Seven lessons from the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup

The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France has concluded. As the dust settles, the flights depart and the confetti is swept up, here’s some of the things the tournament told us about the state of the women’s game.

1. The standard has vastly improved

I will hold my hands up and admit I am not a religious follower of women’s football, but if there’s a game on the TV I’m more than happy to stay tuned in.

In my years of watching the standard of the game being played has only improved. The glaring errors and howlers have decreased substantially and the play is a lot tidier, and there were moments I would describe as world-class.

Goalkeeping, the oft-criticised part of the women’s game, was significantly improved too – Christiane Endler’s heroics against the USA; Karen Bardsley’s herculean effort to deny Japan a free-kick goal, and solid performance after solid performance from Sari van Veenendaal. The step up in quality has been immense and most welcome.

Overall there was more composure throughout the tournament. Better dribbling, better tactical awareness, better positioning and better finishing.

It is certainly not as skilful as the men’s World Cup, but it’s unfair to compare a tournament less than 30 years old to one that is fast approaching its centenary; I’m sure the men’s World Cup of 1958 wouldn’t hold a candle to today’s squads. The game is still growing, and its forward progress this tournament is encouraging.

2. Keeping the tournament on free-to-air TV was a masterstroke

Like with their coverage of the men’s World Cup, the BBC broadcast the entire tournament and put their marketing department into overdrive for it.

Luckily for them, the tournament delivered, and as a result people tuned in and stayed tuned in. A record TV audience watched England v. Scotland, with other England games pulling high viewing figures too.

The reason for this is not because of a surge of interest in women’s football – It is because it was accessible. As more and more sport is locked away behind paywalls, many people turn to illegal streams, but even more don’t bother to tune it at all.

This was something BT learned the hard way by locking the Champions League behind pay-per-view. They expected the substantial viewing audience to follow them there, but it never came. Why? Because this audience watched free-to-air games on ITV. This audience was composed of casual watchers, fans of football rather than the teams playing.

When their free viewing was taken away, they weren’t invested or interested enough to keep following. It was nice to have, but they could live without it.

Cricket is another sport learning this lesson, having sold its long-term health for short-term profit, while rugby league has been all but absorbed by Sky Sports. Unsurprisingly, both have growing problems with declining attendance and uptake of new players.

By staying on terrestrial TV, however, England were seen. They were accessible to everyone, and as hype built newcomers were able to easily join in. It got the message out that England women were playing and making noise, and ensured they were seen by thousands of girls across the country, who may have suddenly developed an interest in kicking a ball around.

Too much of modern sport is run like a closed shop with a captive audience, ripe for exploitation and safe in the knowledge it will never go away. By giving the tournament to the BBC, the future of women’s football here was secured, the excitement of the tournament simply a bonus.

3. England were…okay

In football, a win is a win. People cling to fallacies about a ‘perfect’ run where every game is dominated and won convincingly, when the reality is the difference between good and bad teams is whether or not they can find ways to win.

How often were Alex Ferguson’s legendary Manchester United sides bailed out in ‘Fergietime’? Even going to this season, how much of Liverpool’s incredible run was ascribed to luck?

Good teams find a way to win, no matter how badly they’ve played.

How does this relate to England? Well, for a lot of this tournament they found ways to win. They were not convincing against Scotland and Argentina, but they won. They came alive a little more against Japan, and while they lost their heads in the second half against Cameroon they rebounded strongly against Norway.

Even against the USA, they rallied to come back from a goal down against the world’s best, and had a penalty turned out the other way may have been facing off with the Netherlands in the final. England were not always pretty, but for the most part they did what they needed to do.

But ultimately England fell short, and not without reason. Sloppy play against Cameroon went unpunished thanks to VAR, the defence was suspect for most of the tournament and paid heavily against the American firepower, and when gift-wrapped an opportunity back into the USA game failed to take it.

A centre-half stepping up to take a penalty is never a good sign – if your best option is the big unit at the back designed to get their head on things and hoof it clear, you’re in trouble. It’s a damning commentary on either the tactical decisions of the coach, or the cowardice of the more attacking-minded players at a time when their country needed them.

England’s fourth place finish is ultimately deserved. They are a good unit who can outlast many of their opponents, but they lacked the champion’s touch to take chances and eke out victory.

