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The Women’s World Cup was a success, but still dogged by sexism

As the biggest ever Women’s World Cup drew to a close with a 5-2 win by the US over Japan, there is certainly much to celebrate – and not just Carli Lloyd’s spectacular 16-minute hat trick in the final.

It’s been a landmark event for women’s football: 24 teams for the first time, the highest-ever attendance numbers for a Women’s World Cup (1.35m people) and record TV audiences across the globe.

England made history with their third-place finish, after beating two-time World Cup winners Germany. The Lionesses’ achievement is the second best of any England team at a World Cup, behind the 1966 win by the men’s side. Up to 2.5m TV viewers watched the BBC Three broadcast of the Lionesses’ historic victory over the Germans. Similar numbers witnessed England’s tragic last-minute semi-final loss against Japan.

And mainstream media interest – initially sparse – increased in the lead-up to the semi-final. There was something about England’s honest, courageous and passionate performance throughout the tournament, and the down-to-earth attitudes of the players and manager that captured the attention of the nation.

Mothers, daughters, heroes?

This has been a really important event for women’s football, and for women’s sport more generally – and it’s important that the momentum generated by the World Cup isn’t lost. If the tournament is to have a positive legacy, the enthusiasm and interest (by the media, spectators and governing bodies) has to continue beyond the final whistle.

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about what lies ahead for the women’s game. But we mustn’t lose sight of the deeply ingrained, archaic attitudes about sport and gender that persist.

One minor but rather poignant example of the barriers that are yet to be overcome was a tweet sent out by the official England FA account to celebrate the team’s return from Canada.

What’s most depressing about this tweet is that it’s intended to be celebratory. It’s well meant. It’s not the kind of overt sexism that we’ve seen elsewhere in response to the tournament and the media interest it has generated. Nonetheless, it’s an indication of the systemic, and often benevolent, sexism that’s so deeply ingrained in football culture at all levels. It provides a glimpse of a more general tendency for women’s football not to be taken seriously as a sport, even by its own governing bodies.

Taken for idiots

What we also shouldn’t forget in the generally optimistic and euphoric spirit of the World Cup, is the less than ideal set-up of the tournament.

Not only were the matches played on artificial turf, which increases injury risk and also affects the flow and quality of the game, FIFA also didn’t conduct a random draw for the knock-out stages. Instead, teams are seeded in order to ensure match-ups in certain locations and certain times for ticketing and promotional reasons.

This meant that Germany and France (ranked number one and number three in the world respectively) were always going to meet in the quarter-final. It also meant that the world number one (Germany) and number two (USA) were never going to play each other in the final. The world’s top three ranked teams (Germany, US and France) were all in the same knockout bracket – not because of a random draw, but by design.

This might have had commercial benefits. But it also seriously undermined the integrity of the competition. France’s Camille Abily was particular vocal in her criticism of FIFA. “They have to stop taking us for idiots,” she said.

We don’t yet know if the draw will be conducted differently for the next Women’s World Cup in France in 2019. What we do know is that all games will be played on natural grass, which is a step in the right direction.

In the meantime, the stars of this year’s World Cup will go back to their clubs and play in domestic leagues and cup competitions. Here’s hoping that the interest in their talent, skills and passion continues until the next big tournament: the UEFA Women’s European Championship 2017 in The Netherlands.

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