This was always going to be a landmark year for women’s football. But in the end, the eagerly anticipated 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup – unforgettable as it was – proved to be just the tip of the iceberg.
On and off the field, the bar was raised as outstanding players and increasingly passionate fans left records in their wake. Now a new year beckons with the women’s game in a position of unprecedented strength, and with opportunities for further growth and development glistening on the horizon. It is those opportunities that now occupy Sarai Bareman, FIFA’s Chief Women’s Football Officer, as she looks to build on a remarkable period of progress.
“2019 has been an incredible year for the women’s game, both on and off the pitch,” Bareman said. “Of course, the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France was the absolute highlight! I look back on the final in Lyon and remember standing in the stadium with tears streaming down my face. I was so emotional at the sheer level of achievement we had made for the women’s game and the positive impact it would have for so many women and girls around the world for years to come.
“The numbers speak for themselves, of course, but the intangible benefits have also been incredible. I am still meeting people on a daily basis who are telling me it’s the first time they watched women’s football, that it was everywhere they looked – and that they are now fans of the game. The important thing for FIFA now is to make sure we capitalise on the success of 2019 to boost the growth of the game and investment in it at every level.”
For now though, the future can wait. As 2019 draws to a close, it’s time to celebrate a year that has witnessed so many amazing achievements in the women’s game.
This was a year in which, both at stadiums and at home, appetite for watching female footballers showcase their skills reached unprecedented heights.
It was revealed after the Women’s World Cup, for example, that official broadcast coverage of France 2019 on TV and digital platforms had been watched by 1.12 billion viewers. This set one of innumerable new records, and the speed and extent of progress was exemplified by an average live match audience of figure of 17.27 million – more than double the 8.39 million average set at Canada 2015.
The final between USA and the Netherlands also emerged as the most-watched women’s football match in history, with an average live audience of 82.18 million – up 56 per cent on the 2015 final – and a total of 263.62 million unique viewers.
“More than a sporting event, the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 was a cultural phenomenon,” said Gianni Infantino. “The fact that we broke the 1 billion target just shows the pulling power of the women’s game and the fact that, if we promote and broadcast world-class football widely, whether it’s played by men or women, the fans will always want to watch.”
The appetite Infantino referenced was demonstrated just as vividly by match-going fans as it was by armchair viewers. And while the World Cup was the spectacular success story everyone hoped for, one of the most encouraging aspects of 2019 was that breakthroughs spread far beyond the global finals.
Crowd figures have consistently amazed. The various broken attendance records are almost too numerous to list, with impressive new benchmarks set by international matches in England (crowd of 77,768 vs Germany), USA (49,504 vs Portugal), the Netherlands (30,640 vs Australia), Sweden (25,582 vs Germany), Australia (20,029 vs Chile) and Scotland (18,555 vs Jamaica).
Every one of these new records were set in friendly matches, making the figures more impressive still. And it’s not only for international fixtures that bumper crowds have been turning out. In domestic club football, attendance records have not so much been broken as obliterated.
Take Italy, for example, where Juventus took on Fiorentina in front of 39,027 people in March; the previous high-water mark had been just 14,000. In England, the Women’s Super League (WSL) record had stood at 5,265 going into the current season and was promptly smashed by the 31,213 crowd that turned out for September’s Manchester Derby, then broken again by the 38,262 who watched Tottenham Hotspur-Arsenal last month.
Portugal, meanwhile, saw a 15,000-plus crowd turn out for the Lisbon derby, while Lyon – serial champions of France and Europe – faced rivals PSG in front of record-breaking attendances of 25,907 and 30,661. All, though, were eclipsed by the 60,739 who packed into the Wanda Metropolitano to watch Atletico Madrid take on Barcelona in March, comfortably setting a new continental benchmark.
But it is not only in Europe that arenas are being packed out. There have been huge crowds in Mexico – most recently a turnout of 41,615 for Tigres-Monterrey – and new single-match attendance records set in USA (25,218 for Portland Thorns-North Carolina Courage) and Brazil (28,609 for Corinthians-Sao Paulo).
Credit, of course, must go to the players who have drawn fans to the stadiums and TV screens in such unprecedented numbers.
There have certainly been some fantastic individual feats over 2019, not least by Sam Kerr, who broke her own record for goals in a single NWSL season en route to being named the league’s MVP for a second time. Ada Hegerberg has been similarly prolific and scored a memorable UEFA Champions League final hat-trick en route to becoming the competition’s all-time leading scorer.
Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, the evergreen Christine Sinclair has moved on to 183 international goals and now needs just one more to equal Abby Wambach’s world record.
But if 2019 belonged to anyone, it was Megan Rapinoe. Outstanding and hugely influential at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the USA star picked up both The Best FIFA Women’s Player award and the Ballon d’Or Féminin in the tournament’s wake. By virtue of her personality as well as her talent, Rapinoe also took the game into uncharted territory, becoming the first individual women’s footballer to be named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year.
Given all this, it was no surprise that Rapinoe took pride in place the inaugural FIFA FIFPro Women’s World11 – another first for women’s football in a year that has witnessed so many.
And amid the achievements of 2019, there have been milestones that have also pointed the way to the future. The 2019 FIFA–AFC Pilot Women’s Club Championship, featuring the league champions of Japan, Australia, Korea Republic and China PR, was one such example, while progress is also being driven by new initiatives such as the Professional Women’s Football Task Force and FIFA’s Coach Mentorship programme.
It was notable too that, even as excitement buzzed around this year’s Women’s World Cup, the next edition was already beckoning, with an unprecedented level of interest from potential hosts.
The 2023 showpiece will, of course, be the first 32-team Women’s World Cup. In expanding and, hopefully, improving, the global finals can only be seen as reflecting the flourishing female game as a whole.