The FIFA World Cup is the most watched and followed broadcast event on Earth, more watched than the Olympics or the Super Bowl. Type it into any search engine or ask someone on the street and the answer is always the same; the World Cup is THE soccer championship. Yet when people speak about the World Cup, they are actually excluding half of the population. The FIFA World Cup is in actuality the FIFA Men’s World Cup.
There is a separate soccer championship for women, called the FIFA Women’s World Cup, being played this year in Canada from June 6th to July 5th. It has a wholly different set of rules and regulations, and a wholly different place in the history of soccer. Up until recently women’s soccer has been a footnote, but that history might be changing.
The History of the FIFA Women’s World Cup
Whereas the World Cup began in 1930 and has been played every four years since (with the exception of two tournaments missed in 1942 and 1946 during World War II), the Women’s World Cup wasn’t initiated until 1991. The Women’s World Cup takes place every four years just as the men’s and is hosted by cities around the world, just as the men’s. However the two are not concurrent - they are played on alternate yearly cycles.
There are major differences in the World Cup and the Women’s World Cup, the primary one being the scope of the games. The World Cup expanded to 32 teams in 1998, whereas the Women’s World Cup stands at 24 teams after the most recent expansion from 16 for the 2015 tournament. The number of teams is a significant factor in not only the amount of participating countries but also the size of the tournament itself. More teams means a longer tournament and a more significant sporting event, both in terms of media coverage as well as in terms of financial benefits for participants and sponsors.
Women’s soccer itself was once banned in many places, including there being a ban on women playing on professional pitches in England from 1921 to 1971. Once the restrictions were lifted, national teams began to form all over the world. Asia hosted the first Asia Cup in 1975, the Oceania Football Cup debuted in 1983, the Official European Championship in 1984, and the United States formed its team in 1985. Today there are 134 FIFA member nations vying for qualification in the Women’s World Cup tournament.
Gender, Sport and Psychology
Sports are almost completely gender segregated activities. There are physiological reasons for this, including that women and men are naturally different in muscle mass and size. In other contexts, the physiological differences are not highlighted in the same way as they are in the world of sport. However segregated competition does not necessarily mean that one gender must be valued over another.
Professional, elite competitive sports value many of the qualities associated with masculinity, and in years past it was argued that women did not belong in these high level competitive arenas as these qualities were not apropo for women to cultivate.
Those notions of gender appropriateness for women in sports have changed dramatically with the changes in gender roles over the last fifty years. In fact, the transformation of the role of women in soccer parallels almost exactly the progression of gender roles within society at large. And as in other areas, it is women themselves who have advocated for the changes in World Cup Soccer that have occurred over the last couple of decades. While the assumption that women are not able to be the driving force in high level sport has long held women back from competing on the highest level, innovative research, societal shifts and improved legislation have continued to create momentum for women in sports. Still, lingering deterrents for women in sport remain. Among the most prominent are the fears of masculinization, assumptions about sexuality, and diminished opportunities due to discrimination outside of the sporting arena.
The benefits for women’s continued and growing participation in sport are numerous, including everything from improved emotional health, decreased rates of obesity, and improved financial outcomes for women who participate in sports at the collegiate level. Professional women’s sports are important because they encourage participation in sports by women of all ages.
The Changing Face of Women’s Sports
The media coverage for the FIFA Women’s World Cup has improved dramatically in the last several years. In fact, the Women’s World Cup in the United States has seen a marked improvement in ratings, rising 73% thus far in the 2015 series from the same games in the 2011 series. Nonetheless, Women’s World Cup viewer numbers still pale in comparison to the level of viewer for men’s matches, for example the 7.2 million viewers for the Mexico vs. United States exhibition game played last year versus the 3.3 million for the opening bout in this years Women’s World Cup played by the United States and Australia. There continues to be a sense among many that there is not equitable support given to women’s sports in the media.
This year brought a huge story in that FIFA mandated that the Women’s World Cup be played on artificial turf, an unprecedented move by the governing body of soccer. Natural grass is the preferred playable surface for soccer, and many players argue that artificial turf causes injuries and more difficult playing conditions. No men’s World Cup soccer has been forced to play on artificial grass, and as a result many of the women’s players filed suit against FIFA for discrimination - demonstrating once again the pattern of women advocating for themselves. The legal proceedings were dropped before the start of the tournament this month, but not before a great deal of media attention was brought to the issue. However there have already been serious complaints regarding the turf during the series, and continued backlash against FIFA for its decision is expected.
Women’s soccer is becoming consistently more inclusive and more accepted. In 2004, the now former FIFA president Sepp Blatter suggested that women’s soccer should include shorter shorts so as to
generate more interest in the game. That suggestion has long since been dismissed, and women’s soccer has moved on to allow players wearing hijabs to compete.
One major reason that there is a rising interest in women’s sports is that there is not the sense of corruption that’s present in the big money men’s tournaments like the FIFA World Cup, which was recently rocked by a bribery scandal. Viewers are eager to see sports that are real tests of the ability of athletes rather than manipulations of powerful players behind the scenes.
A huge, albeit unusual, marker of the change in the seriousness of women’s soccer is that for the first time this year the FIFA Women’s World Cup will be included in the wildly popular EA Sports FIFA World Cup series. FIFA 16 will feature 12 international women’s teams alongside the men’s teams (which numbered over one hundred in the previous incarnation of the game). Men’s and women’s teams will not be able to play against each other, and according to EA Sports the reason is to mimic the real world conditions of the game.
Expect to Hear More
While this year the coverage has expanded for Women’s World Cup soccer, sports fans can expect an even greater increase in the coverage of the event in years to come. Female soccer players are valued for their athleticism, their fierce competitive nature, and their incredibly compelling matches. The face of soccer is changing.
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