Established in 1991, initially as the FIFA World Championship for women’s football for the M&M’s Cup, only after the tournament in China did FIFA, the sport’s governing body, allow for it to be called a World Cup — the Women’s World Cup is still, relatively speaking, in its infancy.
Such is the focus on the tournament, it leaves former players wishing they could play again. For those who grew up in a world where young girls struggled to find teams, the rate of the progress made in recent years has come as a surprise.
Kelly Smith is regarded as the finest female footballer to have played for England, making 117 appearances from 1995 to 2014.
“Certain nations are investing more resources. FIFA has opened up the tournament to 24 teams, so more nations are getting to experience tournament football.
“When I was playing, there were only two or three teams who could potentially win a World Cup. Now you could name six to eight teams who could potentially do something special at this tournament and it just makes it more competitive, it makes it better for viewers to watch.
“And there are just so many cool stories out there of the women. There are a lot of social media campaigns promoting the players and teams. There’s a lot more exposure and visibility now, which just didn’t happen when I was playing.”
Two-time winners Germany have also been part of a powerful and innovative ad campaign, which had the players saying: “We don’t have balls, but we know how to use them.”
The video was made by the team’s sponsors and it is the keenness of business to now be associated with women’s football which partly helps explain the increased investment.
The rise of women’s football is a result of a myriad of reasons, the biggest arguably being societal change (this will be the first tournament since the #MeToo movement), and now sponsors and FIFA are adding their voices.
Last year, FIFA announced a five-pronged global strategy to grow the game, one being to ensure all 211 members have comprehensive women’s plans in place by 2022.
The governing body has said it wants women’s participation to double to 60 million worldwide by 2026, and that the women’s game offers “vast untapped opportunities,” but there is continued criticism of FIFA over the prize money on offer at this tournament.
Raised from $15 million in 2015 to $30 million, the overall prize fund has doubled since 2015, but for the 2018 men’s World Cup it was $400 million, with winners France taking home $38 million.
“Women national team players around the world should receive equal treatment to their male national team counterparts; this should include their travel and accommodation as well as their medical treatment and financial compensation,” said world players’ union FIFPro earlier this week.
“Within the last few weeks, FIFA has agreed to our request to start negotiating new conditions for women’s national team players after the 2019 Women’s World Cup and we are determined to making real and lasting progress on behalf of them.”
Yet, not only is there inequality between men’s and women’s teams, but there is also a gulf between the countries competing at France 2019.
Only last month did the Jamaican Football Federation and its Women’s World Cup squad agree contracts which at least ensures the players are being paid for representing their country at this tournament.
“It’s really tiring to keep complaining about the same thing all the time without getting any improvement, but if you want something you don’t stop talking,” Asisat Oshoala, Nigeria’s star striker, told CNN Sport.
The striker has stopped playing for her country because she wants the young Norwegian girls following in her path to have the same opportunities as aspiring young male footballers.
Her stance leads to the question: How would the world react were Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo to refuse playing for their countries at a World Cup on similar grounds?
The lion’s share of the tickets for this tournament have been bought by fans in America, eager to watch the defending champions attempt to win what would be a fourth title in eight tournaments.
Female footballers are more visible and powerful than ever before, while the women’s game has certainly advanced, but for how long female footballers will have to fight for equality will depend on how the world looks back on France 2019.