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FIFA must learn from its mistakes in France when expanding the World Cup

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There were a lot of logistical snafus in France that shouldn’t be repeated if FIFA is at all willing to learn.

United States of America v Netherlands : Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Last week, an email from FIFA appeared in my inbox that read:

“As part of its impact study, the Local Organizing Committee of the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™ would like to know more about your experience as a spectator during this competition.”

The 10-minute survey that followed prompted me to rate my experience in France through a few checkboxes and 5-point smiley face rating scales, with no options for open-ended answers, useful feedback, or detailed criticism. It felt like an inadequate and too-little-too-late wrap-up of the experience of the World Cup, a mere formality on the part of the Local Organizing Committee (LOC) and FIFA, who seemed negligent of organization and fan experience throughout the tournament, or simply didn’t care to organize the women’s World Cup to be the world-class, high-attention mega-event that it is.

Game after game, host cities seemed unprepared for the size and scale of the 2019 World Cup. The LOC is a body convened to do exactly as its name suggests and oversee local organization of the tournament, spearheaded by host federation leadership. FIFA President Gianni Infantino proclaimed in an end-of-tournament press conference in tandem with the LOC that, “This Women’s World Cup in France has been... the best Women’s World Cup ever. Something extraordinary happened here. It was all thanks to the French people that this Women’s World Cup became what it is, the best ever.” In reality, time and again, cities were not adequately prepared for the sheer number of fans they needed to accommodate. Food and water ran low in stadiums, amidst a record-breaking European heatwave. Hotels cancelled and public transportation systems closed before matches ended, forcing some fans to leave their seats in the middle of play to catch trains, and leaving others stranded outside of stadiums into the wee hours of the morning. Where shortcomings were evident and devastating, there seemed to be no real sign of logistical improvement from game to game. Why did it feel like FIFA so blatantly underestimated the popularity and turnout for the women’s World Cup, or simply neglected to care?

Infantino coupled his claims of the tournament’s success with a five-pronged roll-out of proposals for the growth of the women’s game, the first of which was set into motion on July 31st: the 2023 World Cup will expand to 32 teams from 24. Bid committees who were in the process of planning and budgeting to finalize bids for a 24-team tournament must now scramble to adjust their bids to accommodate 32 teams before the revised deadline this December. The process also allows new countries to join the bidding, starting proposals from scratch just four months before the deadline. A winning bid won’t be selected until next May, leaving the 2023 hosts roughly three years to prepare the biggest women’s World Cup in history, compared to France’s four years of preparation for the 2019 tournament (2022 men’s World Cup host, Qatar, has been preparing for the tournament since winning their bid 12 years in advance, in 2010). While the expansion to 32 teams is a sign of progress, the sheer lack of time that the next hosts will have to prepare is unsettling after experiencing the challenges of this year’s World Cup.

I attended 14 matches in five host cities in France—two in Le Havre, two in Reims, two in Valenciennes, five in Paris, and three in Lyon. After week one, I was convinced that the tournament’s issues were nothing more than growing pains. But a lot of problems continued—some got better, many stayed the same, and a number got worse. I talked to a few other World Cup attendees about the troubles they faced at France 2019, and what they did to cope.

Getting around town

Throughout the tournament, transportation was insufficient, out-of-sync with kickoff times, and overall, felt like a glaring afterthought. When Italy faced Brazil in the final match of the group stage in Valenciennes, the 21,669 people that witnessed Marta surpass Miroslav Klose’s record and become the highest scorer in World Cup history poured out of Stade du Hainaut and into a taxi-less, Uber-less night. I walked just under an hour back to my AirBnB, and most others did similarly, flooding the sidewalks, disappearing into a very rural, very dark night in the outskirts of Valenciennes, relying on Google Maps and poor service to get safely to unknown destinations. I didn’t get to my AirBnB until 12:35 a.m.

Holly Suarez headed to France from Virginia with her husband and daughter. Having attended the 2015 tournament in Canada, Suarez and her family felt like they had a general idea of what to expect. But the transportation nightmare was unfamiliar. “Montreal was way easy,” she said. “It was pretty easy to get around, fairly easy to get to games. So, I feel for some of these people that were like, ‘How do we get home? How do we get from A to B?’”

Josh Rosenberg, who is from Miami, traveled to France with his wife and two kids. He also found accessibility and transportation to be major issues. “There was a complete failure to address late start times and the likelihood of travelers wanting to come and go through Paris,” he said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t find the host cities, outside of Paris, to be very well prepared… You could get trains to the stadium, but they failed to add a late train to take you back...” Rosenberg and his family ended up renting a car, an option that also appealed to Colorado resident Mary Vekasy, who said, “The experience of getting around France was kind of chaos… When we realized our hotel wasn’t as close as we thought it was, we ended up renting a car.” For fans who couldn’t rent a car, there were no late-running trains and no taxis or rideshare options to help towns that simply lack the late-running metro infrastructure of bigger cities. The last train left Valenciennes’ main station at 10:04 p.m., about the time that teams were beginning the second half.

