VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The most successful Women’s World Cup concluded Sunday when the United States defeated Japan 5-2 at BC Place.
Record attendance. Record TV ratings. A rematch of the classic final from 2011 and the gold-medal match from the 2012 Olympics.
With the final match also comes the conclusion of a tournament where the inequality of how FIFA treats the women’s game was on display in real time: Artificial turf fields; competing teams staying in the same hotels; a prize money pool one-third of what their male counterparts had available in Brazil a year ago.
The issues will remain until FIFA gets its next opportunity in four years to show how much it values the Women’s World Cup.
“I’ve referred to FIFA as the stadium that houses this event, the game is the centerpiece of this event, not the institution,” United States coach Jill Ellis said. “I think people can’t help, FIFA included, but to notice how popular this sport is. And to make sure, it’s like anything, there is always an evolution. There is always a process to go through before equal footing is gained.”
FIFA trumpeted the success of the tournament on Friday. It has set attendance records with more than 1 million fans, shattered TV viewing records beyond just the American market and staged a successful expansion from 16 to 24 teams for the first time.
Yet for all the positives FIFA will rave about in the aftermath of the tournament, the equality problems were significant.
The use of artificial turf on all fields was at the head of the list. A group of players, led by American Abby Wambach, filed a claim in a Canadian court that said holding matches on artificial turf amounts to gender discrimination — because the men’s World Cup would never be played on fake grass. The players dropped the claim earlier this year.
But the turf wasn’t the only issue. The prize money for the tournament is $15 million, while the men’s purse was more than $500 million a year ago in Brazil. While much of that is due to sponsorship dollars, there is a feeling that gap should be smaller.
“I don’t think $500 million would necessarily be a number that we’re looking for in terms of the number of sponsors they bring in and world views and the amount of money the men’s World Cup generates but something more than ($15 million) would probably be appropriate,” American Megan Rapinoe said. “I think we’re getting there. Sometimes we have to drag our way there, but every time we have a World Cup it’s a big event and people pay attention and it’s bigger the next time.”
FIFA also has been criticized for housing opposing teams in the same hotels, something that doesn’t happen on the men’s side. It was awkward from the start: Ellis said the Americans had dinner in the room next to Australia before the teams met in the opener.
Germany coach Silvia Neid said it was difficult following a win to return to the hotel and take the elevator with some of the players the team had just defeated.
“I believe this doesn’t meet the level of professionalism you should expect at a World Cup,” Neid said.
Even FIFA’s own matchtracker on its website was caught using male pronouns to describe players during the tournament-opening match between Canada and China in Edmonton.
While many of these are FIFA-related issues, some of the inequity lies with the individual countries and their soccer federations.
FIFA officials have driven home throughout this World Cup that part of the onus falls to those governing bodies to treat the women’s game with the same importance as men’s soccer.
“In women’s football, certainly you have had other issues like society, financial resources, the treatment of women and women football in any country which is different,” said Tatjana Haenni, FIFA’s head of women’s soccer. “So yes, it’s true there is huge differences. This tournament the top teams you see the requirements they have, the investment they do, the number of people they bring to such a tournament is quite different than some others.”
There is optimism among female players that the FIFA corruption scandal and President Sepp Blatter’s resignation may lead to new leadership that treats the women’s game with greater equity. But the next opportunity to display any changes doesn’t happen until 2019 in France.
“I think Sepp had the mindset that any help that he threw to the women’s side he needed to be congratulated 10 times over for it,” Rapinoe said. “Doing the right thing doesn’t earn you a pat on the back. Just because you’re promoting the Women’s World Cup and promoting the women’s game doesn’t mean that’s the best thing that has ever hit the world.”