The Women’s World Cup 2019 kicks off tomorrow in Paris with the hosts France taking on South Korea. An even bigger audience than the 750m people who tuned in four years ago is expected with the women’s game a bigger draw than ever.
Sponsors are starting to flock to the sport, a sure sign that the profile of the game is growing. For those familiar with the players, it’s a chance to see how they perform on the biggest stage. For those tuning in for the first time the tournament can bring back memories of the glorious summers of youth when the Argentinean Albiceleste or Brazilian Seleção captured imaginations and inspired imitations in back gardens and parks.
The burgeoning professionalism in the women’s game has also helped to make the standard of football better than ever before with players who are now quicker, fitter and stronger thanks to opportunities to focus solely on their sport. As younger players come through professional set-ups expect the upward curve to continue in the coming years.
Off the pitch, many of the footballers taking part in the competition are role models to the wider public and especially young people in the game. Not forgetting one footballer who won’t be taking part — viewers will miss out on seeing Ada Hegerberg in action at the World Cup. The Norwegian Ballon d’Or winner and Champions League hat-trick hero with Lyon has not played international football since 2017 citing a lack of respect for female players in Norway.
Although the Norwegian Football Federation have since brought in pay parity for its male and female players, Hegerberg has still kept away from the national team set-up, saying “it’s not always about the money, it’s about preparing, taking action, professionality”.
“I know what I want and know my values and therefore it’s easy to take hard choices when you know what the ambitions are and what values you stand for, so it’s all about staying true to yourself, be yourself.”
With the tournament promising to gain more viewers and column inches than ever before, as well as being the most open and competitive it has ever been, some might argue that it’s better to just focus on the football. The absence of the best player in the world at the moment doesn’t allow for that however, and that can only be a good thing.
Such an argument — “stick to the football” — also ignores the fact that there is room for both discussions across our sports pages and television coverage, and to ignore both the inequalities in the game and the footballers bringing it to light would be to do the game a disservice. We rightly celebrate the likes of Raheem Sterling for drawing attention to racism in football, so why shouldn’t we do similarly for the many women doing the same?
Easily the most positive story in Irish football this year came just this week when international stars Katie McCabe and Ruesha Littlejohn spoke publicly for the first time about their relationship. McCabe, the Irish captain at the age of just 23, said that “as captain of the Ireland team and an Arsenal player, I’ve got a platform to speak up and show support for the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community”.
Both players spoke about how they see the women’s game as more accepting and inclusive than the men’s equivalent. Much of the credit for that has to go to the players themselves, both past and present, in creating such an atmosphere in the game. It’s just one area where the women’s game is streets ahead while men’s football is still waiting for that watershed moment.
There are plenty of other stories of female footballers fighting inequality either within the game or in wider society. In the lead-up to the tournament, the Australian national team have taken a claim against FIFA regarding the chasm in pay between the men’s and women’s World Cup squads. Megan Rapinoe, the US national team co-captain, was the first white athlete to kneel during the national anthem in 2016 in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, and is a vocal opponent of Trump.
Where often footballers are praised for “letting their football do the talking”, we should be glad that the stars of the women’s game are taking a different approach. As the showpiece event of the game plays out this month we can celebrate the quality of football as well as those involved. Footballers, but not just footballers.