The FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 is set to have a new champion after 12 years. A new name will be inscribed on the base of the silver and gold WWC trophy, heralding the dawn of a fresh legacy in world football.
When the 2023 edition kicked off in July, there were predictions aplenty. The United States of America (USA), England, Netherlands, Spain — these were the popular names making their way into betting pools and online polls. There was also apprehension about expanding a rather guarded tournament for the world’s creamy layer to 32 teams.
Eight debutants came into the 2023 edition, mainly just grateful for the chance to compete on the biggest stage in their sport. A little under a month later, only Spain has survived from the aforementioned list, the ‘minnows’ have done enough and more to decommission the use of that label and we have one of the most open World Cups in the tournament’s history.
For hosts Australia and New Zealand, this tournament was a chance to boost the women’s game on either side of the Tasman Sea. For New Zealand, this was a higher hill to climb given that the island nation’s heart beats for rugby.
The country only has one professional women’s side — the Wellington Phoenix Football Club, which plays in the Australian A-League. The best of the Football Ferns ply their trade in leagues in Europe, the National Women’s Soccer League in the USA and teams in Australia.
The World Cup started with worries about filling seats and pumping up broadcast numbers. New Zealand’s first-round exit didn’t help allay the fears. However, trepidation was replaced by triumph with healthy ticket sales and an attendance of 43,217 for Spain’s 5-1 win over Switzerland — the most for any football game (male or female) — in the country.
For the Matildas, who made the semifinal for the first time in World Cup history, the impact was even more wide-reaching. The TV viewership records have been rewritten while packed stadiums cheered the team on, game after game. For the quarter final against France, major free-to-air network Channel 7 pushed its 6pm news bulletin back.
Sam Kerr’s girls joined an exclusive club of sportspeople for whom the bulletin was delayed — which includes Steve Waugh (for his 100 in Sydney in 2003), Michael Clarke (when he took three wickets in the last over to beat India in 2008) and Dylan Alcott (when he played his final Australian Open match earlier this year).
As a result Australian Football League fixtures also had to adjust to make way for the exciting 20-penalty shootout which sent the Matildas into the last four.
When Thailand was thrashed 0-13 by the USA in the 2019 edition, the quality of the game beyond Alex Morgan and Co. and a few steady European outfits came under the microscope. This was one of the major reasons why faith in a 32-team tournament was not automatic for many stakeholders and supporters. The tournament set out to prove the world wrong.
Of the four nations to win the tournament before 2023, Germany did not make it past the group stage; the USA and Norway bowed out in the round of 16, while Japan went down to Sweden in the quarterfinal.
South Africa, featuring in its second World Cup, made it to the round of 16. Nigeria and Jamaica (that did so at Brazil’s expense) also went past the group stages. Morocco’s journey was brought to an end by France, but its round of 16 finish in its maiden World Cup pairs perfectly with the heartening journey of the men’s side in Qatar last year.
England was given plenty of reasons to sweat in its World Cup opener against Haiti, managing an ordinary 1-0 win against the debutant. Portugal almost dumped USA out of the World Cup in the group stage but the defending champion managed a 0-0 draw. Colombia’s 2-1 win over Alexandra Popp’s Germany was why the former champion eventually fell to an early exit.
The Rapinoes, Morgans and Martas took a backseat while new heroes emerged, like Colombian striker Linda Caicedo, an ovarian cancer survivor who has set this edition on fire with her pace and agility.
There’s also Australia’s Mackenzie Arnold, a brick wall in goal for the Matildas, and England’s Lauren James, whose three goals have been crucial in carrying England through the group stage. The tournament moved into its business end with three out of its top five goal scorers out of the World Cup.
The World Cup this year is a bubble. Since it has begun, the focus has singularly been on what these women do on the field, as it should be. However, when the bubble bursts, there are stark realities to return to for many of the teams here.
Spain has a solid chance to lay its hands on a maiden world title, but the team has travelled for the tournament amid a period of intense strife back home.
Last September, 15 national team players declared themselves unavailable for selection around events they said impacted their emotional and physical health, with the majority of grievances attributed to coach Jorge Vilda.
The Spanish Federation backed him. After a painful and public standoff, only six of the ‘rebels’, Aitana Bonmati (three goals until the QF stage) being among them, were called back for the World Cup. Spain looks on course to challenge for the trophy but uncomfortable conversations remain to be had back home for La Roja.
A more prevalent concern for many teams in the tournament is brittle financial foundations. Nigeria was one of the brightest teams in this tournament, shining in a 3-2 win over Australia and giving England reasons to stop breathing by holding it to a 0-0 draw in the RO16 (the Lionesses eventually won 4-2 in the penalty shootout).
However, issues run deep for the Super Falcons with the team’s coach Randy Waldrum saying he was owed seven months’ wages and some of his players had not been paid in two years.
Jamaica featured in its second World Cup campaign this year, but the financial issues remain the same for the Reggae Girlz. The women’s team has been disbanded twice in more than a decade by the national federation due to a lack of funds.
Its last campaign had assistance from Bob Marley’s daughter Cedella, who has supported the side for close to 10 years. This time around, the mother of one of the players set up a crowdfunding appeal and also released a statement on the alleged mismanagement within the federation.
South Africa’s coach Desiree Ellis too echoed the same sentiments when she addressed the press after the Banyana Banyana’s loss in the RO16. “To the sponsors: I don’t know how you can ignore something special like this. I don’t know how you can’t assist in getting us to climb up the ladder and assist in getting us better.”
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