On December 5, 1921, the English Football Association banned women from playing on its pitches, saying: “The game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” The decision set back the women’s game for a half-century. Yet England’s semi-final loss to the US in the Women’s World Cup last week drew more than half the viewing audience in Britain, with 11.7 million people tuning in. Across the Channel, the France-Brazil quarter-final match drew the biggest TV audience of the year while overall, competition organisers sold more than one million tickets to the tournament. It speaks to a remarkable rise in popularity for the Women’s World Cup, which attracted half that number to live matches when it first took place in 1991. The likes of Sam Kerr, Wendie Renard and Tobin Heath will undoubtedly inspire a generation of girls around the world to dream of a future career in professional football.
In the end it was the US that triumphed, putting on a stunning performance with rare back-to-back victories, cementing their place as the titans of women's football. Much more still needs to be done to encourage women to take up the sport, demonstrated by the fact the other seven sides in the quarter-finals were all western European. Still, the World Cup represents a new peak in global interest, which should be deployed by clubs and leagues to attract new players, sponsors, fans and broadcasters. The effects are already being felt: national federations are being lobbied to increase funding and support for the women's game. The Argentinian women's football federation, for example, which once forced its players to leave on a bus before sunrise for a match in Uruguay to avoid a hotel bill, last month professionalised its women's league.
There is still much to be accomplished. The US team – under fire from president Donald Trump after its captain said she would not visit the White House if they won – has taken legal action to demand equal pay. Many other nations do not pay their female players; many more do not have teams at all. But change is in the air. The crowds might be slightly smaller than in the men's tournament but the last few weeks have been noticeably more amicable, less boisterous and comprise many more women and girls. It is time for broadcasters to play catch-up by taking the women's game more seriously and match the fans' enthusiasm by spreading the word.