Jul 20, 2023
The Long Road to having a FIFA Women's World Cup
It was in 1930 that FIFA held its inaugural World Cup, and being 1930, it was of course a men’s only tournament.
The women didn’t have to wait long though for a tournament of their own though, just a mere 61 years.
This wasn’t to say women weren’t playing football; for example, the British Ladies' Football Club was formed in 1895.
Its patron was the war correspondent and adventurer Lady Florence Dixie, and its founder and its first captain was the delightfully named Nettie Honeyball.
While women’s football was being played, it wasn’t something that interested the governing body, FIFA.
To be fair, FIFA first struggled to fund the men’s tournament in the early decades.
Then, when huge money started gushing in under FIFA President João Havelange and his General Secretary Sepp Blatter, they were too busy managing the bribes and corruption to think about women’s football.
It was unfortunate that the lack of a Women’s World Cup prevented young girls from dreaming of being footballers and representing their country.
It also meant they couldn’t dream of growing up to be corrupt FIFA delegates. You can’t be what you can’t see.
FIFA’s disinterest in a female tournament was hardly surprising.
Sepp Blatter had, after all, once been the head of the World Society of Friends of Suspenders, an organisation dedicated to promoting the use of suspenders by women instead of pantyhose.
Yet others outside FIFA saw the great benefit in both women’s football and a Women’s World Cup.
In 1970, the Federation of Independent European Female Football (FIEFF), based in Turin, Italy, decided to ignore FIFA and host what is now described as an ‘unofficial’ World Cup.
Seven teams competed in Italy, with Denmark becoming champion, but the lads at FIFA were unmoved.
They made the usual assumptions, there wouldn’t be enough interest, which meant no sponsorship, no TV rights and therefore no bribes. No, thank you, ladies!
But women’s football continued to gain international momentum without FIFA, and even more unofficial tournaments were held.
It seemed FIFA wouldn’t be able to ignore this momentum, but they dug deep and did ignore it, consigning women’s football to amateurism for decades more.
That was until 1986 when the Norwegian delegate Ellen Wille spoke at the 45th FIFA Congress in Mexico.
She was the first ever woman to address a FIFA Congress. The audience was a little surprised. Not only was there a woman on stage, but she also seemed to be talking!
After some confusion, the delegates realised she was demanding they take a moment out from their vote rigging and start promoting women’s football and treating women players better.
When the shock wore off, the delegates decided they might have to do something finally, but giving the World Cup branding to women? That seemed a bit silly.
So did throwing too much support behind it. What if it wasn’t a success?
They asked themselves, what was the bare minimum FIFA could do to get these rather annoying and loud women to go away?
The answer was a Women’s Invitation Tournament in China in 1988. Twelve teams were invited, and it was set up in such a way that if it failed, FIFA could say, ‘hey, we tried,’ and bury the thing forever.
To FIFA’s surprise, it was a success, with Norway winning.
While not fully convinced women should be playing football at all, FIFA did tick off on a Women’s World Cup, also to be played in China in 1991.
While this was the official, inaugural Women’s World Cup, FIFA didn’t yet call it that, they came up with a respectful name, ‘The World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup’.
To further show the seriousness FIFA was taking the tournament, they made the matches ten minutes shorter than men’s matches.
April Heinrichs, the captain of the U.S. team at the time, said FIFA “were afraid our ovaries were going to fall out if we played 90.”
By the next tournament, matches would be played for the full 90 minutes and to my knowledge, not a single ovary has fallen out in that time; hopefully, this remains true for this year’s tournament.
FIFA was now on board with the Women’s World Cup, but that didn’t mean they took it as seriously as the men’s version, using it more as a plaything to test concepts.
For example, the 1995 version had time-outs.
In 2004, now FIFA President Sepp Blatter announced the best way to promote women’s football was to have them wear ‘more feminine clothes.’
“Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball,” Blatter said, “They could, for example, have tighter shorts.”
Yet Blatter wasn’t all bad; in the distant past of 2007, he let the Women’s World Cup have prize money for the first time.
That prizemoney has now grown to $150 million for the 2023 tournament, up from $30 million at the 2019 tournament, so things are now travelling in the right direction, although the men’s prizemoney is still $300 million more.
Today, the Women’s World Cup is now a commercial and rating juggernaut, and women can look ahead to a future where women can play football at the highest level.
My greatest hope though, after this long road, is one day we will even have a female FIFA President indicted on bribery charges. Then we’ll have true equality.
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This week’s Sports Bizarre episode is The Footballer Who Wasn’t, available wherever you get your podcasts.