What does the 2019 World Cup actually mean for women’s football in England?

Written by Sport

The 2019 World Cup came to a cool finish with the USA retaining the prestigious title of World Champions. After a tight and gritty first half against the Netherlands, a mistake by Stefanie van der Gragt led to US poster girl Megan Rapinoe slotting an easy penalty into the back of the net. The US continued to show their class when Rose Lavelle hammered the final nail in the Orange Lionesses’ coffin to safely steer the US to a 2-0 win and their fourth World Champions title.

The World Cup this year arguably had one aim: to raise the profile of the women’s game globally. Personally, I believe that this is something that has continued to snowball in awareness, but not necessarily popularity. Compare the coverage of this tournament to 2015; more people tuned in this time round, with England’s games continuing to break viewing stats. England’s semi-final game against the USA attracted 11.7 million viewers according to the BBC, which is the highest live TV audience in 2019 so far. Although these are great stats, just how many people will continue to follow the women’s game from international to domestic level?

Image: Lionesses, Instagram

Whilst watching the tournament, I’m sure that those unfamiliar with women’s football were curious as to which teams these stars played for. A quick Google search and a browse of Wikipedia will tell you that the vast majority of these players play for a lot of top-tier sides across the globe – something similar with the men’s game. The top-tier of women’s football, the Women’s Super League (WSL), jumped at the chance to capitalise on the success of this year’s World Cup straight away. A day after the World Cup Final, it was announced that the first ever Manchester derby would be held at the Etihad Stadium, the home of Manchester City. Furthermore, Chelsea v Tottenham would be staged at Stamford Bridge, with entry being free. Both games are brilliant publicity stunts, encouraging the average Joe to go along and watch the stars of the World Cup and hopefully to accommodate that move from international interest to domestic interest. But what about the other clubs? The clubs who provided the foundations for the game to grow?

“Ultimately, the reason that the newly formed Manchester United side earned a spot in the new Championship league whilst old-guard Sunderland Ladies were demoted from the top tier to third tier is money”

It seems entirely feasible to suggest that the women’s game is heading in the same direction as the men’s game, through financial motivation. Last season the women’s football leagues had a major rehaul and rebrand, which led to some teams being promoted and consequently some demoted due to funds, despite these teams being more than capable of playing at a high level. Ultimately, the reason that the newly formed Manchester United side earned a spot in the new Championship league whilst old-guard Sunderland Ladies were demoted from the top tier to third tier is money. The brand of Manchester United sells far better globally than Sunderland Ladies, despite the latter being a pinnacle in the development of the women’s game in England. Further still, this just demonstrates how the men’s game still dominates the decisions of the women’s teams. It’s no secret that Manchester United are absolutely riddled loaded with cash whilst Sunderland are a team who have struggled both on and off the pitch in recent years.

“The north-south divide in the women’s game is becoming more apparent”
As a female football fan and former player, it’s great to see the profile of the women’s game raised, However, as a northern female football fan and former player, I find myself in a “Catch-22” position. Whilst the profile of the women’s game increasing is great, the north-south divide in the women’s game is becoming more apparent, and this again coincides with the issues that men’s teams are facing too. Focusing solely on women’s football, no team above Manchester apart from Durham play in the top two tiers of women’s football. Teams fundamental in the growth of the women’s game in England such as Doncaster Belles and Sunderland Ladies have been swept to one side in favour of “bigger clubs”. Whilst clubs such as Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal have always supported their women’s teams and had a huge presence in the game from its roots, it seems entirely unfair that clubs like Manchester United and West Ham should be awarded spots in the top tiers.

The World Cup this year has shown just how much the women’s game has developed globally. For England, they have always been at the forefront of developing the game and how well the team did in the tournament illustrates this. The FA’s incentives to encourage more girls and women to play football and to get more people to attend women’s games has been commendable, but it has come at a cost. The North East and Yorkshire regions have been essential to the growth of the game – several of the 2019 England squad trained at Sunderland’s Academy. And although clubs like Manchester United may sell more shirts, women’s football in England is becoming increasingly focused on “big” clubs down south. It is important that the FA doesn’t forget its roots and stop supporting clubs like Sunderland, who have been crucial in the development of the game but have fallen on hard times, to ensure future success for England domestically and internationally.

Image: Lionesses, Instagram

Last modified: 30th July 2019

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