State of women’s football before the World Cup: Glitter on the mud

The women’s World Cup begins on Thursday and the crowd is huge. But is women’s football really a world sport, big and relevant?

The Aussies visit the stadium: Australia's footballers in the World Cup arena in Sydney.

The Aussies visit the stadium: Australia’s footballers in the World Cup arena in Sydney Photo: Reuters

When the Women’s World Cup kicks off on Thursday, over 80,000 fans will be in Sydney’s packed stadium. They will deliver exactly the images that the TV producers wanted for this event in Australia and New Zealand: women’s football as an acclaimed, self-evident world event. The opening game was moved to a stadium that was almost twice the size because of the large crowds.

Most recently, Fifa reported over 1.2 million tickets sold for the World Cup; the tournament is on the way to becoming the most-attended women’s sports event of all time. And of course: “The best women’s World Cup of all time”, as Fifa boss Gianni Infantino reliably claims before each tournament. Because “better” always means “bigger” according to Fifa logic, it will definitely be the biggest World Cup of all time: for the first time increased to 32 teams. But how big is women’s football really ahead of this tournament? Is it true world sport?

Maybe one day it will be said that the games here after the tournament are zero. The zero tournament, the EM in England 2022, brought women’s football into the mainstream of society. A milestone, mostly because she was wisely prepared. Years earlier, the English association FA had begun to professionalize the game in a targeted manner: it had obliged the men’s clubs to invest in women’s teams, had made full profit in the first division a requirement, had promoted football with highlight games in front of a large crowd and TV contracts brought women into the mainstream.

A simple investment logic, which curiously enough hardly anyone believed in at the time in the macho domain. The English success forced the competition to upgrade financially and structurally: This was followed by record ratings, record budgets, and record fees.

stabilization of the industry

From Fifa’s point of view, Australia and New Zealand are now about picking up the ball. At least in Australia, the chances are good: relatively high numbers of fans, little male sport image, equal rights for the players and a popular national team with superstar Sam Kerr – three quarters of all tickets were sold for Australia. It’s more difficult for underdogs New Zealand, who have never progressed beyond a preliminary round at a World Cup and have only sold 300,000 tickets so far.

But maybe none of that matters anymore for the future of women’s football: the growth of club football has made the industry more stable. The fate of female soccer players no longer depends massively on the success of a Fifa tournament, as was the case with the botched 2011 World Cup in Germany. You’ve outgrown Fifa, if you will.

This success has many mothers. Mention should be made of the recent women’s movement including #MeToo and #NiUnaMenos (“Not one less”), vocal female players, new female investor collectives, more visible women in sports journalism and the busy players’ union FifPro. This is a liberal feminism that no longer excludes sport from its struggles. What is happening here is also growth from below. And from above – by the associations themselves.

Men’s football has reached the limits of its expansion. Suddenly, women became an opportunity for capitalist-driven sport from being a disruptive factor: “One becomes two”. It’s no longer just about polishing the image with women’s football. Now money is made.

For the first time there are equal conditions for the women at this World Cup, for example in terms of travel comfort, accommodation and staff. For the first time ever, FIFA is paying prize money directly to players. Overall, the premiums have been raised to 110 million euros, a multiple of the 28 million of the last World Cup. Although this is still only 25 percent of men’s bonuses, FIFA has promised equality here by 2027. A revolution is happening at the top of the big meatpots.

Halving of women’s teams

But beneath a thin layer of glitter lies knee-deep morass. Below the first leagues, a world like that of the 1950s often prevails: women’s teams are dissolved against their will, systematically discriminated against; Women and girls usually get the worst training times, the worst places, the worst equipment, unpaid coaches. Hardly any club actively courts girls; Men’s football is considered a competitive sport, women’s football as a social project. Female candidates for top positions experience massive resistance, almost all money goes to the men, and those who protest are often bullied out by men’s groups.

Between 2010 and 2021, the number of girls’ soccer teams in Germany halved from 8,700 to almost 4,000. Many have trouble maintaining league operations. A survey by the union FifPro before the World Cup among 362 participating players showed how far the precariat extends. Accordingly, 40 percent of these World Cup players are not professionals, 54 percent did not even receive a health check before the World Cup, and two thirds have to take unpaid leave. How Big Is Women’s Soccer Really?

The realistic answer is: In Sydney it is a world sport, including a niche sport. Much will depend on whether the movement from above succeeds in eliminating these provincial deficits. The little plant is still fragile. Women have failed to build their own institutions in football. They remain dependent on the agenda of male-led associations.

And they failed to develop a sustainable vision. More audience, more income, visibility, more professional conditions: women’s football measures its size by 20th-century criteria. In a society whose dream of eternal growth has failed miserably, this will take revenge. There is no goal, no idea – only the need to keep increasing numbers. High-performance football has never managed to understand true performance: it only sees top-class sport victories in it, bought with exploitation.

A real vision would be to reward and encourage real performance: meaning, benefit and joy for society and active people. Effects on local communities, the planet, workers; Local sports, sustainability, cooperation instead of just dominance, fairness, fun. This women’s football has no vision beyond growth.

Growth in men’s football has long since reached a point where it is no longer driven by belief but by fear. Nobody wants even higher budgets, even busier schedules, even more investors and tournaments, even more performance. But those who stand still, so the fear goes, will be overrun: by the English Premier League, by China, by competitors like American Football, by Tiktok.

Size is no longer a marker for better football. It’s just the marker in the race against collapse, a number for nightmares instead of dreams. Maybe that’s one reason why women’s football works at the moment. Here you can still believe in growth and at the same time fill it with values. Growth and values ​​are not yet decoupled. Larger and therefore more visible, richer and therefore more equal, national but friendly and with a rainbow tie, this is how the compulsion to optimize is once again reconciled with feminism and liberalism.

Especially in women’s football, which has so far mainly played its tournaments in the global West – there, where you don’t have to deal so much with autocracies and, more importantly, you neither see nor discuss your own responsibility for them and your own completely different human rights crimes. Here one can still believe in the blessing of growth.

And perhaps that’s a true reason for the growing, well, greatness of women’s football: that it momentarily restores faith in the existing narrative to a society lacking the imagination for a new narrative. The success of the World Cup will again be measured by numbers like the 80,000 in Sydney. And celebrate as if the economic miracle were back.

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