Whether you’re a year-round football fanatic or you just get really into the big competitions (who can resist the drama of a penalty shoot-out?), there’s nothing like the World Cup to bring us all together. After months of build-up, the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ kicked off on Friday 7th June in France. It’s set to be a huge moment for women’s sport and – whisper it – England’s Lionesses (led by yet another waistcoat-wearing manager, Phil Neville) might actually bring it home.
Visa is one of the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ sponsors and its 'One Moment Can Change the Game' campaign is all about championing women’s achievements, on and off the pitch. That’s why we’ve teamed up with them to celebrate the FIFA Women’s World Cup™. Visa is making its largest investment in women’s football ever. Suzy Brown, Visa's marketing director, UK and Ireland, says it’s about more than sponsorship though: "It is about making a stand for female empowerment and acceptance, as well as being a catalyst for the game."
There are so many reasons to be excited about this year’s competition: it’s putting women’s sport in the spotlight, it’s a chance to watch some of the world’s best footballers in action, it’ll be easier than ever to watch the games...and did we mention the Lionesses might even win it?
It’s not just about the England team though. When tickets were released in October last year, football fans around the world rushed to snap them up. The semi-finals, the final and the opening game, which kicks off today between host country France and South Korea, all sold out within 48 hours.
There’s a real buzz around women’s football right now and it’s fair to say that this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup™ might just be the most important one since it started in 1991. The competition runs every four years, so this will be only the eighth ever World Cup, but women’s football has a surprisingly long history. The first women's football match on record was back in 1881 when a team from London took on a team from Glasgow. At the time, the Glasgow Herald described it as "a rather novel football match". But it wasn’t long before the sport started taking off. This was partly as a result of World War I – when men went off to war, women filled their boots (both in the factories and on the football pitches).
Women’s football was a hit with the punters too. A game played in Liverpool in 1920 between Dick Kerr’s Ladies and St Helen’s Ladies drew in a crowd of 53,000 – a record which was only broken in March this year when 60,000 fans watched Atlético Madrid play Barcelona. While the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ wasn’t established until decades later, the first international game was in 1920, when those very same Preston-based Dick Kerr’s Ladies, one of the most established teams of the time, played a French XI to a crowd of 25,000.
It seemed like women’s football might have been on track to rival the men’s game – or at least draw equally big crowds. So what happened? Well, like most things, you can blame the patriarchy. Remember this was the 1920s – women had only just started to get the vote a few years before and they’d only been temporarily filling in men’s roles at factories while they were at war. Attitudes of the time meant there was resistance against women playing football and in 1921, the FA banned women from playing on football league pitches, on the grounds that it was "quite unsuitable for females". The ban stayed in place until 1971.
Fast-forward to 2019 and (thankfully) a lot has changed. In 2017, the FA launched Gameplan for Growth, a four-year campaign to double the number of players and fans in the women’s game by 2020.
And it’s working. According to the FA's 2018 report, the number of women and girls playing football across all levels is up by 9% to 2.7 million. It’s not just players, either. The initiative has helped increase the number of female coaches by 24% and female referees are up by 13%.
Of course, you don’t need to be on the pitch to get involved with the sport. Attendance numbers at women’s football games have been steadily rising in recent years, growing from 15,000 at the Women’s FA Cup Final in Milton Keynes in 2014 to 43,264 at this year’s final at Wembley. It’s a sign that things are changing – but it’s only the beginning. Lionesses defender Lucy Bronze, who’s been described by Phil Neville as "the best player in the world" (no big deal), says that women’s football needs "more support, in every way". From more female coaches to increasing attendance, she believes we need to get behind the sport so that "the game can grow to its potential".
Visa’s Suzy Brown, echoes Bronze’s thoughts. She says we’re seeing "subtle yet hugely encouraging 'needle-shifting moments' for women’s football". As well as an increase in attendance at games, she says TV coverage plays an important role too. "Women’s football has been trapped in a vicious circle," he explains. "As the matches aren’t habitually broadcast on TV, there’s limited funding and a lack of visible role models. That’s why the coverage of the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ will provide such a powerful showcase."
With match attendances on the rise and with more women, men, girls and boys engaging in the sport than ever before, this year’s World Cup feels like a chance to start levelling out the playing field (literally). Lucy Bronze hopes it’s just the start of things to come. "I just want more of it. More games, bigger leagues, bigger competitions," she says. But her main hope for the sport after the World Cup? "That the whole world will respect women’s football." Now that’s something we can all get behind...
So what are you waiting for? Clear your schedule, sack off that rubbish box set you’ve been begrudgingly finishing and get ready to lose yourself in World Cup fever. We’ve got a feeling it’s going to be a game-changing tournament. And who knows? This summer, football might just be coming home.
Tune into BBC One to view the live games until Sunday 7th July 2019.