Earlier this year, 60,739 fans packed into Atlético Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano stadium to watch the home team lose 2-0 to rivals Barcelona. Big crowds for league matches here are not rare but this was no standard fixture: the players on the pitch were female, and the near-capacity audience set a new attendance record for a women’s football match in Europe.
It was one of a series of big moments for women’s football in 2019. In England, which prides itself on being the home of football, the country’s first fully professional Women’s Super League has just finished its inaugural season (women were excluded from the sport for more than 50 years until the 1970s).
And a series of important new commercial deals have left players and supporters daring to hope that perhaps it is starting to emerge from the very long shadow of the men’s game.
All eyes now turn to France, where from June 7, 24 national teams will compete in the Fifa Women’s World Cup. More than 720,000 tickets have already been sold. Tickets released for the semi-finals and final, all to be played at Lyon’s 59,000-capacity stadium, sold out within 48 hours. The tournament is also expected to attract record viewing from around the world — the BBC is covering every game live.
The sport has come a long way since former Fifa boss Sepp Blatter declared the future of football was “feminine”. (This may have been a corrective after he previously suggested that women should play in tight shorts.)
Fifa, which aims to double the number of female football players globally to 60 million by 2026, is offering record prize money of $4m to this year’s winners, with $30m across the tournament as a whole. This is still less than the $38m garnered by victors France alone in last year’s men’s tournament, but double what was on offer at the last WWC in Canada in 2015.
On the pitch, the final of the 2015 tournament saw the US, winner of three of the seven World Cups held so far, pulverise Japan 5-2 in Vancouver, turning star players such as Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan into household names in America. Both are in the US squad for France, where the competition is likely to be tougher than ever.
England’s Lionesses are strong contenders, with stars such as Lucy Bronze of European champions Lyon and Manchester City’s Georgia Stanway, just voted the WSL’s young player of the year, named in the squad. Also in the running are hosts France, Germany and the Netherlands, who won the 2017 European Championships.
Kelly Simmons, director of the women’s professional game at England’s FA, believes competition across the whole tournament is likely to be fierce this time. “In previous World Cups, there were some big scores in the early rounds. I think that will close,” she says.
The sport’s growing popularity has gone hand in hand with its increased quality. Sally Horrox, managing partner of sports branding company Y Sport and a former FA member who helped to set up England’s WSL, says: “If what’s going on on the pitch is better, then that engages the fans.”
She believes this has helped form a “virtuous circle”, which in turn increases funding for women’s football through partnerships and commercial deals. Barclays recently announced it was making an unprecedented £10m investment in the WSL and in the grassroots girls’ game.
There is still a way to go before the sport becomes sustainable, let alone attracts the support afforded to the men’s game — particularly at developmental levels. But France 2019 just could be the “pinnacle moment” that Horrox believes will take the women’s game to a new level. “It will be on everybody’s phones, it will be on the BBC, it will be everywhere,” she predicts.
Siona Jenkins is an FT UK news editor