It was July 2019 in Lyon, France. The USA had just beaten the Netherlands to win the eighth FIFA Women’s World Cup, with two goals scored by Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle. The 57,900 capacity Stade de Lyon was full of celebrating fans. But very quickly the victory cheers turned into something else. "Equal pay! Equal pay! Equal pay!" chanted the supporters in the stands. The New York Times reporter Andrew Keh, tweeting from the match, described the chant as "deafening."
In the four years between that World Cup and this one, which kicked off on July 20th, women’s teams have not achieved equal pay with their counterparts on men’s teams. During this World Cup, according to an analysis conducted by CNN, they will earn 25 US cents for every US dollar earned by players in the men’s World Cup last year. This is, however, an improvement from 2019, when it was eight cents to the dollar.
The biggest positive change is the decision by FIFA, football’s international governing body, to pay prize money directly to individual players. Each member of the winning team will take home $270,000. All players who compete from the group stage onwards will receive at least $30,000. This isn’t a random act of generosity on the part of FIFA but the result of players worldwide deciding to leave their rivalries on the pitch and join together to campaign with one voice.
In October 2022, the football players’ union, FIFPRO, sent a letter to FIFA. It was signed by over 150 players from 27 international teams.
"Many players at the Women’s World Cup come into the tournament as amateurs or semi-professional, which undermines their preparation and, in turn, the quality of football we see on the pitch," said the letter, as reported in The Guardian. "Many players have no agreement with their member associations to ensure they receive fair and equitable treatment, including a guaranteed World Cup compensation, for example, as a portion of World Cup prize money."
"Therefore, no matter the amount of prize money available, players are not granted a share in what they endeavor on the field to earn — a share that would support their careers and livelihoods. This is especially true for our fellow World Cup competitors around the world who are still not yet fully professional."
The "member associations" mentioned are the bodies that support national teams. Previously prize money would have been awarded to the member associations, with no guarantee of how much, if anything, players would receive.
"Now 30% of all the prize money available will go to players just for being in the group stage," Dr Alex Culvin, head of strategy and research (women’s football) at FIFPRO, tells Refinery29. "It’s life-changing for a lot of players… It can be life-changing economically but it’s also life-changing in terms of gender equality and leaving a legacy, leaving the game in a better place."
What it gives, says Culvin, is a chance for women’s football to become more professional, right across the world. Right now, the status of the women’s game is still wildly uneven and varies hugely from country to country. There are nations that don’t allow women to play at all. But even in places where women’s teams proliferate, funding is patchy and few can afford to be full-time professional players, even when competing at an international level. The money available affects everything from the time spent in training to the standard of food and accommodation received by athletes playing in away games.
"This change in the allocation of the prize money is also important in terms of the perception of the value of the women’s game," Dr Ali Bowes, a senior lecturer of sports sociology at Nottingham Trent University, tells Refinery29. Discussions can now move away from how much revenue women’s games bring in compared to men’s. "Those discussions lose value when an organization is saying okay, let’s accept that these two sports, men’s football and women’s football, have started at different points. We are valuing them in a similar way, or moving towards valuing them in a similar way, and that is shown monetarily."
The other benefit is the strengthening of ties between women’s football players and women’s football fans. "The players really pushed for what they felt they deserved," says Bowles. "Credit where credit is due, it was largely driven by forward-thinking players who were willing to put themselves out there."
US midfielder Sam Mewis wrote in The Athletic about the fight for equal pay, how it felt during the previous World Cup, and her gratitude for the people who supported the players. "The team outside the team continued to carry out our intentional and specific message even as we focused on the tournament," she wrote. "We, as players, were able to play through the pressure and ultimately, secure the victory that would have a decided impact on the public support of the case. During the tournament, one wrong word might have brought the wrath down. With the win, everything we said became more powerful."
Players have been fighting different pay battles across the world. In the United States, the women’s football team played a key role in the creation and passing of the Equal Pay For Team USA Act at the end of 2022. The Act guarantees equal pay and benefits for athletes competing in women’s international tournaments and covers over 50 sports. Prior to that, in 2020, the UK Football Association announced that the England women’s team, the Lionesses, would be paid comparably with the men. Equal pay for equal play has been achieved at the international level in Norway, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Spain, and the Netherlands.
But it is not every country and not the full story. The Spanish women’s team may receive fair pay but conditions are still not ideal. Last fall, 15 Spanish players wrote individual emails to the country's national football body, the Real Federación Española de Fútbol, saying they would not play for the national team, citing concerns about mental health and the head coach, Jorge Vilda. And at the club level, many inequalities still exist. This July, 300 players from women’s teams in Uruguay demonstrated in the streets, asking for better working conditions and protections.
The FIFA deal is an important step. "It’s something for everybody to really be proud of," says Culvin. "I’m proud of the collective solidarity shown by players and the bravery shown by players because this is something that’s never been done before. The activism and the solidarity is now really paramount in women’s football and it doesn’t necessarily exist in men’s football. And that’s because the women players have always played in the margins. They’ve always been discriminated against and they’ve always had to fight tooth and nail for every little advantage. And they are all really good players."
The prize money deal will make a huge difference to competing teams from Argentina to Zambia. It isn’t true equality and there’s still a long way to go but as Culvin says, "There’s no going backwards; we can only move forward." This year, every team can walk out onto the pitch knowing that they can compete on a sporting level and stand together afterwards. And the fans in the stands will know that their supportive chants really mean something.