FIFA and its president, Gianni Infantino, insist that their brewing plan for a biennial World Cup will be a good thing for soccer. The problem is that when they say that, they seem to be talking about the men’s side of the sport. As usual with FIFA, the women’s game has been an afterthought, even though the biennial World Cup plan might impact it the most.
First, let’s be clear about what a biennial World Cup actually means: It’s a World Cup every single year, either a men’s or a women’s one, if FIFA gets its way. The result will be unprecedented schedule congestion, and there will always be a men’s World Cup or qualification for a men’s World Cup on the schedule. When, then, does women’s soccer take center stage? Will women’s soccer ever again enjoy the visibility of being the single biggest competition at a given moment?
– ESPN+ viewers’ guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– Don’t have ESPN? Get instant access
FIFA has campaigned hard to convince everyone that a biennial World Cup is a good idea, even asking former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and former USWNT manager (and now president of NWSL side, San Diego Wave FC) Jill Ellis to push the idea. The organization released economic studies projecting that the more frequent World Cups would generate an extra $4.4 billion in just the first four-year cycle, which would trickle down as $16 million in extra solidarity payments per FIFA member country over that span. FIFA also released a survey that it says shows most fans around the world are in favor of more frequent men’s World Cups (63.7% of those surveyed) and women’s World Cups (52.4%).
But what FIFA crucially has not seemed very interested in discussing, at least not publicly, is how the biennial World Cup plan would squeeze the women’s game out of the mainstream sports landscape and dilute the Women’s World Cup itself.
More World Cups means fewer windows for anything else
UEFA, which has vocally opposed the idea since its inception, put together its own study, which projected that both World Cups would lose viewers if they became a more regular, less-special occurrence — but the Women’s World Cup would lose three times as many viewers as the men’s tournament. After all, the Women’s World Cup would always be up against a major, well-established men’s tournament under this proposed schedule — tough competition for the women seeking to attract attention.
Infantino now says the men would switch their Euros from every four years to every two under his plan, which means the Women’s World Cup will always compete with the men’s Euros in a calendar year instead. But that would come on top of men’s World Cup qualifying, which has taken 10 months in UEFA and more than two years for CONCACAF in the past. It would also be programmed on top of CONMEBOL’s Copa America, which might need to switch to a two-year cycle, too, and events that are already biannual, including the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the Africa Cup of Nations.
Meanwhile, the Women’s Euros — which reached its highest-ever TV audience and set an attendance record last time out, in 2017 — would probably be forced to share its spotlight with a men’s World Cup. As a result, the UEFA study projects that the Women’s Euros could see its revenues cut by more than half as media rights and sponsorships would significantly lose value. The growth of a high-level women’s tournament with huge potential would be abruptly stifled.
This wouldn’t be unique to Europe, either. Other regional competitions around the world will struggle just to find an open window to stage a tournament, let alone a window when attention won’t be diverted away for a high-level men’s tournament. As the supporter culture around women’s soccer is still growing, men’s competitions in a crowded calendar will siphon exposure that otherwise could have gone to women’s competitions.
FIFA will naturally point to the extra revenue the new World Cups will generate and promise that money will go to help the development of women’s soccer around the world. Here’s the problem: FIFA already generates a ton of revenue — its last reported cash reserves were $2.74 billion — and it has already failed to deliver with its first-ever “Women’s Football Strategy,” which set lofty goals for increased female participation in the sport but offered little by way of concrete metrics, budgets or action plans.
FIFA, as rich as it is, does a poor job of distributing money where it’s needed — large countries and tiny ones get the same cuts, regardless of need — and an even worse job of accounting for how that money actually gets spent.
“Just mandate it… FIFA mandates all kinds of things”
If FIFA cared about the development and growth of the women’s game, there is one World Cup the governing body could add: a Women’s Club World Cup. After all, domestic leagues for women around the world are still developing, a byproduct of a sporting landscape that saw women’s soccer effectively banned in countries like England, Germany and Brazil until as recently as the 1980s.
