U.S. Decline, Marta’s Last Dance, and Breakout Stars: Reflections on the 2023 Women’s World Cup 

Courtesy of CNN

Multiple games of football a day (or soccer for the Americans out there), score predictions from the sofa, waking up at some truly awful hours of the morning (for the die-hards in the U.S.) … it has been almost a month since Spain lifted the trophy to conclude the 2023 Women’s World Cup. 

In a tournament filled with thrills and upsets, both on and off the pitch, there is much to reflect on.

The tournament, hosted in Australia and New Zealand, was the first Women’s World Cup to feature 32 teams (up from 24 in 2019). Fans widely welcomed FIFA’s decision to expand the number of countries, though some concerns arose regarding the quality of play with FIFA’s inclusion of lower-ranked teams. 

On balance, the standard of play rose across the board with fewer lopsided score lines than in previous tournaments and a number of surprise results. The Netherlands’ 7-0 win over Vietnam was the largest margin of victory, but still a far cry from the 13-0 defeat Thailand suffered at the hands of the U.S. in 2019. 

Notably, several group games saw the underdogs bring teams to draws and even defeats. 43rd-ranked Jamaica held fifth-ranked France to a 0-0 tie, while 40th-ranked Nigeria beat the 10th-ranked host team Australia, 3-2. 

The early exit of many highly ranked teams is further indication that the gulf in women’s football is beginning to close. 

Olympic gold medalists Canada, Copa America champions Brazil, and European runners-up Germany all failed to advance out of the group stages. The defending World Cup champions, the U.S., faced the team’s earliest World Cup exit ever in the Round of 16. 

The upsets indicate the recent growth of the women’s game in Europe, where countries like England, France, Germany, and Spain (the Nordic countries have long been ahead of the game) are beginning to pour serious money into their women’s leagues. 

After four World Cup victories (1991, 1999, 2015, and 2019), the 30-year era of largely unrivaled U.S. dominance in women’s football has come to an end. 

U.S. midfielder and captain Lindsey Horan playing for Olympique Lyonnais in France and U.S. midfielder Catarina Macario playing at Chelsea in England indicate that European club teams, with their promise of Champions League football, might soon begin to draw more players across the pond. Especially those who wish to begin their professional careers as soon as possible and forgo the traditional U.S. college route. 

The shift in regional dominance was accompanied by a changing of the generational guard. This tournament saw the final World Cup appearances of a number of legends: Christine Sinclaire of Canada, Megan Rapinoe of the U.S., and, of course, the one and only Marta of Brazil, whose final press conference was a moving tribute to how far the women’s game has come since her World Cup debut twenty years ago.   

“When I started playing, I didn’t have an idol,” Marta said in the press conference. “You guys didn’t show any female games, how was I supposed to see other players? … Today, when we go out on the street, parents stop and say ‘My daughter loves you. She wants to be just like you.’ Today, we have our own references. This would not have happened if we would have stopped at the first obstacle.”

Marta’s ‘references’ displayed their flair across the tournament. Notable young players included the talented Linda Caicedo of Columbia, breakout star Lauren James of England, Golden Boot winner Miyazawa Hinata of Japan, and the speedy Salma Paralluelo of Spain. 

In the last five years, Paralluelo has won the U-17, U-20, and now Women’s World Cup with Spain: a sign that the Spanish side, who only made their World Cup debut in 2015, has a strong pipeline of talent waiting in the wings. In typical Spanish style, the team’s possession-based, quick-passing football was a beauty to watch. Bar a shock 4-0 defeat to Japan in a group game, the team looked dominant at every stage of the World Cup. 

Despite the successes, much work still remains to grow women’s football. 

England, Spain, Canada, France, Jamaica, South Africa, Zambia, and Nigeria are all teams that entered the tournament with ongoing federation disputes, with issues ranging from basic funding demands to conflicts over tournament bonuses and sexual assault allegations. 

With respect to FIFA, the $152 million World Cup prize pot, with the Spanish champions receiving $10.5 million in prize money, is a significant increase from 2019. But, the prize still pales in comparison to the $440 million prize pot allocated for the men’s 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where Argentina took home $42 million. 

The 2023 Women’s World Cup proved fan interest in women’s football is significant and ever-growing. A total of 11.98 million fans attended matches, up from 1.13 million in 2019. The tournament also generated $570 million in revenue, breaking even for the first time in its history. 

Women’s football has proven it has the talent to entertain given the platform; now is the time to invest in that platform and allow it to grow.

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