On 7 July 2019, the rumble of 60,000 excited fans echoed through the stands of the Parc Olympique Lyonnais stadium in Lyon, France. They were eagerly anticipating the final showdown to the electrifying campaign that was the Women’s World Cup 2019. Just in the USA alone, another 14.3 million viewers tuned in to the game through their screens. The USA Women’s Football team clinched their fourth Women’s World Cup championship title after a convincing 2-0 victory over the Netherlands that evening – with goals from a penalty taken by Megan Rapinoe and an absolute screamer of a left-footed shot by Rose Lavelle. The team have now returned to their fans back home to celebrate their victory, but their mission to grow the sport is far from over.
For years, Women’s football has always lived in the shadow of their male counterparts. With a disproportionate amount of tournament prize money going to the male sport and lack of investment to the sport, female footballers are facing huge challenges. But the toughest and longest battle is the one for equal pay. In 2016, the first significant step was made to correct this wrong when five senior US national football players filed a wage-discrimination action to demand equal pay. Since then, the movement has only gained momentum and the Women’s World Cup this year was the turning point.
From a spark to a blaze
There was something different in the air this World Cup compared to the last. No longer were the US team regarded as the Goliath of the football scene trampling on the other teams that came their way. While they remained the strongest contender, they were faced with formidable opposition, advancing the competition by narrowly defeating their challengers with slim single goal margins on multiple occasions. The quality of football improved drastically across the board and this resulted in more thrilling clashes. People – both fans and journalists – shared their excitement online. This World Cup saw a staggering increase of 16K news mentions from the 2015 World Cup and a total of 46.65 million social media mentions across social platforms like Twitter, forums, blogs, Tumblr and Facebook. From controversial calls by referees to heated discussions over the behaviour of the footballers, the digital world was abuzz with chatter this season – a sign of the growing popularity that Women’s Football is garnering.
Now let’s take a look at some of the most talked-about moments of this campaign:
A question of sportsmanship
The opening two weeks of the campaign saw a total of 930K mentions on social media, but online conversations only started gaining traction after the match between the USA and Thailand. The US National team were met with huge criticism online for their lack of sportsmanship when they defeated the Thais with a 13-0 thrashing. Critics were unhappy with the team’s unrelenting pursuit for goals despite an already huge margin, and how vehemently they celebrated after they scored each one. The US team defended back saying that going easy against their opponent is a greater sign of disrespect. This event also sparked a wider discussion of double standards imposed on male and female football and the lack of investments channelled towards female football teams in regions outside the US.
Fanning the flames: Megan Rapinoe
Many have said that this World Cup was more than just a matter of football. It was a stage to advocate for relevant social issues like institutionalised gender inequality and gay rights. Blazing the trail was the US National Team’s co-captain Megan Rapinoe.
Throughout the campaign, Rapinoe was unapologetically candid in her interviews. Her big personality caused quite a controversy when she boldly claimed that she would never visit the White House. She was never shy to express her disdain towards President Trump for his divisive and non-inclusive policies and statements. This triggered an entire series of tweets by the President himself about how Rapinoe has been disrespectful to the country. People on the Internet began taking sides, as with all issues linked to American politics, and out of the 860K social mentions about the World Cup that week, 250K of them were in relation to Rapinoe’s comment.
Women’s soccer player, @mPinoe, just stated that she is “not going to the F...ing White House if we win.” Other than the NBA, which now refuses to call owners, owners (please explain that I just got Criminal Justice Reform passed, Black unemployment is at the lowest level...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 26, 2019
Rapinoe has also been extremely vocal about the inequality women face in sports. She has been leading the conversation for equal pay and prize money and has become the face of the movement. When FIFA scheduled two other finals involving US teams at the same time as the World Cup finals between USA and Netherlands, Rapinoe unabashedly called the officials out for their bad management – a reflection of their lack of regard for the sport.
Spilling the tea
The final week of the World Cup campaign garnered a grand total of 720K social mentions. While the finals between the US and the Netherlands was the biggest game of the season, the semi-finals match between the US and England generated the most chatter online. The match was highly anticipated with many believing that if the US were to be toppled, the Lionesses were to be their undoing. But topple them they did not, and the US emerged victorious with a narrow 2-1 win. However, what sparked the most online conversation was Alex Morgan’s cheeky goal celebration – she pretended to sip tea in front of the English supporters. This moment alone drew over 210K mentions on social media.
Viewers who took offence at this gesture began to air their criticisms online. English personality Piers Morgan condemned her celebration as “bordering on a declaration of war” between the two nations.
It’s bordering on a declaration of war. https://t.co/OTvHg4LfeH— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) July 2, 2019
Again, the conversation was directed back to the issue of double standards between men and women in sports. Alex Morgan responded to her critics with examples of male footballers celebrating their goal with a bit of jest like grabbing their sacks or flashing the “L” hand sign (implying the word “loser”). Yet viewers often give them a pass or sometimes even embrace them. It seems that people are harsher and more critical of the actions made by female footballers than their male counterparts.
Do we ask this when guys score touchdowns and do fun little dances? When guys slam the ball through the net and hang on the rim? Or when guys sink a three and run back down the court with their arms spread wide?— Lyndsey D'Arcangelo (@darcangel21) July 3, 2019
Let female athletes BE athletes. Let them celebrate. Tired of this. https://t.co/PRqO4wgnf7
Women’s Football – More than just a game
The defining moments of the Women’s World Cup campaign simply shone a light on the injustice endured by the football community and the wider society at large. Though participating nations have gone home and the hype has died down, the important conversations sparked during its course continue to burn brightly. Leading the charge are the female footballers themselves, who have been tirelessly fighting for greater recognition for years. The difference after this World Cup? People are finally listening.
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