The recently concluded FIFA Women’s World Cup cycle was one that was dichotomous in approach and consequence. On one hand, the marquee showpiece was expanded to 32 teams from 24, more money was pumped in, the prize money pot put on a few more millions, attendance figures swelled, and broadcaster interests piqued.
The flip side was darker than one would have liked. While eight heartwarming debutant stories unfolded, one of them – Zambia – battled sexual harassment allegations levelled at the coach.
Not much changed for Jamaica from the last edition to this one – with money to even make it to the quadrennial event coming from well-wishers rather than its own federation.
PRIZE MONEY OVER THE YEARS
2023 prize money: US$110m
2019 prize money: US$30m
2015 prize money: US$15m
2011 prize money: US$7.5m
2007 prize money: US$5.8m
In the end, the crowning glory came with a halo not as bright as one would have expected. While Spain’s raw adamance and skill saw it rightfully ascend the throne of global women’s football, a near-year-long player mutiny and its very public quashing took some of the shine away.
The fault lines
Spain’s win capped the nation’s thorough dominance in the women’s game from the U17 and U20 to the senior levels. Jorge Vilda and his side’s strategy was to do what they do best – rely on muscle memory.
“Today, we went out on [the] pitch to send the message: we are here, we have grown as players, we are not the same team as years ago — we can compete, fight for every ball and win, but we also know how to suffer. I’m so happy for everyone.”Aitana Bonmati (Spain midfielder)
The same passes, the same creation of chances in impossible situations, the same blistering pace, the same determination – nothing we saw of Spain was a surprise. This Armada was a well-oiled machine – one that Sarina Wiegman’s plans could not deter.
England stuck to its guns too, endlessly strategising but in vain, until it had to give in to the dogged nature of the Spaniards and see the World Cup trophy slip away courtesy of a 0-1 loss in the summit clash. However, the bigger fight was unfolding off the field.
“We created history but we wanted more. So much more.”Lauren Hemp (England forward)
The La Roja look like they have a bottomless pit of talent – something the establishment was proud to bank on when 15 players took them on in a private plea asking to be kept out of the national team until conditions of function improved.
What followed was a sordid saga of attacks and responses. The Federation made details of the letter public and denounced those they said were trying to derail the team’s progress.
The exact nature of the concerns raised was never made public, but what was out for all to see was the federation’s handling of the fiasco – a champion nation (crowned eventually) telling some of the biggest players of this generation to stay down and toe the line.
Federation president Luis Rubiales doubled down on his public support for Vilda, dismissed concerns the players had and called for a focus on those who were still willing to fight for the nation.
Rubiales’ behaviour of overly physical celebrations with members of the team, including a kiss on the lips for Jenni Hermoso – who later added she didn’t enjoy it – took the focus away from an anyway bittersweet victory for a group of women who have been put in a difficult position, forced to choose between their own futures and the good of the game in their homeland.
What’s the issue with Vilda?
Reports said the players, many of whom were at Barcelona, accused Vilda of being “dictatorial” and did not approve of his training methods or tactics.
Other publications said he would insist on the players keeping their hotel doors open before midnight while on national duty so he could personally check that they were asleep on time. There were also claims that if the players went out, Vilda wanted to know where they were going, with whom and what they were buying.
Vilda also has influential roots. His father Ángel, is the head of the federation’s women’s department, was given the unequivocal backing of RFEF president Rubiales. Vilda is also the director of women’s football in Spain.
“I don’t know how you can ignore this,” Desiree Ellis, South African head coach, had said after her team’s heartening campaign. It’s a line that has since applied to every single fault line that emerged in Spain’s campaign and the World Cup at large.
The work left to be done, especially by the powers that be, is exemplified by none other than the FIFA president himself. Days ahead of the final, Giannis Infantino left the world confused when he said, “We have to start treating men and women, or women and men, in the same way. I say to all the women, that you have the power to change. Pick the right fights. You have the power to convince us, men, what we have to do and what we don’t have to do.”
The irony was lost on no one, with Sweden player Ada Hegerberg leading the reactions with a post on X – “Working on a little presentation to convince men. Who’s in?”
While the chinks lay bare in the spotlight now, space must be made for the positives. Sweden’s ‘always the bridesmaid’ jinx continued with the side finishing with bronze yet again.
Australia’s surge to the semifinal has galvanised a nation, with the government pledging 200m USD to improve women’s sporting infrastructure at the grassroots level to elevate the standard at the professional level. They need to look no further beyond the women’s cricket team for a proof of concept of a rock-solid foundation.
PLAYER SPLIT UP IN LEAGUES
NWSL once accounted for most players featuring in the WC. In 2023, it came third, with European leagues going from strength to strength.
Women’s Super League (England): 94 players
Liga F (Spain): 72
National Women’s Soccer League (USA): 61
According to FIFA, 1,977,824 fans attended 64 games —beating the previous best attendance of 1,353,506 in Canada in 2015. Sydney proved to be the perfect cauldron for the culmination of this tournament – packing up with a capacity crowd of 75,784 in the final – the largest attendance in a single match in Women’s World Cup history (Sydney’s Stadium Australia was houseful four times in this tournament).
The true jackpot was the layers of talent coming through the lines for these teams. The world has been going gaga over Colombia’s cancer survivor and star striker Linda Caicedo and Spain’s super-sub Salma Paralluelo, who was adjudged FIFA Best Young Player, but the dividends don’t end there. Golden Boot winner Hinata Miyazawa was a breath of fresh air in attack for Japan, helping the side beat Spain in the group stage – the only team to defeat the eventual champion in this edition.
The 2023 World Cup saw goalkeepers take centre stage.
In 64 games, keepers won player of the match plaudits nine times. From Australia’s Mackenzie Arnold and England’s Mary Earps, who won the tournament Golden Glove (conceding only four goals), to World Cup-winning Spaniard Cata Coll, this tournament saw athletic efforts between the sticks from some of these women.
Forget me not
Elation and evaluation aside, what will the aftermath of the World Cup look like? There will be a lot of bandwagon-joining for sure, but what of folks like the Las 15?
What will it look like for teams like South Africa, Jamaica and Nigeria, whose financial tribulations might make the news if they need to crowdfund for the next edition of the World Cup? If nothing else, this edition held spectators and stakeholders alike by the shoulders and shook them to self-realisation. Will action follow? Check back in four years.