Coming of Age



2019 has been a success for women's football, there should be no doubt.

Never has the women's game been so high profile as it has been during this tournament, which is down to the last four teams.

This is partly down to it being held in Europe where football in general draws more onlookers than in North America, in the home of the men's world champions France and in the 'off year' between the UEFA European Championship and FIFA World Cup.

There are other football tales this summer - Chile and Peru reaching the semi-finals of the Copa America, Spain's recapture of the UEFA U21 crown, Haiti making the last four of the Gold Cup and little Madagascar shocking Nigeria in the African Cup of Nations.

But the Women's World Cup has trumped them all for media profile, at least here in England.

The BBC have been making the most of their broadcasting rights, promoting women's soccer stories to the top of their football news, benefiting from the Lionesses' run to the last four.

It all started unimpressively with a couple of serious mismatches - not least the USA's 13-0 mauling of Thailand and a deluge of VAR which threatened to derail the cup's credibility with its endless stoppages.

The rush to VAR has been absent in the knock-out stages, as FIFA has clearly woken up to the dangers of overusing technology. The puritanical use of it in the England v Cameroon quarter final to deny the Indomitable Lionesses a goal which appeared perfectly legitimate to the naked eye made the Africans furious.

That game descended into disgrace as we witnessed studs-up tackles, spitting at the opposition, haranguing injured players and even pushing the referee from Cameroon players who were seriously lacking in basic discipline.

But all the furor got people talking and the audience for England's next match peaked at 7.6 million viewers on BBC1.

The France v USA match took the sport to another level as the best team in the tournament took on the hosts in the football shrine of Parc des Princes in the capital.

It was the third match of the tournament to attract more than 45,000 fans but the raucous atmosphere of  Paris felt no different to if the men's world champions had been playing.

Watching that match and listening to the 'Allez Les Bleus' chants it seemed like women's football had come of age.

There have been gripes about ticketing - FIFA claims versus reality, the bizarre prohibition of on-the-day stadium ticket sales and the lack of local promotion in France, but the last four matches should see full houses. The previous two Women's World Cups (in Germany and Canada) have averaged 26,000.

Tuesday will see the crunch semi-final of England and the USA, a stronger match-up than the Netherlands v Sweden clash on Wednesday.

England's Lionesses have become brief stars at home, with a former England men's international in Phil Neville helping bridge the gap to the male public who have taken little interest hitherto.

Their cup run will probably come to an end when they face the favourites, who in Megan Rapinoe and her cavalier attitude have a real sporting personality, taking over from Brazil's Marta as the face of the sport, but if it does it will have been a great run. England might never host the men's World Cup again but they really should host the women's edition.

That would inject serious impetus into the game's growth here.

Women's football still has its shortcomings with too many lapses of technique, poor final balls and shoddy goalkeeping but all that can be attributed to funding and historical ignoring by potential sponsors, sporting authorities and national governments.

The exception is in America where women's soccer has been a big attraction since Mia Hamm and co. became world beaters in the late 1990s.

The rest of the planet is playing catch-up with the US but the ubiquitous direction of travel is on the up. Certain nations where the men's game is big - Spain, Italy and Argentina, need to improve massively in women's football. Canada, Norway, Sweden and the US have the opposite problem.

The revenue from respective leagues means the women's game is still far behind the men's but the gap is narrowing. The Olympic Games also provide the women's full national teams with a chance to shine.

One day the Women's World Cup may be truly up there with the men's just as women's tennis competes in prestige with its male counterpart.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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