World Cup in waiting. Paris warming towards France 2019 kick-off

By Andrew Warshaw in Paris

June 6 – There are precious few welcoming banners, hardly any fanfare and no signs of the thousands of fans who traditionally pour in from across the globe to watch the men’s version of the tournament.

In fact walking across the French capital, you may not actually realise there’s a major football tournament in town.

But make no mistake. In terms of national interest and an estimated one billion television viewers worldwide, the women’s World Cup starting on Friday is very much the real deal with nine games sold out – including the opening game, the final and both semis – and almost one million tickets sold.

That might partly be because the cheapest group game tickets are just nine euros but the standard will undoubtedly be higher than ever.

“It’s going to be a remarkable World Cup. The level of competition four years on from the last one has exponentially increased,” said Jill Ellis, coach of the US team, the reigning champions.

The USA are still the team to be beaten but there are high hopes for the host nation, who have a plethora of players from the Lyon team that has now won four straight Champions League titles.

Germany, with two World Cups and eight European Championships, can never be ruled out but other countries who for years did not take women’s football seriously are suddenly in the mix, not least England, ranked third in the world.

Of course, the razzmattaz won’t quite be the same as when France hosted the men’s World Cup and Euros. Many games are being held in smaller cities and venues,  a deliberate ploy not to use half-empty stadiums.

But the enthusiasm is palpable and on the eve of the tournament, FIFA organised the first ever two-day women’s football convention to give the competition an extra boost, bringing together the great and the good of the women’s game and opened by Fatma Samoura, FIFA’s first female secretary-general.

“It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get stuck in,” Samoura told delegates citing the need for equality,  ending gender discrimination and changing peoples’ mindset.

“Women make up half the world’s population yet our voice is not always heard. Our hard work is often not recognised or acknowledged.”

Samoura made a point of citing the MeToo movement which burst into prominence in 2017 in a global campaign against sexual harassment, saying in was an important landmark in empowering women.

“MeToo has been so important in putting women in the global spotlight,” she said. “I want women’s football, I want the Women’s World Cup, to be a safe space for girls and women where your voice can be heard.”

But there’s clearly a long way to go, not least over prize money.  Legendary US World Cup winner Hope Solo says that the disparity between the men’s and women’s World Cups shows that “male chauvinism is entrenched” in FIFA.

FIFA has made much of doubling the prize pot  over the next few weeks in France but it is still a fraction of  the amount handed  out at the men’s 2018 tournament in Russia: $30 million compared with $400 million. In other words the women will receive just 7.5% of the men’s fund.

“There is no excuse for that increase in this day and age,” Solo, who was capped 202 times during her 17-year career but who is now embroiled  in a lawsuit against US Soccer over equal pay, told the BBC for whom she will be working as a pundit during the tournament.]”FIFA remain very chauvinistic when it comes to putting money into the women’s game and we really could do a lot better job.”

One player conspicuous by her absence in France is Norway’s Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg who has turned her back on the women’s World Cup.

Hegerberg is in dispute with her national federation and has not played for the national team since 2017 despite scintillating performances for four-time defending European champions Lyon.

Current US captain Megan Rapinoe has mixed feelings about Hegerberg’s stance.

“I personally wouldn’t ever miss out on a World Cup,” Rapinoe, a World Cup winner and Olympic gold medallist, told reporters.

“But the World Cup is not better for her being out of it. I understand that’s her personal decision, and for her she felt that was the best thing.”

“Obviously there’s things that we fight against and sometimes the opportunities are made harder by some of the inequalities that we face.

“Hegerberg would undoubtedly have been one of the stars of the show in terms of putting the women’s game in the shop window.

“Everyone’s eyes are on us, so I feel like it’s most impactful if she plays because she’s a fantastic player and would have undoubtedly lit up the World Cup in a number of ways,” said Rapinoe.

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