Parc Olympique Lyonnais will host the conclusion of the month-long FIFA Women’s World Cup tomorrow, a tournament touted to change the face of women’s football.
Before the United States and the Netherlands kick-off in front of an expected capacity crowd in Lyon, there is time to reflect on the competition as a whole.
There is no doubt that interest in the Women’s World Cup has been unprecedented, with FIFA expecting the global audience to reach one billion by the time the tournament ends. Italy’s previous record audience for a women’s football match of 202,844 was obliterated when the side played Brazil, with 7.303 million tuning in.
England’s dramatic semi-final clash with the US drew in 11.7 million views domestically, a 51 per cent share of the available audience and the most watched TV event of 2019 in Britain. Records have also been broken in France, Brazil, Chile, the United States and China.
It is not all about TV viewing figures, however. A good measure of the success of an event is the level of debate and noise it creates across both the sporting and wider world.
The Women’s World Cup did exactly this, for reasons both positive and negative. One of the main topics of contention has been the use of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), especially in matches earlier in the tournament.
The system made its debut at the men’s World Cup in Russia last year but did not reach the levels of controversy that it has in France. This is mainly because the issue at hand is not actually VAR, but the new International Football Association Board (IFAB) rules that FIFA implemented only a week before the Women’s World Cup began.
One such rule altered the definition of a handball, which are now awarded if a player has made their body into an unnatural silhouette with their arms. Essentially, if the ball hits your arm while it is positioned away from your body, a handball is given.
This saw numerous penalties given in the tournament, some of which were crucial in determining the fate of a team. The penalty given against Japan during their last-16 clash against the Netherlands comes to mind.
With the score at 1-1 and two minutes of play left on the clock, Japanese captain Saki Kumagai ran towards Dutch striker Vivianne Miedema as she surged into the box. Kumagai lowered her arms, which had been raised as that is how human beings run, attempting to block Miedema’s shot. Her attempt was futile. The ball struck her arm at point-blank range and a penalty was given.
Lieke Martens successfully converted and Japan were out of the tournament.
Similar incidents caused outrage as people condemned the new rules, the way VAR revealed the most minor of infractions and the seeming lack of common sense on behalf of the match officials. Others defended the decisions, as after all, everything had been done by the book. Whatever the opinion, the debate caused a large buzz around the tournament.
It seemed as if officials responded to the increased attention, with less decisions given by VAR in the latter stages of the competition. The furore surrounding the new rule which directs goalkeepers to keep at least one foot on their line while a penalty is taken even resulted in IFAB amending the details to ensure that keepers could not be sent off for two infringements in a penalty shootout.
Goalkeepers were also the subject of debate in other ways.
Emma Hayes, Chelsea FC Women manager, suggested at the beginning of the tournament that goals should be made smaller in women’s matches to improve the standard of goalkeeping. It has always been considered one of the weakest points in women’s football, with blunders and poor positioning something of a regular occurrence.
Hayes’s comments caused a hysterical reaction in the media to an idea which, prior to the tournament, could have had merit and at least deserved a rational conversation.
It was a different story once the competition was properly under way. It seemed as if every goalkeeper had seen the remarks and viewed it as a personal affront, responding to Hayes through their performance on the pitch to prove her wrong.
Christiane Endler’s player-of-the-match performance against the US in the group stage was astonishing. The Chilean pulled off a series of stunning saves, only conceding three against a rampant American side that had just scored 13 against Thailand.
Argentina’s Vanina Correa was particularly impressive against England in Group D, while her counterpart on that day, Karen Bardsley, managed a spectacular save against Japan later on in that tournament. Sweden’s Hedvig Lindahl and Alyssa Naeher of the US both saved late penalties in the final minutes of knockout matches to ensure their side stayed in the competition.
Their heroic goalkeeping performances added to the debate started by Hayes. Endler plays for PSG in the Division 1 Féminine on a professional contract, which means she has daily coaching. Instead of spending countless sums of money on altering thousands of goals, use it instead on resources to improve the actual performance of keepers, it was suggested.
After years of female goalkeepers struggling to receive funding and support, a worldwide conversation was suddenly taking place on how best to improve performances. It was unwarranted.
The Women’s World Cup even managed to catch the attention of those in the highest echelons of power. Granted, it was for a negative reason, but Donald Trump, President of the United States, dedicated two whole tweets to the tournament.
The post was in response to American midfielder Megan Rapinoe’s refusal to visit the White House if her team won the World Cup. Trump’s slightly bewildering and erratic tweet caused publicity and it was mostly in favour of Rapinoe, consisting of an outpouring of admiration and support for her stance.
Rapinoe is seen as a spokesperson for LGBT, civil and women’s rights in football and beyond, with the player refraining from singing the national anthem during the World Cup in protest at the ongoing social inequalities taking place in the US.
It is unknown how many of Rapinoe's teammates would join her in a White House boycott if the US win, but even a significant portion of the team refusing to go would constitute a political protest that transcends football. This, and the fact that Rapinoe's actions were publicised enough for Trump to take even take note, shows that moments at the World Cup are having an impact on not only conversations in sport, but society as well.
Having previously written about the disappointing lack of promotion and coverage in the host country itself, I won’t touch on it again, but it is something that has pervaded throughout the tournament. Luckily, events on the pitch caused large amounts of debate off it, creating enough of a buzz to make up for organisational failings.
For the first time, it seems like the Women’s World Cup was taken seriously enough to have a genuine impact on the conversations taking place in the sporting sphere and even in the world of politics. Each point of debate seemed to open another little window into women’s football for those who had previously not been involved.
Tomorrow’s final will mark the end of a successful tournament, then, if not simply because of the impact it has had on debates in both sport and society.