“What a tough one to take. This is an England team that have given their all. As people my players have sacrificed so much for this tournament. But they will go home knowing they couldn’t have given any more. Blood, sweat, tears, smiles – we gave it all. I know there’ll be a lasting legacy for the women’s game back home.”
These are the words of England coach Mark Sampson, moments after Laura Bassett’s injury time own goal had prevented any chance for the otherwise defensively excellent squad to move past Japan into the final. The finale of the match was as unforgiving as sport possibly can be; not a misplaced pass, a midfielder slip or a goalkeeping howler, but a freak deflection in a situation which the defender had absolutely no choice. There has been much discussion in the inevitable post-mortem of England’s run to the semi-finals concerning Sampson’s vague ‘lasting legacy’, alternating from understandingly hopeful towards the downright patronising. There is a hope, however, that even this most brutal of exits can act as the catalyst women’s football needs to push it to the forefront of the public consciousness.
This was a world cup undeniably of the highest calibre. The Germany/France quarter final and the Germany/USA semi-final, as well as the performance of Carli Lloyd in the final, deserve to be viewed not as brilliant examples of women’s football, but the sport in general. Outgoing OUWAFC president Becca May acknowledges the “teething problems” of the expanded 24-team format, including the massive victories by most established teams against the newcomers to the game, but even these “showed great quality”. This quality is paying dividends. 2.4 million stayed up till the 12am kick-off to watch England and Japan’s semi-final, whilst the 25 million Americans who watched their team prevail in the final smashed the 19 million record for a football game in the states (set, incidentally, during their 1999 final victory).
Public opinion, finally, appears to be coalescing with the recent surge in funding from the FA into the Women’s Super League (WSL). May talks excitedly about watching the first round of WSL fixtures after the world cup, where the normal 300-400 spectators had been replaced by 2000. “I saw a man reluctantly take his daughter away from the crowd, telling her that they’d have to wait until the next week to get autographs.” She continues, “though aftermath of the world cup might not last at the same high numbers, but I do think that there’ll definitely be a marked improvement in people turning up to watch games and in the level of media coverage”.
The issue which remains for women’s football in the UK; how to translate the explosion in interest into marked grassroots change. The recent misguided tweet from the FA, in which the women were welcomed home as “mothers, partners and daughters”, alludes to the deeper structural problems which this happy world cup honeymoon must contend with. Though it has been 10 years since FIFA president Sepp Blatter called for women to play in “tighter shorts”, media coverage of women’s football, and sport in general, continually obsess over appearance. Many WSL players are still part-professional, and male clubs particularly in the WSL second-tier deny access to the best stadiums and facilities. A failure by the media, advertisers and investors to support women’s football publically and financially disuades many clubs from making the drastic changes necessary to bring the WSL on par with their male counterparts.
But it is not all gloom. WSL attendance figures have been consistently rising by 100 a year, even before the world cup, whilst grassroots women’s football is finally getting the attention it deserves. There is hope that this most cruel of accidents can ironically act as the catalyst which pushes the gradually expanding game permanently into the public consciousness.