4. Phil Neville is still on trial

This tournament was very much Phil Neville’s job interview. Everyone expected a professional, experienced England side to blitz through qualifying against underfunded nations, so the Finals were the real test of Phil’s managerial chops.

After a semi-final run Phil has certainly done well enough to merit another tournament at the helm, but it must be said he did it without any of the excitement that Sampson’s team did in 2015.

At times England seemed lost, the defence most obviously so, but the attack was equally guilty of playing aimless crosses and passes. England switched between long-ball and passing styles without ever really committing to both. Phil was especially reluctant to make substitutions, yet had no qualms about persisting with Fran Kirby in an unnatural position, and shifting the goal-hungry Ellen White out wide against Sweden.

The closest parallel that can be drawn to Phil’s managerial style is his opposite number on the men’s side: Gareth Southgate. Everything about them was the same – the finishing position, the tactics, the substitutions, even the waistcoat.

For Gareth leading England’s men to the semis of the World Cup was more than enough paper to cover his cracks. For Phil and his women, coming off an exciting third-place at the last Women’s World Cup, he is more open to scrutiny.

While people found his post-match rant against Cameroon endearing, his dismissal of the third-place game after defeat to Sweden soured some opinion towards him and made people think of his achievements with less-tinted spectacles.

The England of 2015 were hungry, but inexperienced. Four years down the line, with more experience and arguably more class, Phil couldn’t achieve much more. The 2021 Euros in front of a home audience will come with high expectation, and it will be on Phil to prove he is not just another FA Old Boys Club stooge.

5. The Ada Hegerberg situation is a no-win for everyone

There is no doubt many people tuning into a Norway game asked the same two questions. The first being ‘where’s the one who won the Ballon D’Or?’ and the second being ‘why is she on strike from the national team?’

For those unaware, Ada Hegerberg is the Olympique Lyonnais striker and incumbent Women’s Ballon D’Or winner. Since 2017 she has refused to play for her native Norway national team, at first citing unequal pay.

After Norway introduced improved pay for women players, Hegerberg refused to back down, now citing the Norwegian FA’s lack of interest in supporting the women’s team, as well as a dispute over media appearance expenses.

Hegerberg has described her experience with the national team as ‘depressing’, but it seems sympathy for her at home is starting to run thin. Earlier this year her compatriot Martin Odegaard criticised her for being selfish, and in one interview Hegerberg claimed she is ‘standing alone’, suggesting her teammates may not all be on side.

If it is true the dispute is over compensation for media appearances, it is certainly understandable how her less famous teammates may not be impressed at their more-famous, more-interviewed countrywoman refusing to play for that reason.

While her commitment to her principles cannot be faulted, and right now her absence from the team certainly hurts Norway more than it hurts her, it all seems like a case of cutting her nose off to spite her face.

The Women’s World Cup is the biggest tournament in women’s football, and Hegerberg is one of its biggest stars; by not being there she is hurting herself in the long run. Even if it is boiled down to purely selfish reasons, she is missing out on a massive promotional opportunity for herself and also alienating the sponsors who are paying her to promote their brand.

Of course she has every right to protest if she doesn’t believe the Norwegian FA is giving her what she is worth, but surely a better platform to voice that protest is by firing Norway to glory?

This is something the USA have been able to do to great effect. By competing and winning, players like Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe have carved their names into memory and made the US media take notice of them.

As a result the US Women’s demands for better pay have been heard and supported in important corners, something Hegerberg will likely not be able to take advantage of if she continues to boycott her country.

Hegerberg is a star. Norway are severely depleted without her and she knows it, but there’s only so long people will listen to someone heckling from the sidelines before they stop taking notice. If this boycott is solely about payments for media appearances and absolutely nothing else, she stands a better chance of getting what she wants in the future by swallowing her pride now.

6. The USA talk the talk, but they walk the walk

The USA deserve plenty of credit for keeping people interested in the tournament, as millions across the world tuned in every game praying that someone may finally force them to eat some humble pie.

Between talk of how they’d boycott a White House visit before a ball had been kicked, celebrating like they’d won the trophy as they mauled a team of literal amateurs, and not having the bravery to stand by their actions when criticised and instead complaining about disrespect, they did very little to endear themselves to the world.

