Reflections on Fifa Women’s World Cup and the struggle for gender equality

Team Spain  celebrate after winning the 2023 Women’s World Cup final football match against England at Stadium Australia in Sydney on August 20.

Photo credit: Photo I AFP

What you need to know:

  • Although the tournament was one of its kind, bringing together a record 32 teams, so much of it was about where power still lies.
  • Players have yet to win matches like equal pay, visibility and training conditions.
  •  It, however, had nearly all the best of what you can expect: sensational moments, engaging storylines, unpredictable matches and great drama.

Scheduled in a far-flung time-zone and carrying eight extra teams, the ninth Women's World Cup kicked off in Australia and New Zealand last July with some doubts it could deliver on lofty ambitions.

In the end, Spain were crowned first-time champions after beating England 1-0 at a packed stadium in Sydney, Australia.

Amid many eyebrow-raising statements during the tournament, International Association Football Federation (Fifa) President Gianni Infantino had one statement that was absolutely correct.

“This Fifa Women’s World Cup has been truly transformational, not only in Australia and New Zealand, but all over the world.” Nobody can dispute that.

The 2023 Women’s World Cup was a real springboard for the explosion of women’s football, and it surpassed expectations as one of the most exciting, most memorable and most watched sport on the globe. What a time to be alive!

When the inaugural edition of this competition was organised in 1991, Fifa sought to distance the tournament as much as possible from the “real” competition – the men’s version – by giving it a weird and belittling title, the “First Fifa Women’s World Championship for the M&Ms Cup.”

Now, 32 years later, much of the crass chauvinism that female footballers were used to has disappeared, perhaps because the booming popularity of the female game continues to outstrip expectations.

It was also a World Cup of firsts, as Fifa took some new liberties ahead of this tournament that had serious effects. Chief among them was the fact that Fifa pushed broadcasters to invest more. This raised expectations, and ensured that more money came in.

And speaking of money, the decision to use the immense resources earned from the men’s game to financially support the tournament was also hugely beneficial, as it gradually ensured (also in Infantino’s words) that the tournament “broke even”.

Reward structure

Fifa also adjusted upwards the reward structure for participants, allowing every individual player to draw money from the purse, on top of what their teams stood to earn.

All 732 players who took part in the tournament were guaranteed at least $30,000 (Sh4.4 million) in individual prize money with those on the winning team pocketing $270,000 (Sh40 million).

These bonus payments were a game-changer in so many senses—the players were able to reap the rewards without relying on their federations.

Another milestone in this year’s competition was the fact that it brought together a record 32 teams.
Also, for the first time, broadcasting rights to the games were sold separately from the men’s competition, with the money on offer tripling to $152 million.

England's players stand on the podium after receiving the runners-up medals at the end of the Australia and New Zealand 2023 Women's World Cup final football match, which Spain won, in Stadium Australia, Sydney, on August 20, 2023.

Photo credit: Photo I AFP

Demand for tickets soared so exponentially that some of the matches had to be moved from Australia’s 45,000-capacity venues to bigger venues that hold more than 80,000. Around two billion people tuned in to watch the games, a stark jump from the 1.12 billion who did the same just four years earlier.

On face value, this World Cup was the best possible example of progress in the women’s game. It was almost the best of what you can have from a World Cup, involving all the elements that make a football tournament—sensational moments, engaging storylines, unpredictable matches, great drama, worthy champions and a true legacy.

But even then, challenges still abound. Despite the fact that it was the eighth edition of its kind, so much of this women’s World Cup was about where power still lies. Parity with the men’s tournament remained elusive despite the many gains made.

For instance, despite the significant jump in prize money for the 2023 Women's World Cup, the tournament still offers around a third of what the men compete for. At the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar, $440 million (Sh65 billion) in prize money was up for grabs, meaning there is still a $330 million (Sh49 billion) difference between the two World Cups.

The gap in performance between African teams and those from Europe and America was also a sore talking point, as none of the four African representatives made it out of the knock-out stage. This was attributed to lower investment in the women’s game for teams in Africa, but Fifa also carried the blame for allowing only four teams to represent a continent of 54 countries, as other continents had up to 13 representatives.

“Our ambition is to make the World Cup playing field as level as possible, so the next step now is to balance out the issue of representation in a way that doesn’t affect the quality of the game,” said Fifa President Gianni Infantino.

Africa, represented by Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Morocco, had a run that was nothing short of extraordinary. Debutants Morocco joined Nigeria and South Africa in the last 16. Even Zambia, who had been eliminated after two successive five-goal thrashings, were able to depart with a win, overcoming Costa Rica in their last group game.

