When the FIFA Women’s World Cup begins in Canada on Saturday, it will be both a welcome respite for that embattled organization and a celebration of some of the good things that an extremely wealthy supranational organization can be accomplish.
FIFA has much bigger problems now, but back in October it faced an unprecedented challenge from some of the sport’s most famous athletes, when a group of women players filed a lawsuit disputing plans to use artificial turf throughout the tournament. The men play on grass, they argued, and it’s discriminatory not to let us do the same.
They were right of, of course, and besides, players and fans tend to agree that the games are better on the real thing. However, the the players dropped their suit in January, and the focus has turned from the legal and political battles to what is shaping up to be a very interesting tournament.
Part of the reason for that is the newly expanded field of 24 teams that will be participating, up from 16. Fans of the men’s World Cup bemoaned a similar increase when their competition jumped from 24 to 32 teams for the 2002 World Cup, largely because such a large field means that a weak team occasionally gets blown out by a stronger opponent. But part of the charm of world soccer is its inclusiveness. Nearly every country in the world plays the game, and even more people watch it. Allowing 24 teams to compete this summer will heighten awareness of the tournament and lead to more interest in women’s soccer—especially in parts of the world where women’s participation is either officially discouraged by the local soccer authorities or suppressed by cultural norms.
Eight of the countries will be participating at their first Women’s World Cup. Thailand will be doing so before their men have made it to their own tournament. The hope for the others—Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, and Ecuador—is that their women’s teams are starting to get a little more attention relative to the men. Too often, women’s soccer teams have been underfunded or ignored in other ways. For instance, despite Spain’s deep history of soccer and recent dominance, its women’s coach has been in the job since 1988—even though the team has repeatedly failed to qualify for the tournament.
This year they made the cut, thanks largely to the excellent play of Verónica Boquete, a star in the club game. More and more countries are fielding their own exceptionally talented players than ever before, which means that, as soon as some of the weaker teams are eliminated in the group stage, the quality of the knock-out rounds ought to make 2015 one of the most tightly contested and fun-to-watch World Cups in recent memory.
There is no clear favorite. The U.S. national team has the all-time leading goalscorer in international matches—man or woman—in Abby Wambach, but the Americans have not won the World Cup since 1999. They reached the final in 2011 but lost to Japan, which played an unbeatably disciplined and technical style of soccer. (The U.S. beat Japan in the 2012 Olympic final, setting up the possible renewal of an interesting rivalry should the two sides meet in Canada.)
The last two FIFA World Players of the Year have been German, but the most recent, Nadine Kessler, will miss the tournament with a knee injury. Sweden will be America’s most formidable opponent in the tournament’s toughest group, according to ESPN’s analysis. Sweden’s coach, Pia Sundhage, was in charge of the U.S. the last time it won a major tournament, so she knows the team’s strengths and weaknesses better than anyone.
Canada has home field advantage—and one of the best players in the world, Chrstine Sinclair, who scored three goals against the U.S. in the 2012 Olympic semifinal, which Canada was unlucky not to win. Rounding out the contenders, France is newly dominant in world soccer, but it has one of the most devastating attacks in the game right now.
The 2011 World Cup and the 2012 Olympics were incredibly exciting tournaments, full of last-minute goals, high-scoring matches, and surprising results throughout. This summer, with the proximity of the matches in Canada and kickoff times ideal for an American audience, there should be even more reason for us to tune in and pay attention. Observers like me are hoping that the players haven’t forgotten their lawsuit and will use their spotlight to make a political statement. Then again, we didn’t really fault the male players for failing to take a stand against all the abuses at last summer’s World Cup. So, even if the current wave of anger against FIFA flattens out and we’re treated to a month of amazing soccer without any ripples of discontent, that will be worth celebrating as well.
George Quraishi is the founder and editor of Howler, a magazine about soccer.