FIFA’s policy of building up women’s football will confront, and almost certainly pass, its most highly visible examination to date when the seventh Women’s World Cup kicks off in Canada on June 6. If size is a yardstick, then the test has already been marked positively with 24 competing nations – which is eight more than were in Germany, in 2011, when the hosts were surprised to be left in the quarter-final shadows by Japan’s success.
Expansion has opened the gates to newcomers such as Cameroon, Costa Rica, Ivory Coast, Ecuador, Holland, Spain, Switzerland and Thailand, with the Thais benefitting from the extra space made available to Asia by North Korea’s ban after five of their players failed dope tests for steroids in 2011.
The worldwide audience will also reach record levels, with a new TV rights deal in Canada with Bell Media, and Fox Sports handling the English language television and radio rights in the United States.
As for Europe, FIFA signed an agreement in December with the European Broadcasting Union for 37 countries to access all 52 matches. In the UK, the BBC will screen every game somewhere within its various different channels and platforms.
Canada 2015 will also shatter social media records for the event – although the continued explosion of this sphere means that each new tournament and event creates a record, so much of the self-indulgent promotional braying is phoney.
That is not, of course, to write down the development success of the women’s game. In Europe, a notable game-changer was the huge spotlight on the sport from the 2012 Olympics, when 70,584 fans filled Wembley Stadium to see Great Britain face Brazil in the group stage, and a British and Olympic record 80,203 watched the USA beat Japan 2-1 in the Final.
Canada 2015’s local organising committee expect to see record numbers of event-supporting spectators flooding into the host venues in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Moncton. And they have previous in this area, setting an attendance record when hosting the men’s 2007 Under-20 World Cup.
The Canadian Football Association will, naturally, use such evidence of organisational efficiency and strong public support when it comes to making a likely bid to host the men’s World Cup in 2026.
Thus far, FIFA says ticket sales have been “strong”, with individuals now unable to buy tickets for the Final, although some high-price tickets for the opening match, on June 6 between hosts Canada and China, have been slower to shift than expected.
Not that the finals have been without controversy – it would be a rare World Cup which escaped – and this concerns the use of artificial turf for all matches, which went down badly with many of the players. More than 50 of them banded together last year to support a lawsuit in an Ontario tribunal court against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association on the grounds of gender discrimination.
Abby Wambach, an American who is a former FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year, insisted: “The men would strike playing on artificial turf.” Documentation supporting the lawsuit noted that, in 1994, FIFA spent $2million in laying natural grass over artificial turf in New Jersey and Detroit for USA ’94.
Ultimately the legal action came too late in the day to create anything more than headlines, while FIFA and the Canadians insisted that climactic conditions would have made it impossible to lay down natural grass pitches able to withstand the rigour of the tournament. In any case, as Tatjana Haenni, FIFA’s head of women’s competitions, made clear, there was no Plan B. A resigned Wambach later conceded: “There’s nothing we could have done. We tried. We tried the legal route and we filed too late and they were just going to stall until the World Cup was over. What’s the point?”
Now her focus will be on trying to claim one of the few prizes missing from her illustrious career.
Despite being at and around the top of the women’s game for two decades, and winning four Olympic gold medals, the US have not won the trophy since 1999, on home soil.
Four years ago they finished runners-up in Germany after a dramatic Final. After ending normal time locked at 1-1, the US thought they had won it when Wambach scored in the first period of extra-time – only for Homare Sawa to equalise with three minutes remaining.
Japan went on to win on penalties and become the first Asian winners of the Women’s World Cup.
In fact, since the inaugural Women’s World Cup tournament was staged in 1991, the competition has seen only three other different winners: USA (1991 and 1999), Norway (1995) and Germany (2003 and 2007).
The Germans are favourites this year as they are ranked number one in the world and are the European champions, having secured their eighth UEFA title in Sweden in 2013. Fellow Europeans France rank third and have a strong club foundation from Lyon.
As for the hosts, Canada will hope that a host nation advantage can lift them beyond their previous best of fourth in 2003.Sweden, Brazil and England have all targeted winning the tournament outright, but will find it difficult. Sweden and Brazil rely on ageing players, while England have consistently lost their nerve on the world stage, having never progressed beyond the quarter-finals – which they reached in 1995, 2007 and 2011.
At least they need not fear a “Lampard” moment since Hawk-eye will provide the goal-line technology – just one more first for the imminent Women’s World Cup.
The top two from each group qualify for the knockout stage, along with the four best third-placed teams.
06.06.15 Canada v China
06.06.15 New Zealand v Holland
11.06.15 China v Holland
11.06.15 Canada v New Zealand
15.06.15 Holland v Canada
15.06.15 China v New Zealand
07.06.15 Norway v Thailand
07.06.15 Germany v Ivory Coast
11.06.15 Germany v Norway
11.06.15 Ivory Coast v Thailand
15.06.15 Thailand v Germany
15.06.15 Ivory Coast v Norway
08.06.15 Cameroon v Ecuador
08.06.15 Japan v Switzerland
12.06.15 Switzerland v Ecuador
12.06.15 Japan v Cameroon
16.06.15 Ecuador v Japan
16.06.15 Switzerland v Cameroon
08.06.15 Sweden v Nigeria
08.06.15 United States v Australia
12.06.15 Australia v Nigeria
12.06.15 United States v Sweden
16.06.15 Nigeria v United States
16.06.15 Australia v Sweden
09.06.15 Spain v Costa Rica
09.06.15 Brazil v South Korea
13.06.15 Brazil v Spain
13.06.15 South Korea v Costa Rica
17.06.15 Costa Rica v Brazil
17.06.15 South Korea v Spain
09.06.15 France v England
09.06.15 Colombia v Mexico
13.06.15 France v Colombia
13.06.15 England v Mexico
17.06.15 Mexico v France
17.06.15 England v Colombia
ROUND OF 16
June 20 to 23
June 26 & 27
June 30 & July 1