At a quarter to nine on 16 November 1991, Chilean referee Salvador Imperatore blew his whistle to kick off the first edition of the Women’s World Cup.
China won that historic match 4-0, although the tournament looked very different to the men’s event that had taken place in Italy 16 months earlier.
Just 12 teams participated in the competition, matches only lasted 80 minutes, and FIFA even refused to call it the “World Cup”, branding it the “1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup” (yes, it was sponsored by a chocolate manufacturer).
Fast-forward 32 years and the Women’s World Cup is now a popular global event, breaking records in areas as diverse as ticket sales, broadcast figures, and digital media data.
Here’s the story of the Women’s World Cup, and how it has evolved so quickly in just three decades.
“One of our sponsors took an ad out in the papers to tell people we’d won”
While women have been playing football since the 19th century, and there had been several unofficial women’s tournaments in the 1970s and 1980s, it took the best part of a century for FIFA to finally endorse a Women’s World Cup, a full 61 years after the inaugural men’s event.
It would be fair to say that the early tournaments were not organised on an equal footing with the men’s World Cup, with women not treated as athletes or professionals.
In 1991, some players even said that their shirts were hand-me-downs from the men’s teams, and while male players would stay in luxury hotels, the women, who were only paid $15 a day, all bunked in one room at a bed-and-breakfast.
In addition, the plane that carried the USA team had to make several stopovers to pick up the Swedish and Norwegian teams, and to drop them off after. It didn’t affect their on-field performance, though, as the USA won the first of their four World Cup titles.
Despite the success, US footballing great Mia Hamm told the New York Times that her team’s victory went almost unnoticed.
“No one met us at the airport, there were no ticker-tape parades,” she said. “One of our sponsors took an ad out in the papers to let people know we had won.”
By the time the 1995 tournament arrived, FIFA had reverted to matches being the standard 90 minutes long, although they did trial a short-lived “time out” concept.
The tournament expanded to include 16 teams in 1999, and then to 24 nations in 2015 as its popularity continued to grow. In 2023, for the first time, 32 nations participated in the tournament, bringing it in line with the men’s event.
England has grown to be a dominant force in the women’s game
From an England perspective, after qualifying for the 1995 tournament it would be another 12 years before the Lionesses reached the Finals again.
Since qualifying in 2007, England has become one of the dominant forces in the global game – especially as both the popularity of women’s football, and participation in it, have increased.
England lost to a last-minute Japan goal in the 2015 World Cup semi-final, before losing 2-1 to eventual winners the USA at the same stage in 2019.
The 2023 tournament is the biggest ever
Since the inception of popular professional leagues in the likes of England, Spain, and France, interest in the women’s game has ballooned and the Women’s World Cup has become the biggest women’s sports event on the planet.
An average of 25,476 fans attended the 48 first-round matches in Australia and New Zealand – a 29% increase from attendances at France 2019. By Friday 4 August, more than 1,715,000 tickets had been sold.
“This World Cup has shifted from being a team-supported tournament to a globally followed event,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said. “This is why we are witnessing the greatest Women’s World Cup ever — and a record-breaking one.”
It’s not just off the pitch that the tournament has evolved. Just as in the men’s game, the gap between emerging nations and the recognised elite has narrowed sharply.
Established nations fell one by one in the first couple of weeks of the tournament, with the back-to-back defending champions the USA joining world number two ranked Germany, Brazil, and Olympic gold medallists Canada by going home early.
For the first time, teams from all six Confederations won a match at the tournament. New Zealand became the first team from Oceania to register a victory, while the Philippines, Zambia, Portugal, Jamaica, South Africa, and Morocco also got their first win. Three African teams reached the round of 16 – another first.
Money still lags behind the men’s game
While the Women’s World Cup has evolved into a significant global event in just 32 years, money is one area where it still has some catching up to do. Indeed, the tournament only started to pay prize money as late as 2007.
While there is now a substantial $150 million in prize money on offer – a massive increase from the $30 million prize pot during the 2019 contest – it is still only a third of the $440 million in total prize money allocated for the men’s World Cup.
After collective pressure from players for a levelling-up of pay and conditions, FIFA has also agreed to pay a proportion of this money directly to team members. This represents an invaluable boost to the careers of those representing poorer countries in an amateur or semi-professional capacity in a world where the average female footballer salary is about £11,300.
However, there have been stories of athletes failing to be paid correctly for their appearances at the tournament.
The Nigeria squad remain in disagreement with their football federation over unpaid bonuses, allowances, and expenses, while even the Lionesses had to pause a row over bonuses with the Football Association until the conclusion of the tournament.
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