Look at the final stages of the Women’s World Cup and you’ll see European nations in every direction. Of nine UEFA teams that entered the competition, seven still remain. In fact, as my colleague Sophie Lawson has noted, there are now more Scandinavian countries in the quarterfinals than there are teams from the entire non-European world. From this point forward, it’s the United States against Europe, and everyone else has to watch from home.
How did this happen? Is it a sign of fundamental changes in the game or just random variation? And if it is the case that Europe is beginning to overtake the rest of the world, how should we feel about it?
This is what happens when wealthy, soccer-rich countries start investing in the women’s game
To the first question—how did this happen—the answer is actually pretty simple. Europe has long been a sleeping giant in the women’s game, with several high profile countries simply not turning up on for the women’s side of the game. Italy was a powerhouse in the prehistory of the 70s and 80s, but was starved of resources and faded away. The Scandinavian countries were strong in the 90s and have stuck around. Germany dominated the 2000s. But other than that...Europe has mostly stayed in the background.
What we’re seeing now is powerful actors in all of these soccer-mad countries finally start to lean into women’s soccer. It seems obvious, but it makes a huge difference when players finally get full-time training opportunities, top-level coaching, and fitness support.
In Italy, the big clubs have finally entered the fray, with Juventus providing many of the key players . Unsurprisingly, their national team has also taken a huge step game over the past two years. According to Sara Gama, Italy’s captain, there has been a sea change over the past two years in the team.
“Women’s football is changing in Italy,” Gama told reporters following Italy’s 5-0 win over Jamaica in the group stages. “We get the chance to play for teams like Juventus, Milan, now Inter is coming, Roma, Sassuolo...So we’re getting better because we’re training better…A lot is yet to do, but the gap is getting closer with the other nations and I think everybody can see that.”
In the same vein, Spain has seen a spike in interest and investment, with Barcelona and Atletico famously drawing a record crowd earlier this year. Real Madrid has just bought into the top division, another sign that commitments are changing.
And then consider nations like England and France, who went through similar transitions a decade or so ago. These were once relative backwaters in the women’s game—with few girls growing up playing, and very few chances for them to develop if they did pick it up. Now, there has been real investment, and they are no longer up-and-comers. They are just here.
Or look to Scandinavia, where long-standing leagues have provided stability and structure that have allowed relatively small countries to produce a huge base of talent, and to sustain themselves through some fallow periods. Norway and Sweden both feature players who don’t play for ‘top’ teams in big leagues, but have still made a significant mark in the tournament. Simply having a stable league system is important.
To be clear, the levels of investment in these countries is still very small in absolute terms. Lyon, the colossus standing above the rest of the world, is still paying mere pennies on the dollar for their women’s team compared to their men. The Italian league is widely described as having ‘professionalized’ but it’s still not technically a professional league. Real Madrid has simply bought into the league, scrapping their supposed plan to build from the ground up.
But even these minor steps are still a big deal. Regular training, access to quality facilities, and consistent competition provide a massive advantage over national teams that simply disappear into the ether between tournaments.
It’s good that Europe is starting to invest, but that doesn’t mean we have to be happy about all the implications
More investment in the women’s game is obviously great. But like with many good things, it’s a little more complicated.
For one thing, there’s something fundamentally unpleasant about wealthy, white nations from western Europe dominating this tournament. I certainly don’t want to begrudge the players, who are still getting far less than they deserve. It’s wonderful to see these world-class athletes seizing the opportunities that they have worked so hard to generate. But it’s also complicated to celebrate victories for the relatively better-off, when those victories necessarily entail losses for those even lower down the ladder. The World Cup is a zero-sum game after all, so if these players are finding success, others are losing out.
As my colleague Claire Watkins has discussed on Twitter, this all particularly hurts when you start attaching specific faces. France’s victory was Brazil’s defeat. And it means that we may well have seen the last of some all-time greats like Marta, Formiga, and Cristiane. They deserved more, and it would have been exciting to see them get one more chance.
By the same token, Sweden’s win was Canada’s loss, and likely the final World Cup minutes for Christine Sinclair. England and Germany advanced, but that means Cameroon and Nigeria did not. Despite some excellent performances, many of these non-European countries simply lacked the institutional support that could have helped knit together a group of talented individuals into a team capable of executing a long-term vision.
One of the big themes of this World Cup has been the growth of the game in every corner of the world. One match between the USA and Thailand notwithstanding, we’re no longer in a world of blowouts and easy victories. Unheralded teams earned results against some of the top squads in the world. And most of the games were close, even if the expected team did eventually win.
But if the standards are going up across the board, the reality is that they’re rising more in Europe than elsewhere. Argentina has made major strides. But so have Spain and Switzerland and the Netherlands and Belgium. And so we’re stuck the First World of women’s soccer ride these challenges and consistently find just enough to last them out. You can see the underdogs putting things together on the fly. You can almost see how they’ll pull it off. But in the end, it never quite manages to be enough.