Places to stay

Just two days after that night in Valenciennes, fans in Le Havre faced similar problems following USA v. Sweden. While the major influx of tourists thrilled Le Havre city officials, once all hotels in the city center were booked up, fans had to seek refuge in bordering towns like Honfleur and Deauville. Hotels overbooked and cancelled often, and no accommodations were made for post-game transportation to those nearby towns from the stadium. Fan camaraderie quickly compensated for the LOC’s lack of planning. A Facebook group called “Women’s World Cup 2019 Traveling Fans” became a hub for advice, in-a-pinch cries for help, and overwhelming good samaritanism. People posted the names of the few hotels that were offering to put people on standby for rooms if there were last-minute cancellations and others with 24-hour reception desks and lobbies where families could safely spend the night. Others offered open spots in their rental cars or on the floors of their hotel rooms. I’d thought about staying in Paris and missing USA v. Sweden altogether after having a Le Havre hotel overbook and then cancel on me, knowing I’d be stranded after the final whistle and left waiting for the first train back to Paris at 5:30 a.m. The Facebook group came to my rescue and Vekasy offered me a spot in her rental car, before another generous family I met in the stadium ended up offering me a ride all the way back to Paris.

Gameday logistics

When it came time to enter stadiums, security guards funneled fans into even longer lines, splitting people up by gender for security checks. Security guards were insistent that women fans needed to be checked by women, and men by men, but a severe lack of women guards were at entry gates. Here, again, there was complete oversight and a total miseread of the crowd by the LOC. Had they not anticipated many women fans? At the World Cup? Before Sweden v. Netherlands in Lyon, I waited in line for one of three female security guards in sight, while watching men enter the stadium easily—there were seven male guards at our checkpoint. The longest women-only line I stood in was in Reims, before USA v. Thailand; I didn’t make it to my seat until minutes before kickoff. Another recurring stadium entry problem was a lack of communication and standardized procedure about what fans were allowed to bring inside. I watched countless people struggle to negotiate whether laptops, portable chargers, and deodorant sticks were permitted in the stadium. When the heatwave struck, this negotiation shifted to small water bottles, especially for families with small children, yet water remained banned at every match I attended, except USA v. France, where the 100°F heat index at kickoff was finally enough for security officials to allow desperate fans to bring in small bottles. Very infrequently was any sort of master list of prohibited items referenced.

Vast underestimation of the popularity of the women’s World Cup from its own organizers wasn’t only deeply disappointing—it also meant that a lot of money was left on the table. Long lines to buy official merchandise outside of the stadium gates were a recurring issue due to a lack of personnel selling the hats, shirts, and scarves that travelers wanted as keepsakes from their trip to the World Cup, and many frustrated fans grew frustrated with the wait before deciding not to buy anything at all. “The merchandise tents were a nightmare. It just seemed like they were just ill-prepared for that number of people,” Vekasy said.

Lines for concessions in the stadiums were just as long as those for merchandise, and many had to miss a lot of gametime just to get something to eat. The lack of alcoholic drinks in stadiums added to the list of shortcomings, evidence of one less push from the LOC and FIFA to hold France to traditional World Cup standards, despite a history of putting that kind of pressure on FIFA men’s World Cup hosts in years prior. The sales lost to fans looking for beer, or just looking to get food quickly without missing an entire half, seemed unimaginable for the revenue-generating powerhouse that a World Cup is meant to be. “The stadiums regularly ran out of most food by half time, and even water,” said Rosenberg. “I attended the 1998 men’s World Cup in France. The fan village and the country was spectacularly available for the event. Sadly, that was not the case in 2019 for the women’s World Cup.” Even after Stade Océane ran out of food during USA v. Sweden, when a sold-out crowd filled the same stadium five days later for France v. Brazil, they ran out again, just before halftime. Vekasy said that she found that FIFA and the LOC’s inability to learn from mistakes from game to game was frustrating. “I don’t think FIFA was looking at each game and thinking ‘What challenges did we have? What can we do to improve upon them?’ And how can you not?”

2023 and beyond

What are the parameters for our expectations of 2023? The expansion presents an opportunity to incentivize more federations to invest in their women’s programs to make the World Cup finals as well as throw their hat into the ring at the chance to host the tournament, but it also allots a precariously short time to prepare for the spectacle. Will FIFA and the LOC realize that they dropped the ball this year and apply those lessons in 2023? Will they take the next women’s World Cup seriously?

It’s long been time that FIFA stops getting caught off guard by the women’s World Cup. Organize it to make a profit. Make fan accommodations, transportation, and safety a top priority. Make it as easy as possible for fans to get to stadiums and into stadiums, purchase tickets, and spend money on women’s football. Women’s football shouldn’t be an afterthought, and a negligent LOC shouldn’t be the cause of missing revenue and empty seats.

Update: a paragraph about restaurant closures was removed since the matter was not a logistical issue for the LOC.