So, on Sunday 20 August 2023, the Lionesses, England’s national women’s football team, played in the final of the FIFA World Cup for the first time. The men’s team have only managed it once before and that was in 1966. It was, also, the only time that any England team had reached the final of a football world cup that wasn’t held in England. The host nations, Australia and New Zealand, are on the opposite side of the world and the support in the stadiums for both the quarter-final (Columbia v England), and the semi-final (Australia v England), was most definitely not weighted towards England!
Unfortunately, for England football fans, we lost the final by a single goal, to a better Spanish side, but what has the tournament taught us about the changing gender-related social and economic issues of the day?
Women and team sports
Women have always been successful in sports that they have been able to compete in from an early age, but these have usually been individual sports, such as athletics, swimming and tennis, which do not attract, with the exception of topflight tennis, big attendances and TV money. Women’s increasing involvement in the most popular team games – football, rugby and cricket – is only just beginning to pay off, in relation to gender equality in sport, because women have only recently been allowed into those male-dominated arenas.
I am told that the attendance for the semi-final between Australia and England in the women’s world cup was the highest attendance for a football game in Australia of all time. That means that the Australian women’s football team has greater support than the men’s team.
Ok, so Australia is more into rugby and cricket than football but that’s probably because of its (male) success in those sports – the Australian men’s football team has never been a major player on the world stage, but the women’s team now is, and that has drawn the crowds.
This year, after dominating the women’s game for the past 30 years and winning a record four world cups, the USA went out of the competition at an early stage. The USA men’s football team, like Australia, has also never been a major player on the world stage. ‘Soccer’ in the US has always been seen as a more ‘effeminate’ sport than American football, baseball or basketball.
The USA’s failure this year is not down to a reduction in the skills and abilities of the USA team but the result of an increase in the qualities of the players representing Asia (Japan), Africa (Nigeria), South America (Columbia) and Europe (Sweden and Spain). How has that happened?
Investment in youth
The success of the USA women’s team over the past three decades has been a result of girls playing football (soccer) from a young age – US boys were playing American football, baseball and basketball. In Europe, South America and Africa, football was not a team sport that girls could participate in at school until, relatively, recently.
That recent investment, in allowing girls to play football in school, is now paying off for those countries that are seeing their young women excelling in a team sport that, for well over 100 years, had been the preserve of boys and young men.
I played football throughout my primary and secondary school years, and played Sunday league football well into my late 30s. However, the only time I played competitive football against a girl (as far as I know) was in a primary school cup game in 1975.
It stays in my memory because our sports teacher didn’t tell us, until the trip home on the minibus, that the player we were all talking about, as the most remarkable player in their team and who had, effectively, won the game for them, was a girl. We 10-year-olds were totally gobsmacked to hear that but what happened to her?
Probably absolutely nothing, in respect of football. Her talents at football would have been curtailed when she went to secondary school. She was the best player on the park that afternoon, by a country mile. If her talents, and those like her, had been fostered by our education system then the England women’s team would have probably been up there with the USA, decades before now.
Empathy and unity
Team sports are, by their very nature, designed to create a ‘tribalist’ mentality in a sporting arena – an ‘us against them’ attitude. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as the participants, both players and spectators, recognise that it is sport, not war.
Most anthropologists will tell you that team sports developed from tribal battles – a means of sorting out winners and losers between rival tribes without (too much) bloodshed.
What I have been most impressed by, in viewing the games in the women’s world cup, has been the total lack of segregation of fans in the stadiums. That would not happen in a men’s world cup or, indeed, in any men’s football game at any level! At this world cup, the fans have been united, irrespective of their allegiances.
Seeing fans from both sides, intermixed in the stands and still wearing their colours, was a first for me, as was not seeing any news reports of fighting between fans inside or outside the stadiums. In any men’s international football tournaments, there would be continuous TV news updates of the number of arrests for ‘hooliganism’. I have seen no such news reports throughout this world cup. I await the statistics for the number of arrests at the last men’s world cup, compared to the number of arrests at this world cup.
I have also been impressed by the empathy of the players on the pitch. When the final whistle went after a hard-fought game with Nigeria (which England just won in a penalty shoot-out) my recollection of the immediate TV pictures was of England players consoling their devastated opponents, rather than celebrating with each other. I don’t recall seeing that in a men’s international game after a tight-won penalty shoot-out.
In relation to England’s games, of course, there was one incident when that empathy with the opposition was not displayed – when our new superstar playmaker, Lauren James, deliberately stood on a Nigerian opponent and was, rightly, sent off. TV analysts recalled the incident from the 1998 world cup when David Beckham was sent off for kicking back at Diego Simeone, after suffering similar consistent fouls that Lauren James had been receiving.
The major difference in the aftermath of those two incidents, however, was that Lauren James, in her response on Twitter, apologised, in the first instance, to the Nigerian defender she had stamped on and then went on to apologise to her England teammates and the fans. I don’t recall David Beckham ever having apologised to Diego Simeone – only to his teammates and the fans. But Lauren James is only 21 and has been brought up in a football family. I suspect that her background has fostered a degree of neurodiversity, that, in David Beckham’s day, was not as well recognised as it is today.
In terms of TV rights in England, this world cup has pretty much matched the men’s world cup – all games have been screened by BBC or ITV. That must mean there is now a TV audience getting close to matching the men’s world cup, at least in England. In the USA, previously, and in Australia, now, the TV audiences have probably exceeded TV audience figures for the men’s teams.
Of course, the wages for male players outstrip the wages for female players by tenfold or, probably, much more. But what would happen if the archaic laws that govern professional football were to be amended to allow female footballers to play in male teams? I can see the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Chelsea salivating at the economic benefits of bringing top quality women players into their squads for a, relatively, minimal transfer fee and a much smaller salary.
Would that drive up the economics of the women’s game or drive down the economics of the men’s game? Who knows?!
As councillors and officers of local authorities, you might think that local government has little to learn from, or contribute to, the success of the women’s world cup – but I disagree. It has revealed so much about the potential of women’s sport to shape the social fabric of our future, at both local and national levels.
Here are the lessons that I think should be learnt across local government:
- We should support the expansion of team sports in our local areas and ensure that girls have as equal access to those sports as boys do.
- We should ensure that sports teachers have the necessary training to accommodate both boys and girls in team sports from the same age.
- We should ensure that our sports teachers are educated in the understanding of the potential, or existing, neurodiversity of pupils, that they will come into contact with, and accommodate those pupils’ needs.
- We should consider mixed team sports – at least at primary school level.
Sport should not be an ‘add-on’ to an educational curriculum. It should be fully integrated within a holistic educational experience for pupils of both genders and all ages. It should encompass and promote values of empathy and unity that transcend competition. I have seen those values exemplified in this world cup and I hope they continue to be exemplified in future world cup tournaments – both women’s and men’s – and in all team sports.
As community leaders, at a local level, you have a primary responsibility to see that these values are passed on to our children and young people through sports and the wider community educational goals that we want to achieve.
As for the next women’s world cup in 2027 – come on England!