The dust from the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup had barely settled before thoughts turned to the 2023 edition of the tournament, fuelled by the news that football’s international governing body was set to expand the competition from 24 to 32 teams.
Members of the FIFA Council have now unanimously voted to do so, with the decision fast-tracked due to the imminence of the 2023 Women’s World Cup bidding process.
With the news of the announcement came a statement from FIFA President Gianni Infantino.
"The astounding success of this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France made it very clear that this is the time to keep the momentum going and take concrete steps to foster the growth of women’s football," he said.
"The expansion reaches far beyond the eight additional participating teams; it means that, from now on, dozens more member associations will organise their women’s football programme knowing they have a realistic chance of qualifying."
The sentiment of Infantino’s words rings true. The success of the 2019 Women’s World Cup does indeed need to be capitalised on.
Expanding the Women’s World Cup to 32 teams is not the answer, however. The sport is just not ready for such an increase.
The tournament has been contested by 24 teams for only two editions, having increased from 16 nations for the first time in 2015, when Canada welcomed the event.
Those who regularly tuned in to this summer’s tournament will know that the competition is still playing catch-up, with several teams clearly not meeting the required standard to play at the peak of international football.
America’s 13-0 demolition of Thailand is the most obvious example, with the scoreline the highest margin of victory in a World Cup match, men or women’s. Italy’s 5-0 trouncing of Jamaica and Germany’s comfortable 4-0 defeat against South Africa also spring to mind.
These results damage the image of the Women’s World Cup and do little to help those promoting the tournament as a competitive and entertaining sporting event. There is nothing enjoyable about watching a team score nearly every time they launch an attack.
Infantino’s justification for the expansion seems to be that, with more opportunities to qualify for the World Cup, national governing bodies will pour more funding and resources into the women’s game.
This is a simplistic view on why they are not supporting women’s football, which does nothing to take into consideration the attitudes towards women’s sport in such countries.
Take Argentina for instance.
The side managed to qualify for the 2003 and 2007 Women’s World Cups, despite a severe lack of funding. After failing to secure a place at the 2015 edition, however, the Argentinian Football Association (AFA) completely neglected their women’s team.
Head coach Carlos Borrello was dismissed and not replaced, with the side not playing a single match between 2015 and 2017. They were so absent from the world of international football that FIFA categorised the team as "unranked".
Argentina were neglected despite their Women's World Cup experience, with the AFA’s treatment of the team more to do with the deep-rooted sexism existent in the Federation.
This can also be seen in Brazil, a country which has produced some of the most brilliant female players of this generation. Marta is a pleasure to watch, for example, and has been named FIFA women’s player of the year six times throughout her star-studded career.
Brazil have featured at eight World Cups, and yet still struggle to receive significant recognition and support from the Brazilian Football Confederation, the lack of which probably explains why they have never won the tournament.
So then, there doesn’t seem to be much of link between the Women’s World Cup qualification process and the infrastructure of women’s football in certain countries. Attitudes towards women’s football seems to be a more significant factor in the lack of funding and resources available.
Subsequently, the chance of playing at an international tournament will not suddenly result in federations paying more attention to their women's team. An expanded World Cup will only result in an increase of sides that can’t match the quality of their opponents.
Such teams will continue to suffer heavy defeats and the image of the tournament will continue to be damaged. This in itself stunts the development of the women’s game.
If FIFA really want to "foster the growth" of women’s football, they should instead put time and resources into changing attitudes in countries such as Argentina.
They should facilitate grassroot schemes and encourage the creation of professional leagues offering full-time and well-paid contracts. They also need to do better when handling horrific abuse and discrimination cases such as that regarding the Afghan women’s football team, ensuring such situations do not happen again.
FIFA should do all of this and wait. Wait until all of this takes effect and the standard of women’s football increases across the world.
By this point, there will be 24 teams of a high-enough standard competing in the Women’s World Cup, with at least another eight teams knocking on the door of qualification. That would be the time to expand the tournament.
Infantino does touch on the need to develop women’s football using a bottom-up approach in his statement.
"The FIFA Women’s World Cup is the most powerful trigger for the professionalisation of the women’s game, but it comes but once every four years and is only the top of a much greater pyramid," he said.
"In the meantime, we all have a duty to do the groundwork and strengthen women’s football development infrastructure across all confederations."
If FIFA do this, then great. But these words seem to suggest that Infantino knows that the women’s game is not quite ready for a World Cup expansion. The move has instead been seemingly carried out to benefit the governing body rather than the sport itself, which does not come as much of a surprise.
The decision has been made now, anyway, so it will be interesting to see how it affects the bid process for the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
Nine countries had expressed interest in hosting the tournament - Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, and a joint effort from North and South Korea.
The deadline to formally bid for the competition has been extended from October to December, allowing nations to re-adjust their plans to accommodate an additional eight teams.
So far, only Australia and Brazil have confirmed that they will still bid for 2023. It is more than possible that a number of countries will drop out of the process due to the sudden increase of cost and resources that the eight teams will bring.
Whoever receives the right to host the tournament, set to be decided in May next year, may inherit a World Cup that is automatically less competitive than the one that has just taken place.
To prevent this, Infantino and FIFA will have to stay true to their word and work very hard to develop the infrastructure of women’s football across the world for the next four years. Playing the waiting game may have been the better option.