World Cup puts women’s football in spotlight

Stop there: Canada goalkeeper Erin McLeod thwarts England during their warm-up match. ©PA

England play France today in their first match of the women’s World Cup in Canada. How much change can big tournaments bring about in the perception of women’s sport?

As Claire Rafferty stood up to take her penalty in Leverkusen, Germany, England’s women stood on the brink of the 2011 World Cup semi-finals. After a tough game against France had ended 1-1, Hope Powell’s side had a shootout advantage thanks to Karen Bardsley’s save from Camille Abily’s first penalty. But Rafferty dragged her spot-kick wide; captain Faye White then hit the crossbar, and her team were brutally dumped out of the tournament in a matter of moments.

Today, England will seek to avenge that defeat as they kick off another World Cup campaign in Moncton, eastern Canada, against the same opponents in Group F. It’s the fourth day of a tournament which opened with the hosts edging past China through a late penalty to win 1-0 on Saturday.

The French and the USA are most heavily tipped to threaten the chances of the bookmakers’ marginal favourites for the cup, Germany, who are seeking a third title. The Germans, who were heavily disappointed by their exit at the quarter-final stage of the tournament they hosted in 2011, sent an ominous warning by thumping Ivory Coast 10-0 in their first match on Sunday. Canada, Brazil and defending champions Japan will also be casting their eyes towards the final in Vancouver on Sunday 5 July.

Women’s football has long presented fewer opportunities than its male equivalent. In the UK, the women’s FA was not founded until 1969, 106 years after the men’s. The Women’s Super League games were watched by an average of 728 people last season, against a figure of 36,083 in the 2014/15 Premier League season.

But this year’s tournament may bring encouragement for champions of the women’s game. The expansion of the competition from 16 to 24 teams means that twice as many will take part as in the inaugural event in China in 1991. Organisers are hopeful that they will be able to set an attendance record for the tournament as a whole; and the final is likely to draw an impressive global audience, with 65 million people expected to watch on television.

Men behind the ball

Some are sceptical of whether football will ever be an inclusive, gender-blind sport. It was created by and is overwhelmingly run, played and followed by men; it’s an inherently sexist game.

But others say that such attitudes are mere defeatism. With millions watching around the world, World Cups can inspire a generation of girls. As women break in to football, the most male of dominions, they will find that gender need never be a barrier to success. And a major tournament for women will pose awkward questions for the male players, fans and officials who often fall short of the values supposedly central to the ‘beautiful game’.

You Decide

  1. Is football inherently sexist?
  2. Can an event such as the World Cup or Olympics make a meaningful difference to the way in which gender is perceived?


  1. In groups, create a pamphlet on the past, present and future of the women’s World Cup.
  2. Devise a campaigning strategy for the FA to get women and girls involved in football. How will you spread your message and what will it be? What changes might be needed in the game and how might you achieve them? Use the link to the FA page to allow you to see the opportunities which are currently available.

Some People Say...

“Football: an exclusive club that doesn’t allow new members in lightly.”

David Mooney, New Statesman

What do you think?

Q & A

How can I get involved in women’s or girls’ football?
Girls are getting increasingly involved. The FA says that football is now officially the biggest female team sport in England: whereas just 10,400 female players took part in affiliated league and cup competitions in 1993 (when they began recording the statistic), last season the figure was over 147,000.
Can women break in to the men’s game?
In the UK, trailblazers such as Wendy Toms (who became the first female linesman in the Premier League in 1997) and Amy Fearns (the first woman to referee a Football League match, in 2010) have shown that women can play their part in the men’s game. But discrimination remains a problem as shown by the abuse aimed, for example, at Chelsea physio Eva Carneiro during games this season.

Word Watch

The same opponents
England will start today’s game as underdogs — France are ranked third in the world, and in 2013 they knocked England out of the European Championships with a resounding 3-0 win.
Group F
The group also includes Colombia and Mexico. The top two teams in each group and four of the six teams finishing third in their group will go through to a newly-introduced round of 16.
Inaugural event
The first women’s World Cup took place 61 years after the first men’s tournament. The USA beat Norway 2-1 in the final, in front of a crowd of 65,000 at Guangzhou’s Tianhe Stadium.
Attendance record
The current record of total ticket sales, 1,194,215, was set in the 1999 tournament in the United States. The most recent figures showed that 830,000 tickets for this year’s tournament had been sold by late May. Organisers are aiming to sell 1.5 million.
On television
In the UK, the BBC has coverage of every match on its main channels, or through the red button, or online. Tonight’s England v France game is on BBC Two (kick-off 6pm British time).


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