These leagues are how the game grows and professionalizes. The club game builds grassroots fan support, and it’s how a career in soccer can become a viable path for women around the world. It’s perhaps no coincidence that as countries invest in their domestic leagues, greater success on the international stage often follows, as we’ve seen with the Netherlands, England and Australia.
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens discuss the likelihood of a biennial World Cup being approved by FIFA.
The Women’s World Cup itself is only still growing, too. It will go from 24 teams to 32 in 2023, when Australia and New Zealand host, and we will probably see a lot more scores like the infamous 13-0 drubbing from the U.S. on Thailand in 2019. These lopsided results, which are not unusual in the group stage of the Women’s World Cup, are the result of the massive gulf in investment from these different countries in their women’s programs.
U.S. star Megan Rapinoe was heavily criticized for celebrating the goals she scored in that 13-0 result, but in the mixed zone afterward speaking to reporters, she hit the nail on the head: “There are some teams here that have only played a handful of games since the last World Cup or only in the qualifiers. It’s embarrassing not only for the federations but for FIFA. Just mandate it. They mandate all kinds of things.”
Rapinoe was right. FIFA could take steps to ensure member associations care about and invest in women’s programs. It could require federations to operate active national teams that actually play games, or even invest in domestic leagues for women. It could require that money and resources are spent on specific measures to boost the women’s game, and then actually check to make sure it has happened. FIFA has the power to prioritize the women’s game, instead of treating it as an afterthought.
Instead, FIFA just wants to increase the burden of resources that countries will have to spend on trying to qualify for and compete in a Women’s World Cup without any additional incentive to do so. Some might not even bother. If federations can get away with caring only about their men’s team, that’s often what they will do.
The Nigerian women’s national team held a sit-in over unpaid bonuses owed by its federation in 2019. Some women on Brazil’s team quit in 2019 to protest the lack of support from their federation after years of complaints. The Australian women’s team went on strike in 2015 to demand higher wages from their federation. Players from Trinidad & Tobago begged for donations on social media in 2018, so they could compete in their own World Cup qualifiers. And so on.
Consider Jamaica qualifying for its first Women’s World Cup in 2019 — it came only after Bob Marley’s daughter, Cedella, spent her own money to resurrect the team after the federation stopped funding it. It was framed as a story of triumph for the Reggae Girlz, to be sure, but it was also a story of failure for a system that allows federations to ignore women’s programming.
FIFA could incentivize federations to care more about the Women’s World Cup by significantly increasing its prize money for all participants, but they’ve so far refused to do so, despite no obvious rationale for it.
For the previous World Cup cycle, FIFA offered 13 times more prize money for the men’s tournament than the women’s event, but if you ask FIFA why 13 times specifically, it can’t explain it. The men’s World Cup doesn’t bring in 13 times more revenue — media rights and sponsorships for the men’s and women’s tournament have always been sold together as a bundle, and FIFA never attempted to figure out how much the women’s event was worth as it allocated prize money. The men’s World Cup doesn’t attract 13 times more television viewers — last time around it was only about 4 times. The men’s World Cup doesn’t sell 13 times more tickets — last time around, it was about 3 times.
In fact, when FIFA doubled its prize money for the Women’s World Cup from the 2015 tournament to 2019, it also increased the men’s prize money so much at the same time that the gap between the men’s and women’s tournament got bigger, not smaller. Given the recent record-setting growth of the women’s tournament, it seems like the gap should be shrinking.
It’s hard to see FIFA’s logic in making the gap bigger, unless you consider the possibility that FIFA doesn’t care as much as about women’s soccer as it says it does. Indeed, it’s hard to give FIFA the benefit of the doubt after its years of treating the women’s game as a secondary concern.
From artificial turf at a World Cup, to comments from the former FIFA president that tighter shorts for women might grow the sport, to a glaring lack of investment, women’s soccer has had to put up with treatment from FIFA that the men’s game has not. Unfortunately, this plan for a biennial World Cup, which glosses past the potentially negative impact on the women’s game, is just the latest example.