This has not been anything new for the USWNT, but with the increased exposure of this tournament it came to a head. Their behaviour can only be described as pig-headedness, their minds only on themselves and their greatness. In their eyes their opponents were minor obstacles on their road to inevitable glory, who ought to thank them for the privilege of being able to play against them, and as such were genuinely shocked when they discovered people didn’t think like that.

There’s few things worse than a team of arrogant, self-centred narcissists. One of them is a team of arrogant, self-centred narcissists who deliver.

Like it or not, the USA were deserved winners. They romped through the group stage in a way no other team did, and on the rare occasions they encountered adversity they found an answer: they were caught off-guard against Spain but eked through, answered their critics by stomping their authority on France, and after surrendering the lead against England kept their composure to regain it not long after.

Their early pressing game suffocated almost all of their opponents, and while they would slacken afterwards the damage had often been done. Even when the early press didn’t always work out, such as the final against the Netherlands, they stayed calm and played their game until they found a way through. They weren’t always clinical, but their ability to dominant possession ensured they would always get chances.

Call it the sheer success of the US collegiate system in developing players; call it other nations closing the gap but not quite being there yet; call it anything you like, at the end of the USA deservedly remain at the top of their perch, and all signs point to them not going anywhere anytime soon.

While not always top quality, when they hit their stride they were streets ahead of everyone else. They suffocated good teams like Sweden, France and Netherlands, forcing them to live off scraps like the barely-there teams of the group stage. Julie Ertz and Crystal Dunn left strong impressions, and while Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan aren’t the players they once were they turned up when required.

Jill Ellis has received some criticism for her management decisions, but at the end of the day she is responsible for half of the stars on the US badge, and it is far more common for a bad manager to drag their team down than to be carried by them. Despite being acknowledged as a powerhouse in women’s football the US went 16 years without a win before Ellis led the team to back-to-back titles. She is human, she makes mistakes. She is also a winner.

The USA players and fans may be insufferable, but they set out their stall as the best and backed it up, so it’s on us to swallow our pride, accept it, and pray next year’s Olympics deliver a better result.

7. VAR has issues

The tournament had no shortage of drama, and while off-pitch shenanigans always catch people’s eyes, one of the biggest was actually on it. While not the first tournament to feature VAR, its use combined with recent rule changes meant it provided a glimpse into football’s future.

VAR’s application this tournament was clunky, to say the least. The most glaring issue is how it erodes the role of the linesman, who must now let play go on and let VAR take the lead should anything reviewable happen. This is likely the cause of so many disallowed goals: what was once pulled back by a linesman is now left to develop.

Regarding on-field action, naturally VAR has not been a one-stop solution to all of the officiating problems that plague football. One important question, asked during the USA-Sweden game, is how much can an off-the-ball player be held accountable for a goal? For the USA’s second a ball was contested by an offside player, but was missed entirely, and the subsequent strike was deflected in by Sweden’s Andersson.

The goal stood, but many believe it should not have. So where is the line drawn between influencing and not influencing a goal? How far back in a developing play do you have to go in order to nullify the end result?

The second question reignited by VAR is: what is a handball? At one stage the rule was ‘clear contact in an unnatural position’, though since VAR’s implementation this rule seems to have softened substantially, to the extent that any ball-to-hand contact seems to be called.

All of this said, VAR is still in its infancy, and this tournament was very much a test of how it deals with the new rules of the game. Understandably the women weren’t impressed at their showcase being used as a guinea pig to iron out the kinks before the next men’s World Cup, but then the Premier League’s upcoming implementation of VAR will no doubt throw up some controversies too. Goalkeepers and Defenders are entering a time where playing their position is becoming much harder due to harsher rules and closer scrutiny, and it will take time to adapt.

Ultimately, as imperfect as it is, there is a place for VAR in football. When the alternative is glaring errors such as Chelsea’s goal against Cardiff last season, it’s worth keeping around. When it comes to assessing goals VAR is mostly excellent, but the question for football remains how much decision-making they wish to pass over to it.

This has certainly been the biggest tournament for women’s football to date. How much more will it grow? Who knows, but for the first time ever the tournament felt like a truly mainstream event, and with more big names investing more money into the women’s side of the game, here’s hoping the 2021 edition will be even bigger, even bolder, and even more entertaining.

The Author

Alex Jackson

I write about non-league and world football, as well as football culture. Can occasionally be found wandering the world in search of a kickabout.

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