Only half a century ago, the Football Association in England, the birthplace of football, described the sport as “quite unsuitable for females” and banned them from playing on men’s teams’ grounds. But the 2019 World Cup’s match-up between England and Scotland drew six million British viewers. Last year, the women’s edition of the Euros sold out stadiums.
As the 2023 Women’s World Cup kicked off in Australia and New Zealand on Thursday, the world was reminded once again that athletic prowess is not limited to the male half of the world’s population. Female sport is not just on the rise, but, as the popularity of the World Cup shows, is one of the most exciting parts of the global culture.
The Women’s World Cup’s rise in the global public consciousness is partly the result of a boom in the quality of gameplay; after five decades, women’s football is finally coming into its own, with more investment and better coaching attracting greater talent that can give spectators a show comparable to men’s leagues. An advert for the telecoms firm Orange, which sponsors the French women’s team, went viral this month after showing exactly that. The first half of the advert shows highlights of French men’s football legends like Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, noting that “only Les Bleus (as the men’s team is known) can give us these emotions…but that’s not them you’ve just seen”. The second half rewinds to reveal that the rousing footage was actually of the women’s team, and had been altered with visual effects.
The evolution of the women’s game extends beyond football. From cricket to Olympic competitions, nearly every new tournament cycle sees better performance and record viewers. And of course, women's tennis has captivated global audiences for decades, with the rise of players like Venus and Serena Williams in the early 2000s paving the way for superstars like Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur today. Jabeur’s Wimbledon final against Czech player Marketa Vondrousova this month drew 4.5 million UK viewers (up 1.5 million from last year), and more American viewers than any ladies’ tennis match since Serena Williams’s Wimbledon final in 2018.
This year, for the first time ever, the excitement of the women’s football World Cup will be felt acutely in the Mena region, as Morocco’s Atlas Lionesses become the first Arab team to participate. Their breakthrough will mirror the excitement of Morocco’s unprecedented advance in last year’s men’s tournament. But Morocco has been at the vanguard of elevating women’s football; in March, the country’s football federation appointed the first female coach in North Africa to train a men’s team, after it appointed the first woman in the Arab world to officiate a men’s football final at last year’s Moroccan Throne Cup. World Cup organiser Fifa has appointed three Moroccan referees to oversee matches in New Zealand, too, as well as Palestinian official Heba Saadieh.
The world has come a long way since the FA banned women from men’s playing grounds. And while it still has a long way to go until the women’s game commands the respect it deserves, the buzzing atmosphere around this year’s World Cup gives plenty of cause for optimism that global women’s football – and women’s sport in general – has a bright future ahead.