Although the Women’s World Cup will not take center stage until June, soccer’s female brand is making news on several fronts these days — and not only because of the approaching FIFA tournament in France and lawsuits seeking equal treatment.
In the long struggle for acceptance in a sport dominated by men, women’s soccer traditionally drew attention for two big events — the World Cup and the Olympics — but little else. Out of indifference, neglect and bias, the off-years did not resonate beyond the sport’s bubble.
But with greater resources, attention and participation, women’s soccer seems to have reached a turning point. Things are happening.
Consider recent days and weeks:
***Last Sunday, Atletico Madrid set a world record for women’s club soccer with a crowd of 60,739 for a league match against Barcelona. A week later, Juventus demolished the Italian women’s mark with a sellout crowd of 39,027. (Tickets in Turin were free.) In January, Athletic Bilbao in Spain announced 48,121 for a cup match. These are exceptions, rather than the rule, for women’s attendance, but it does show, particularly in traditional soccer countries, the audience is out there.
***The largest field of candidates (nine) to stage a Women’s World Cup (in 2023) has stepped forward. The front-runners appear to be Australia and Japan. The most intriguing candidate is a unified Korean bid. The others are Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, New Zealand and South Africa. Formal bids are due April 16. FIFA plans to name the winner next March.
***FIFA finally did the right thing concerning artificial turf, announcing natural grass is mandatory for the 2023 tournament. It was not going to be an issue this summer because France selected nine natural fields. But at the 2015 tournament in Canada, all venues were artificial turf, sparking player backlash and a gender discrimination case. The men’s tournament is played on grass only. Hybrid fields — natural grass supported by synthetic fibers — remain acceptable for both genders.
***The Argentine federation is launching a women’s pro league this summer and planning to create a high performance training center. The current league is semipro. Interested clubs were given 60 days to sign eight players to full contracts. This news comes in the wake of famed men’s club Boca Juniors staging a women’s game at historic Bombonera stadium.
***Barclays, known in the soccer world for sponsoring the Premier League, signed a three-year, multimillion-dollar contract with the English Football Association to back the Women’s Super League. Both sides say it’s the largest corporate sponsorship of women’s sports in the United Kingdom. The WSL features 11 teams, including Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea.
***With five World Cup tuneups remaining, U.S. Coach Jill Ellis selected almost all of the usual suspects for friendlies against Australia on April 4 and Belgium on April 8. She also provided a surprise, bringing back Ali Krieger for what would be the defender’s first appearance in two years. Krieger, who turns 35 this summer, is two matches from 100. Krieger provides depth at right back in the absence of starter Kelley O’Hara (ankle injury). Midfielder Morgan Brian, a regular in the 2015 championship campaign, was left off the 24-player list for the second consecutive camp.
***The ticket presale for these U.S. friendlies is on a strong pace: 15,000 against Australia and 14,500 against Belgium. Capacity is 18,000 and 22,000, respectively. The top-ranked Americans will complete their schedule in Santa Clara, Calif. (May 12 vs. South Africa), St. Louis (May 16 vs. New Zealand) and Harrison, N.J. (May 26 vs. Mexico).
***Fifteen women’s players are on the National Soccer Hall of Fame ballot, led by world scoring leader Abby Wambach and defender Kate Markgraf. Wambach should be a unanimous selection; Markgraf also should get in. Several others are viable candidates. Voting will close next Monday, and winners will be announced soon. Another six women are among 14 candidates on the veterans’ ballot.
***The organizers of the International Champions Cup, a U.S. summer barnstorming tour of elite men’s clubs, will include a women’s tournament for the second consecutive year and, in the future, will consider doubling the number of teams to eight. Details of this year’s competition will be announced this week.
***The management at Bordeaux, which is trying to make gains on European women’s powers Olympique Lyonnais and Paris Saint-Germain, sent the squad during a scheduling lull last week to the United States for friendlies against St. John’s University (3-0 victory) and the Washington Spirit (3-1 victory).
***The women’s game also is gaining acceptance in the dark side of soccer culture: Some 50 PSG supporters were prevented from attending the UEFA Women’s Champions League match at Chelsea after authorities found weapons on their bus. Vandalism at the London stadium also was reported. Chelsea Coach Emma Hayes said, “We have to remember that the women’s game is progressing, that fans are following, and with that comes the same level of scrutiny.”