The United States celebrate winning the 2019 Women's World Cup. This year's World Cup has not yet begun, but it is already breaking new ground. (Photo by Naomi Baker - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
One in every seven people on Earth watched some part of the 2019 Women’s Football World Cup, witnessing an event that changed the face of the women’s game.
Stadiums in France were sold out, the tournament’s social media presence resulted in billions of impressions and the prize money was more than it’s ever been — and that was only the beginning.
The 2023 edition, which begins in Australasia next month, is going to be bigger and better, and will fill more players’ bank accounts, in what is set to be a landmark event for women’s sport.
Payouts for this tournament add up to $110 million, an increase of $80 million from four years ago. Each member federation is guaranteed a participation fee of $1.56 million and individual players will receive at least $30 000 each. That alone will push them to put their best foot forward in pursuit of the game’s ultimate prize.
Just ask the ever-present Nigeria, who has appeared at all eight previous World Cups, and had to threaten to protest over unpaid salaries at the last one. Their star striker, Barcelona-based Asisat Oshoala, told the BBC the new payment model will “serve as motivation to the players” who no longer depend on their national boards for income from the competition.
Nigeria is grouped with co-hosts Australia, debutant Republic of Ireland and 2015 quarter finalists Canada. It will enter the tournament as the headline African side but not the one with the best recent form — at last year’s Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon), Nigeria was beaten by all three of the continent’s other World Cup representatives.
Eventual champions South Africa handed Nigeria defeat in the group stage, while Morocco beat them in the semifinal and Zambia in the third place playoff.
The performances of Morocco and Zambia earned them their first World Cup appearances and represent a shift in the traditional footballing powerbase in Africa, which has been in the west. This time, the north and south of Africa are also at the World Cup and, of those, Morocco’s rise is the most impressive.
Thanks to an injection of investment by the country’s football federation in 2020, they have a two-tier professional league, some of the best facilities in the world and a string of good results to show for it. Their men’s team went where no African team has gone before and were semifinalists at last year’s World Cup, while their women became the first Arab team to reach the knockout stages of the Wafcon.
Morocco takes on Germany, Colombia and South Korea with a squad made up of players who come from footballing families, such as Ghizlane Chebbak, daughter of former men’s national team player Larbi, and young women who have had to fight for their place in the game. Rania Harrara is one example.She had to overcome cultural prejudices to play for her school’s boys’ team, where she faced so much discrimination that she started her own club.
Harrara’s story of being othered is not unique in the women’s game. Zambia’s captain Barbra Banda was left out of their Wafcon squad over controversial gender eligibility criteria but has been cleared to play at the World Cup. She is best known for scoring two hat-tricks in the space of four days at the 2021 Olympic Games and has netted a total of 36 goals in 37 international appearances.
Zambia, in 77th place, is the lowest-ranked team at the event, and is in a tough pool with Spain, Costa Rica and Japan. But they know that anything they can achieve will inspire generations.
That is also the mindset of South Africa, who will play a second successive World Cup, and are searching for their first tournament win. They are without talismanic former captain Janine van Wyk, who was ruled out of contention by a knee injury, but have been bolstered by the return of striker Thembi Kgatlana, who has recovered from a ruptured
Achilles in time.
Kgatlana was responsible for Banyana Banyana’s first World Cup goal, against Spain in 2019, and will doubtless be after a few more at this event.
South Africa is set to play Sweden, Italy and Van Wyk has previously said she believed it will take more than just faith for an African team to win the World Cup, given the strength of sides such as defending champions the US, European champions England and perennial favourites Brazil, whose iconic forward Marta is due to make a sixth World Cup appearance.
But that doesn’t mean the African contingent won’t dare to dream. Already, there have been some firsts for this competition and they will want to add to the pioneering spirit.
Female video match officials will be used for the first time and Heba Saadia will become the first Palestinian woman to officiate at a World Cup.
From a financial perspective, Fifa insisted for the first time on what they believed was a fair fee for television rights for women’s football. Bids from Europe’s big five countries — England, Germany, France, Italy and Spain — were initially rejected for being too low after Fifa president Gianni Infantino said it was the organisation’s “moral and legal obligation not to undersell” the women’s game.
The public broadcasters of those countries are coughing up millions to screen the World Cup to an audience that is increasingly appreciative and interested in what women footballers can do.
Let the games begin!]
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.