That doesn’t feel great. And the reality is: the disparity is probably only going to get worse. Not only do many other countries lack this kind of regular domestic support, they are also not getting much (sometimes anything) from their national system.
FIFA and Federations bear a lot of the blame
FIFA has huge reserves of cash, but has chosen not to distribute it to the women’s game. They have increased prize money for this tournament, but by a smaller margin than they increased prize money for the men’s tournament. And prize money obviously is a ‘winners win’ resource. The lion’s share of that money will be going to the countries already at the top.
FIFA talks a good game about wanting to grow the women’s game. But look at the details and you’ll see it’s fundamentally a marketing strategy. Look at the verbs they use. Explore. Review. Communicate. Measure. What’s missing? Invest. Spend. Fund.
Most federations are the same, or much worse. We’ve already seen the Nigeria players refusing to leave their hotel after they were eliminated, in protest of several years worth of unpaid bonuses. Jamaica had to wage a similar fight earlier this spring. And this is happening in dozens of countries, as well-documented by Lindsay Gibbs in a recent article about the global labor struggle between players and the (almost exclusively) men who run these systems. These efforts have produced some effect, but it’s a permanent uphill battle. The men that run these programs are at best uninterested in supporting the women’s team. In most cases they are actively hostile to the idea.
FIFA could enforce the mandate for equality. They could track where funds go, and ensure that money designated for women isn’t siphoned away. This wouldn’t be nearly enough to counteract decades of neglect, but it would at least be something. But FIFA isn’t even willing to do that. For the people making those decisions, equal support for women’s soccer isn’t a priority, and certainly isn’t important enough to justify taking on federations whose votes they want to keep in their pockets.
Conditions aren’t perfect in Europe. But there are some systems for enforcement. Players don’t need to appeal helplessly to an absent FIFA. They can work through internal systems, and through local media, and have some hope of success. They still have a long way to go to reach genuine equity. But the path is at least visible. For players in many other countries, it will take a huge amount of work just to keep treading water.
Where do we go from here?
It isn’t all doom and gloom. It’s not like Europe has lapped the world. Australia has fallen apart in the past few months, but they had plenty of success in the years before that. Canada will lose Sinclair soon, but they have many exciting young players. Japan outplayed the Netherlands and were unlucky to go out. They seem primed to return to the late stages of major tournaments very soon. More attention and excitement about the game may provide more leverage for players from nations like Argentina, Jamaica, and Nigeria to demand improvements. It’s facile to assume that a rising tide will lift all boats, but there’s at least some truth in the cliché.
Still, it’s more than likely that Europe’s advantages are going to keep getting bigger, not smaller. Absent some major investment, which frankly is just not very likely, the teams that just barely missed out this time are probably going to be even further behind next time.
Even the United States, the one holdout against the assault from European teams in this tournament, is looking at some storm clouds on the horizon. The structural advantages for the US remain enormous. The number of young girls who play soccer in the US is orders of magnitude more than other countries. The existence of a huge college soccer system provides many more opportunities for players to continue their careers into their early 20s. The NWSL remains one of the top leagues in the world.
Europe may be catching up, but it’s still not there. Yet.
But there are some real warning signs on the horizon. Millions of girls play sports in the US, but very few do so in the sort of structured fashion that can produce professionals. What structure that does exist is a pay-to-play system that means only a small subset of potential competitors will ever even enter. The coaching levels are poor, the sophistication of play is low. College soccer is a great opportunity for an education, but it’s a pretty poor way to train the top players in the world. The NWSL is one of the best leagues in the world right now, partly because the huge pyramid provides sufficient depth to produce genuinely competitive teams up and down the table. But it also depends on drawing some of the top players in the world to sustain the levels of competition.
Right now, those players are willing to take less salary for the chance to play against the best. But if the spigots start opening in Europe, many may decide (very reasonably) to follow the paychecks. If they do, there’s a risk of a feedback loop forming. If some players leave, the competition declines, which may encourage others to leave, which will lower the levels again. And so on.
Within a few years, we may be in a world where it is difficult to justify keeping the top American players on this side of the Atlantic—when the most competitive leagues are over in Europe. If so, US Soccer might find itself in a difficult situation, with one of its main comparative advantages wilting away.
Looking ahead and thinking about who will be ranked #1 in the World ten years from now, the US is probably still the best bet. But it’s no longer exclusively a battle between the US and Germany. Many others are starting to make the case.
If the US does get knocked off its perch, there won’t be too many tears shed around the world. But if they’re only displaced by another rich western country with huge structural advantages, it’s not going to constitute a real sea change. And if the imbalance between haves and have-nots continues to grow, it will be a truly Pyrrhic victory.