris for the eight edition of the Women’s World Cup. The winner of the tournament will be decided on July 7, 11p.m. Philippine time. It will be between defending champions USA and the Netherlands, a team that has reached the final round for the first time in the tournament’s 28-year-history. If you haven’t checked it out yet, you still have that last game and the 3rd place tie between Sweden and England to catch.
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The women’s quadrennial event has long been (condescendingly, I might add) considered as an adjunct to the men’s tournament, which is the most watched global sporting event. But this 2019 edition has shown unprecedented numbers, at least when it comes to TV networks around the world. Football-crazy countries like Italy and Brazil normally don’t tune in to women’s matches, but this time around their local viewers were doing so and supporting their national teams’ matches in big, record-breaking numbers.
The US always gets huge numbers during World Cup season, which is surprising since it is not a "football country" in respect to the rest of the world. This ratings boost is especially true for the women’s tournament and women’s football in general. But, since the American women are arguably the most successful team in the game, it makes more sense; they have three World Cups, and four Olympic Gold medals under their belt. This year is no exception, and records are still being broken. In the US, 7 million watched the semifinals between Team USA and England, while 11.7 million watched it across the pond. The latter statistic makes it the most watched British event this year. FIFA expects a record 1 billion viewership for the entire tournament. Retail is showing a similar trend. Nike, for example, reports that the US Women’s Team World Cup kit is their best-selling soccer jersey of all time. If they win an unprecedented fourth title on Sunday, those kits will expectedly fly even faster off the shelves.
All that is to say that people are taking women’s football seriously, despite some financial backing issues facing most of the 24 teams in the tournament. Speaking of which…
Battle of the sexes
During the course of the tournament, the gender pay gap has been discussed thoroughly. Despite record numbers tuning in, there remains a huge disparity in what countries pay their female footballers compared to the men. For example, Sweden’s Nilla Fischer says that what men make in an hour, she makes in a year of playing club football for Germany’s VfL Wolfsburg. A lot of the professional female players have to take day jobs in order to support themselves unlike their male counterparts.
A lot of players and pundits have spoken about it, but some are taking the battle to another level. Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, who many consider as the best player in the world today and the first winner of the FIFA Women’s Ballon d’or, decided not to play for her country. While full details were not divulged, some say she declined partly out of protest against the gender pay disparity in her country. Her team was knocked out by England in the quarterfinals. She has been praised for her willingness to sacrifice her international career in order to give young women in Norway a chance at equality.
The US Women’s team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation in March, saying they are being paid less than the US men’s team, despite the latter not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. Alex Morgan, one of the most popular American soccer players of all time, says they deserve to be paid equally for what they have done for the sport, regardless of gender.
The battle wages on in nations like Brazil, who were knocked out of the tournament by host country France. Marta Vieira da Silva (or just Marta as she is more widely known), perhaps the most decorated female football player of all time, then gave an impassioned post-match speech to young Brazilian women to not give up on the sport. There has been no long-term government support for the women’s game in their country. In contrast, ridiculous amounts of money is poured into developing men’s teams there.
Apart from the gender pay gap issue, more talking points abound. Team USA’s Megan Rapinoe publicly stated that she and the rest of the team would never go to the White House even if they get invited. President Donald Trump, as expected, went on a Twitter rant, saying “Megan should WIN first before she talks.” Fortunately for her, she and her teammates seem to be doing that rather well.
There has also been widespread criticism of FIFA for scheduling both the Copa America and African Cup of Nations at the same time as the Women’s World Cup finals. All eyes should have been on the World Cup. Instead, they have to compete with two other major, regional tournaments that could have been scheduled some other time. The football governing body has also been called out on implementing some of the new regulations in the tournament, with some saying they’re making the Women’s World Cup as a guinea pig for new football rules. This would have been unheard of on the men’s side.
There are also on-pitch issues. The polarizing VAR (Video Assistant Referee) system was implemented for the first time. This led to some controversial refereeing calls and, eventually, game results. Team USA was also severely criticized for celebrating all of their 13 goals against Thailand in their opening game; a lot of pundits say the way they acted was egregious and was disrespectful toward their opponents. This opened discussions on whether men would have suffered the same judgment given the same circumstances.
There are a lot more things to unpack about this edition of the Women’s World Cup and weeks after the tournament ends, you’ll probably see a lot of think pieces come out. But in the meantime, you still have two more matches to catch and hopefully they will be as colorful and exciting as the past month has been.