So, that’s it then. The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, hosted on Australian and New Zealand soil for the first time, came to an end on Sunday night as Spain beat England 1-0 in the final, after the Matildas lost 2-0 to Sweden on Saturday to finish fourth, their best ever result.
On top of the historic result, the Matildas captured the hearts of a nation. They broke television streaming records, with the semi-final match against England becoming the most-watched program since the current rating method was established in 2001.
Jubilant scenes erupted at live sites, pubs and homes across the nation. One viral video even captured a flight full of international travelers tuning in mid-air to watch the Matildas’ penalty shootout against France.
The Women’s World Cup has also delivered an estimated A$7.6 billion boost to the Australian economy.
Through countless instances such as these, we’re experiencing not just a great sporting moment, but a great cultural one too.
But, as anyone in and around women’s football knows, the Women’s World Cup needs to be more than a four-week football festival.
It needs to move the dial on the treatment of, and investment in, women’s sport, including with the following big-ticket items.
1. Celebrate and extend the cultural shift
The “Olympic Games effect” often sees coverage of women’s sports increase during the Olympics, where people are cheering on not their usual men’s or women’s teams, but their country.
But the Women’s World Cup has generated something incredible: women inspiring girls, women, boys, and men with feats that simultaneously position gender front and centre and inspire changing attitudes around the skills, capability, and value of girls and women.
Encouraging and continuing this cultural shift will be equally, if not more, game-changing.
For starters, it will ensure young girls have idols to look up to – which women’s football greats such as Brazil’s Marta missed out on.
We must cement such a shift with good policy and investment to promote further inclusion. This should have implications beyond sport, including extending to improving women’s representation in boardrooms.
2. Acknowledge no single event can fix everything
In speaking about AFLW, but in a sentiment equally applicable to football, sports journalist Neroli Meadows noted that one day the concept of women not being able to play football, or their playing being seen as a novelty, will be as foreign a concept as women not being allowed to vote.
The 2023 Women’s World Cup has gone at least partway to achieving that normalisation.
But it’s imperative not to overplay what the team and the tournament have brought. No single sport event can neatly address all gender equality issues (we’ve heard such optimism and hype around women’s sport and its gender-equality-advancing ability before).
So while it’s important to celebrate the wins, it’s equally important to recognise the tournament isn’t the endgame but an important next step.
3. Use the data to align value with investment
Until recently, the absence of investment in women’s football and the failure to broadcast matches meant the resulting data have only ever shown us what women’s football is not.
That lack of data is also why broadcasters were able to lowball FIFA when it was trying to sell the 2023 Women’s World Cup broadcast rights. It’s also why Channel 7 was able to secure the rights to screen 15 matches for just A$4–5 million (since described as “the deal of the century”).
It’s likewise why women’s football hasn’t been considered important enough to warrant inclusion under anti-siphoning laws, which facilitate events of national significance being broadcast on free-to-air television to ensure maximum accessibility.
That cannot be allowed to happen again. The astonishing viewership data and record ticket sales must be leveraged into real commercial and gender-equality change possibilities.
4. Invest in gender-specific research and gear
A spate of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries extinguished the tournament dreams of some of the world’s top women’s footballers.
Oft-cited research confirms women are up to eight times more likely to suffer ACL injuries than men. But there remains little women-specific research into ACL injury causes, much less prevention. Addressing this glaring absence is urgent.
This is symptomatic of wider issues around research overlooking women. For example, it was only last week that the world’s first study into period product absorption that used actual blood
The need to address other barriers is similarly important. For example, poorly fitting kits contribute to a high attrition rate for girls and women from sport. A Victoria University study confirmed what most girls and women already knew: done well, uniforms imbue comfort and confidence. But done poorly, they cause discomfort and self-consciousness and can put girls off wanting to continue sport.
Girls and women want flexibility and self-determination in uniform selection, and shorts and T-shirt options rather than skirts or dresses. Also, breathable dark material that masks sweat – so we should get rid of white shorts.
There’s also a glaring need to consider kits beyond outfield players: women referees remain overlooked.
Likewise, women’s goalkeeper kits have been unavailable for purchase this Women’s World Cup, despite many ‘keepers nation-inspiring defensive efforts. If ever there were something that summed up how women’s football simultaneously excels while being thwarted, this is it.
5. Appoint women to senior positions, but avoid the ‘glass cliff’
England coach Sarina Weigman was the only woman coach in the final four, and women remain a long way from holding apex positions such as the president of FIFA.
This tournament needs to open the door for women to be making decisions for women’s sport.
At the same time, we need to be measured and sustainable in the approach we take. We need to steer clear of the “glass cliff” phenomenon – where women are awarded senior positions only during tumult and the men who usually hold those roles are abandoning ship.
Establishing solid, steady training and mentoring programs and networks is a must.
6. Pay them properly
Providing a public holiday if the Matildas were to have won the final is all well and good. But there remains one key missing element for them, as it is for all women’s sports: pay and prize money commensurate with their contributions and talent.
Having achieved pay parity in 2019 and now earning base payments and bonuses for progressing to the knockout stages, the Matildas are in a slightly better position than their netball peers the Diamonds. The latter won the netball World Cup last week but received no pay and no bonuses for their efforts.
However, FIFA Women’s World Cup prize money, still a fraction of the men’s prize money, remains the elephant in the room. Total prize money for this year’s women’s tournament was US$110 million (A$165 million), while the total for the 2022 men’s edition was US$440 million (A$688 million).
FIFA has paid lip service to achieving prize money parity in coming years, but there’s little to stop it getting there now — especially off the back of record ticket sales.
7. ‘Correct the internet’
Women’s contributions have traditionally been devalued or overlooked (a phenomenon known in science as the “Matilda effect”). This has happened across many domains, including women’s football.
For example, often the historical record has seen football records such as the world’s leading international goalscorer misattributed to men. This is actually Canadian forward Christine Sinclair, having scored 190 international goals, not Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s scored 123.
Efforts such as this aim to accurately place the women at the centre of this cultural and sporting revolution, appropriately affording them their place in history.