Needless to say, Kenya has never participated in any World Cup tournament, or even come close to qualifying.
Doreen Nabwire, the head of leagues and competitions at Football Kenya Federation who became the first Kenyan woman to play professional football in Europe, attributes this to a lack of investment in football infrastructure.

Football Kenya Federation (FKF) fixtures secretary Doreen Nabwire during an interview at FKF offices on January 28, 2021.

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat I Nation Media Group

“We are a few key steps behind. Not to bang on a well-worn drum, but the foundations at the very base of our talent development were neglected for far too long, what we saw on the world stage was a representation of work done nearly a decade ago.

“In the next decade, through the efforts of the various federations, academies, school programmes and access to the Internet, we will close the gap, the raw talent we have always had will be nurtured the right way, and they'll participate in more and more competitive domestic leagues," she says.

Doreen explains that matters of infrastructure and lack of sponsorship remain major hindrances to the growth of the women’s game.

“Locally, we have gone through the same challenges, my generation and the generations before me were totally wasted owing to lack of organised competitions, exposure through continental and international engagements, poor/no proper infrastructure and coach education which play a key role in player development,” she adds.

Esse Akida, who plays for club Paok in Greece, believes Africa’s woes stem from poor management of the game.

“I think it is all about how the women’s game is viewed back at home. I don’t think those tasked with leading are serious about women’s football. There are steps they’ve taken but a lot needs to be done. Women football shouldn’t be viewed as an afterthought or an avenue to get Fifa funds. Let them invest in it,” she says.

Harambee Starlets forward Essie Akida receives the golden boot award for being the top scorer in the Greek women's league in 2022. She plays for FC Paok.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

But women footballers face challenges that go far beyond investment in the game, and infrastructural deficits. Nigeria boycotted their last build-up friendly match because of non-payment of bonuses, and has now asked global players' union, International Federation of Professional Footballers (Fifpro), to intervene and ensure the team received the World Cup bonuses for every player participating in the tournament.

The Super Falcons captain, Asisat Oshoala, said in an interview: “What those in power don’t know is that women have special needs, more than men. When you send a woman to a foreign country, there are needs that will have to be addressed, and all that needs money. We are not like men who can just get up and go. We need to take care of things back home because that is our role as women,” said Asisat.

She was perhaps referring to unique challenges like menstruation that women have to go through. When a woman is on her menses, she has to buy sanitary pads, and this requires money.

Barcelona's Nigerian forward Asisat Oshoala (L) challenges Atletico Madrid's French defender Aissatou Tounkara during the UEFA Women's Champions League quarter-final football match in San Mames Stadium, Bilbao, on August 21, 2020.

Photo credit: Photo I AFP

“But it is not just menstrual periods. Because they are nurturers by nature, women also find themselves constantly worrying about the children they’ve left back home, or their families,” says Praxedes Anyanga, a retired footballer who once turned up for Makolanders FC (a women's football club from Nairobi's Eastlands).

Play time

To make African teams compete more favourably against their counterparts from the West, Doreen suggests more play time for women’s teams.

“Having our teams play in competitive leagues against or together with stronger opposition, would be a great place to start. That will be a trial by fire, but our girls will get to the level they need to a lot faster if they have access to the same training, same facilities, coaches and level of competition. Our coaches are also going through higher levels of training, which will result in better athletes and more developed footballers.”

Her suggestion is backed by Esse, who says the football landscape here in Kenya is completely rudimentary as compared to other countries.

“There is a big gap. I can’t remember any Kenyan club having a club house during my days there. Here (Greece), before you settle, you are placed in an environment of football. They pay too. I’m dead sure there are women’s teams in Europe that pay more than what our men’s teams pay back at home. Football here is taken as a career. In Kenya, most people play football to pass time.

“Countries like Morocco have invested so much in their teams and the results will be trickling in soon. You all saw how they fared in the World Cup and it is just a matter of time before they match the rest of the world,” says Esse, who once expressed public displeasure at the fact that the local women’s premier league winners were awarded a paltry Sh300,000 cash prize.

After the final game, teams headed home with uncertain futures, but with great hopes that the month-long tournament would spur new interest and further investment in the game.

For many teams, the struggle for funding, support and recognition will continue, while more established teams like Germany, Brazil, Canada and the United States will begin the post-tournament soul-searching about what went wrong.
Spain, which defeated England 1-0 in the final, can revel as first-time champions.

“We need to be ready, because after this Fifa Women's World Cup women's football is going to explode in every single one of your countries,” Fifa Chief Women's Football Officer Sarai Bareman, said at a women's soccer conference held in the days before the final World Cup match.

“We need to be ready for it. There will be millions and millions of women and girls around the world who will sign up to play football for the first time ever after this World Cup.”

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