A record number of spectators watched the Fifa Women’s World Cup, an entertaining spectacle that will only grow the game. Despite this, the fight for respect is not over for women.
It had to be the brilliant American team that lifted their fourth Fifa Women’s World Cup on Sunday, putting the finishing touches to a brilliant celebration of athleticism and skill in France.
Make no mistake, the 2019 edition was the best watched in the history of the event for a number of reasons, the biggest of those being the sheer quality of football on display. America have won four of the eight tournaments ever played and their dominance of the sport has allowed them to transcend into other, bigger conversations.
The heavyweight semifinal between England and the United States was the most watched broadcast on British television in 2019. Being shown on a free-to-air BBC channel, the tournament left the ICC Cricket World Cup in the viewership dust, as the pay-TV numbers simply cannot compete.
That Norway, however, was hamstrung by the withdrawal of their standout player, Ada Hegerberg, who is at odds with her football association. The four-time Uefa Champions League winner, and the inaugural recipient of the female Ballon d’Or award in 2018, has cited a lack of respect for women’s football.
The national women’s team remuneration has since been doubled.
It is not a situation unique to Norway, however. The American team stood as one to file a gender discrimination case against US Soccer, with the disparity from their infinitely less successful male colleagues a major point.
It is a folly that the multiple World Cup winners suckle on the hind teat of American sport, even as their brilliance is used as one of the biggest billboards of hope for the American dream.
Women’s sport, even in 2019, is still a cause.
It is still fighting for equality, on and off the field, and it is against that backdrop that the 2019 Women’s World Cup has been a watershed. The target of a billion viewers has been smashed and heroines have emerged from several countries. The Guardian newspaper listed Khadija “Bunny” Shaw as their 2018 Footballer of the Year.
Ahead of any other footballer, in the year of the men’s World Cup and an extraordinary Champions League narrative, the British newspaper found Shaw’s rise to be the most compelling.
Captivating audiences worldwide
She fired Jamaica to their first ever Women’s World Cup, and did so in the midst of incredible tragedy, as she lost four of her seven brothers to gang-related violence. It was a harrowing personal period, interspersed with the greatest leap for Jamaican women’s football.
“Wi likkle but wi Tallawah,” captain Konya Plummer said of the Jamaican spirit.
That phrase loosely translates to, we may be a small nation, but we are fearless and strong-willed, and will not be contained by pre-conceived boundaries.
Proud. Ambitious. Tallawah.
It is no coincidence that the semifinalists in the 2019 edition are comprised of countries who take women’s football a lot more seriously than others.
In England, for example, this World Cup has been on the back pages and front of the newspapers. The Lionesses were splashed everywhere, their progress gathering momentum and more support with each passing round. They responded accordingly, daring a nation to dream that they might go to places men’s football hasn’t visited since 1966.
Against a brilliantly efficient American team, England fell short. It wasn’t to be, but the ride to the semifinals was incredible.
Their matches were shown live at Glastonbury, of all places, with one of the biggest annual parties in the world keeping in tune with the times. They were just one of many, compelling narratives in France, however.
It was the champions, of course, who made the biggest headlines. On and off the field.
Megan Rapinoe deservedly won the Golden Boot, which goes to the best player of the tournament, for her drive and excellence over the past month. She has been Captain America, her rainbow of hair colours acting like a beacon for the rest of the side to follow.
Rapinoe also made headlines away from the field. When asked if this brilliant team would take their World Cup to the White House, she didn’t shirk the challenge of the question.
“I ain’t going to the fucking White House,” she sniped.
Naturally, US President Donald Trump took the bait and responded with a flurry of tweets. He challenged Rapinoe to “finish the job” first. Which she and the rest of this outstanding team did.
Rapinoe is no stranger to the art of standing out. She routinely uses her raised platform to shine a light on bigger issues.
In 2011, after a big performance at that year’s World Cup, she came out as being gay. Rapinoe being Rapinoe, she chose to do so in a way that left no questions to be asked. She and her partner posed on the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue, naked and unafraid.
While others wondered what impact that might have on her career, she didn’t flinch. She has always seen it as a responsibility to stand up for the causes and people in which she believes. And when she cannot stand, she kneels. Rapinoe was one of the first athletes to take a knee in solidarity with American football player Colin Kaepernick and his fight against police brutality.
“I haven’t experienced over-policing, racial profiling, police brutality or the sight of a family member’s body lying dead in the street. But I cannot stand idly by while there are people in this country who have had to deal with that kind of heartache,” she wrote in The Players Tribune, by way of explanation.
As a team, the American women’s footballers are locked in another battle, away from the bright lights of World Cup fever. In 2016, Rapinoe’s was one of five names that went on the initial lawsuit against US Soccer for wage discrimination.
That fight is still ongoing and talks will continue once the World Cup dust settles. Rapinoe says they will fight and fight to the end. Their courage has already inspired other nations to take similar stances. Australia’s national women’s team, the Matildas, went on strike. Norwegian football has made huge strides, and the collective stance on women’s football and its reward and relevance is changing.
Rapinoe and her teammates have been unwavering on this front — and for good reason. Four times they have won the World Cup. Countless times they have been held up as a beaming example by their bosses and sponsors. It’s about time their achievements reflected where it matters most.
Bringing a fresh World Cup victory to the negotiating table is one heck of a bargaining chip. It’s the elephant in the room for American soccer. These women are the flagship, the standard bearers whose relentless pursuit for more is making a mockery of the pay disparity.
And there, in the midst of it all, is Rapinoe. Her goal celebrations are a symbol of the attitude of this Stars and Stripes unit. Arms wide open, head tilted slightly to the side and a grin that has the certainty of fact that this is their time.
She stands on the ramparts of women’s football, flying the flag for the entire code. She and this bold generation of footballers will no longer be silenced, their quest for equality no longer swept aside.
At the press conference after the World Cup final, Rapinoe called out Fifa for scheduling the Copa América and the Concacaf Gold Cup finals on the same day as the Women’s World Cup final.
It’s that lack of respect that Hegerberg has touched on. That apparent lack of care for this day of days on the calendar. The prize money for this 2019 Women’s World Cup was $30-million.
In contrast, last year’s men’s World Cup had a prize fund of $400-million, with winners France taking home $38-million.
Is the men’s offering 10 times the product of women’s football?
Fifa president Gianni Infantino spoke of plans to double the money for the next Women’s World Cup after this year’s edition, and of expanding the tournament. Rapinoe will probably tell you that talk is cheap and she will only believe it when she sees it.
Who can blame her, as a decorated footballing legend who has to take her bosses to court for a pay rise to reflect her team’s true standing?
It’s 2019 and women’s football still faces its biggest battles off the field. On the field, meanwhile, they are thriving, with a brand of sporting panache that is shattering the walls of stereotypical assumption every time they set foot on a field.
What is more, the likes of Rapinoe are hellbent on not just making history but changing it.
With the chants of “Equal Pay” having rung around the Stade de Lyon, Rapinoe had the final word on the matter. For now, anyway.
“I think everyone is ready for the next step in this conversation. We as players, every player at this World Cup, put on the most incredible show that you could ever ask for. We cannot do anything more to impress more, to be better ambassadors, to take on more or to play better or do anything. It’s time to take it forward to the next step.”
This article was first published on New Frame.