Football

Fifa World Cup 2019: when the world finally cared

France 2019 will go down as the tournament that opened the eyes of much of the planet to women's football.

Success can be measured in many ways.

At the Fifa Women’s World Cup 2019, completed overnight with a convincing 2-0 win by the peerless USA WNT (women’s national team) over the ever-so-slightly thuggish Dutch, positive metrics practically tripped over each other to reinforce just what a cracking event it had been.

Packed stadiums, record TV ratings and corporate endorsement led the charge.

Fair play to adidas (“Dare to Create”) and Hyundai (“True Passion Inspires”) for the wonderfully meaningless, but nonetheless feelgood, slogans their marketing arms slapped on the pitch-side LED signage throughout the final – a match in which daring, creativity, passion and inspiration were indeed in abundant supply.

There was even a good dollop of truth, thanks to the VAR intervention that handed Megan Rapinoe the chance to put the USA in front from the penalty spot.

Rapinoe’s clinical strike ensured a wonderful team would receive its just desserts, while also granting the star left winger the chance to fulfill her personal goal of declining to partake in any such treats at the White House.

The ‘Rapinoe pledges to snub Trump’ by turning down any invitation to visit the White House was one of the talking points heading into the final – and another key indicator of success.

You’re most definitely big time when you turn down the big man – and pretty darn confident when you can do so before you’ve actually won anything. Fair play, as Fifa would of course endorse.

Trump, who has responded to previous snubs by “uninviting” unimpressed champions, on this occasion threw down the gauntlet, pledging to invite the USAWNT to the White House regardless of the result of the final.

It’s doubtful he’ll need to polish the silverware for this one.

"I refuse to respect a man that warrants no respect,” Rapinoe’s teammate Ali Krieger said, suggesting a team that is at the vanguard of a push for gender equality in sport isn’t about to bend the knee for a misogynist bigot facing multiple accusations of sexual impropriety.

Fifa president Gianni Infantino is doubtless correct that “there will be a before and after the Women’s World Cup 2019”.

The tournament was indeed a tipping point for women’s football, however the glowing future Infantino has outlined for the women’s game – a club World Cup, a 32-team World Cup and billion-dollar investment over the next four years – might not be the mutual love-in he clearly anticipates.

A pledge to double the prize money for the next event, from $US30 million to $US60 million, sounds great but, as the Huffington Post noted, it isn’t exactly a major step towards parity.

Fifa, of course, doubled the prize money for the 2019 tournament from $US15 million in 2015 – at the same time increasing the prize money for the men’s event from $US400 million to $US440 million.

If the chants of equal pay that erupted in the stadium at Lyon after the final whistle are any indication, that discrepancy hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“I think everyone is ready for this conversation to move to the next step,” Rapinoe said after the final.

“I think we’re done with: ‘Are we worth it, should we have equal pay, is the market the same?’ Yada yada.

“Everyone’s done with that; fans are done with that, players are done with that. In a lot of ways I think sponsors are done with that. Let’s get to the next point. What’s next? How do we support women’s federations and women’s programmes around the world? What can Fifa do to do that? What can we do to support the leagues around the world?”

Of all the metrics that support that stance, the most compelling is perhaps the hardest to quantify.

For much of the planet, a World Cup defined by exquisite goals and thrilling finishes was the moment when people began to care.

England’s semi-final defeat by the USA was the most-watched television broadcast in Britain this year, with 11.7 million people glued to their TVs.

Many of them took it quite badly when they lost.

British TV ‘personality’ Piers Morgan even ranted about England captain Steph Houghton being a “highly-paid professional” after her penalty kick was saved by US goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher in a 2-1 defeat.

Morgan slammed Houghton for her poor strike. For context, here’s David Beckham taking a penalty in a crucial match against Turkey.

While Morgan’s assessment is appalling, it is doubtless concurred with by millions of dismayed fans.

And that’s great. Anger, disillusionment and delusion are what you get in sport when people really care.

Global women’s football: welcome to the big time.

In New Zealand, it must be said, the level of dissatisfaction at what was a disappointing campaign, was comparatively muted.

That the Football Ferns turned in a fine performance in losing to a late, late goal against eventual finalists the Netherlands in their opening group match doesn’t obscure what followed.

The painful defeats by Canada and Cameroon highlighted just how far off the pace this country is. In three matches, the Ferns’ only goal was lashed into the net by a Cameroon defender.

The increase from 24 to 32 terms for future World Cups will ensure there is always a place at the table for a Ferns team whose supremacy is unchallenged in the Oceania Confederation. But with emerging professional leagues in Europe and South America underpinning huge improvements in those major football territories, New Zealand’s geographic isolation figures to become an even greater hurdle.

The world has woken up to women’s football. Good times lie ahead. But if New Zealand continues its slumber, we will miss the boat.

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