Sydney, Australia – The success of the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand has led to some grand predictions about the future of women’s football – and perhaps the boldest is that it will eventually surpass the men’s game.
“I’ve always said this and people thought I’m crazy but I think women’s football will be bigger than men’s football”, former New Zealand captain Rebecca Smith told Al Jazeera.
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It might look like a contentious claim but few know the game as well as Smith.
During a decade-long playing career, from 2003 to 2013, she captained the Football Ferns at two World Cups and two Olympic Games. She’s a two-time Oceania Player of the Year who has played on three different continents, winning the Champions League with German side Wolfsburg.
And, since hanging up her boots, she has worked to develop the game, running women’s competitions for global governing body FIFA and setting up her own company, Crux Sports, which focuses on promoting women’s football.
Smith says the women’s game’s unique selling point is how different it is compared with men’s football.
“I feel quite strongly about it. I don’t want homophobia, racism, bad alcohol issues, violence. I don’t think we need it,” she said. “The values of the women’s game are amazing, inclusivity, supporting each other, teamwork, it’s just the things that it’s been built on.”
Smith was speaking to Al Jazeera from the World Cup studio at Optus Sport, the primary rights holders for the tournament in Australia. They invested in women’s football before it was trendy to do so.
And according to the company’s Director of Product Steph Foran, the business side of the game has changed as much as the action on the pitch.
“We have had women’s football for a number of years and have always had challenges really making it commercially viable and getting those sponsors in but we’ve sold out of all our [advertising] inventory and had so much interest knocking at the door. We’re at that next level and I can’t wait to see what happens next.”
They look to be one of the few broadcasters rising to the challenge laid down by Gianni Infantino when he addressed the Women’s Football Convention in Sydney on the eve of World Cup final weekend.
The FIFA president warned broadcasters, “to pay a fair price for women’s football, not just for the World Cup, but for women’s football in general, in all the countries, all the leagues, in all the competitions”.
Before this tournament, there had been a standoff with European broadcasters reluctant to meet FIFA’s asking price for the rights to show the women’s World Cup games.
The head of football’s governing body also addressed one of the big obstacles to further progress, highlighting the lack of competitions in some parts of the world and complaining that, “[female footballers] cannot all go to play in a few clubs in Europe or the USA.
“We need in the next four years to create the conditions for them to be able to play at a professional level at home and this is the biggest challenge we have to take on board,” he said.
‘It’s just the beginning’
Fears that a tournament expanded to 32 teams would expose women’s football dissipated as Olympic champions Canada, two-time World Cup winners Germany and defending champions, the USA, crashed out earlier than expected.
Meanwhile, lower-ranked sides Morocco, Jamaica, South Africa and Nigeria all got out of their groups.
Smith was impressed, saying the talent gap has closed.
“Some of these groups were crazy, they were hard to get out of, harder than ever before. It’s been just an entire flip of women’s football. They are no longer the best footballers in America. The best footballers are all over the planet. So I do think the game has shifted quite a lot in that sense.”
Now, the challenge is to support that shift to continue – particularly in Australia – which saw an unprecedented national outpouring of support for the home team, the Matildas.
Alongside record ticket sales and match attendances, Channel 7 claimed the highest viewing figures ever recorded for any Australian programme since the current ratings system began.
At one point more than 11 million people tuned into the semifinal against England.
Australia’s government has pledged an additional $200m of funding for women’s sports, although not exclusively for football.
“The sleeping giant has awoken. This FIFA Women’s World Cup has not just changed women’s football; it has changed women’s sport. Australia is now a football country,” Australia’s Minister for Sport Anika Wells said during the football convention in Sydney.
“I want to thank FIFA for what you have done to accelerate the pursuit of gender equality in our country.”
However, FIFA has not been immune to criticism, despite revealing a 300 percent increase in prize money for this tournament compared with the last World Cup in 2019. This year the prize money totals $110m, with the winning team receiving $10.5m.
But that still pales next to the rewards at the men’s World Cup in Qatar last year, which had a total prize pot of $440m and $42m for winners Argentina.
And the other disappointment for women’s football campaigners is that new individual payments will not go direct to players after all but through national associations instead – leading to concerns that not all of them will pass the money on.
Despite that, FIFA has publicly declared that it wants to see equal World Cup prize money by 2027, while Football Australia has set a target of gender participation parity by the same year.
CEO James Johnson admits there are hurdles to overcome.
“We already know there will be more [players] post this women’s World Cup. We are forecasting an additional 20 percent which means we need to invest more heavily in community infrastructure and that’s one of our big challenges over here,” he told Al Jazeera.
“[It’s] going to require more grass, more fields, more lights so fields can be used for longer hours”, Johnson said – adding that “this extremely strong brand called the Matildas is going to be a legacy of this tournament”.
And that legacy is already visible, even as the sun sets behind the girls at a training session Al Jazeera attended in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
Ten year olds Zara and Sofia were both in the stadium for the semifinal defeat to England.
“It was really amazing,” Zara said. “The atmosphere was great and when Sam Kerr scored the crowd was wild I couldn’t hear my own voice.”
Which might explain why Sofia sounds so breathless as she reveals her love of the game.
“When I’m playing soccer we always choose someone from the Matildas and we be that person and if we score we do those celebrations and it’s actually really fun,” she said.
Both of them want to play for the national team when they’re older.
The man overseeing the practice is Jamie Gomez, Head of Football for the Eastern Suburbs Football Association, and also assistant coach to Australia’s under-17 girls team.
“For me, it’s just the beginning,” he said. “Even eight years ago, nine years ago [compared] to now, it has changed dramatically. It’s changed in terms of participation and interest, commercially also. So it’s exciting.”
Gomez concedes there are challenges in terms of access to pitches and facilities but – when asked if Australia could win the World Cup one day – he does not hesitate: “Absolutely”.