By a distance Canada 2015 is the most excited I’ve been about a women’s World Cup. In my job, it’s about the story, and there will be stories no doubt.
But this time the backstory, the equality, the standard, the progress of the women’s game, might all be able to take a back seat. Because this time it shouldn’t be about analysing women playing football, it should be about who wins and loses, national pride, entertainment.
A self-conscious sport that is inferior to the men’s game? That’s SO 1991, when the first women’s World Cup was played in China.
Canada 2015 is the big opportunity for women’s football to take it to the next level. It won’t be the last opportunity and it is not make or break. But what a window the game has for a month in June.
The timing is perfect. Yes there is Copa America later in the month and yes I will be watching. But even with Messi and Neymar doing their thing in Chile there is more that enough room and time to watch the women’s World Cup and park the comparisons.
You see the standard is good, real good as they’d say in that part of the world. And therefore the narrative can be about who’s beating who, not who’s got the ability to play.
The group draw has whetted the appetite.
Group D is a rough one. The United States, twice winners, take on another force of the women’s game, Sweden, along with Australia and Nigeria. I’m intrigued to see how the African team’s star player Asisat Oshoala gets on – a year ago she was the best player in the under-20 World Cup, also in Canada, and such progress earned her a transfer and new life in Liverpool in the English women’s league.
England will not find it easy against France, Colombia and Mexico.
Brazil are in with Spain, and casual viewers may be surprised how much progress the Spanish have needed to make in a short time. They hadn’t been blessed with a golden generation in the past like their famous male counterparts.
Holders Japan shouldn’t have problems reaching the last 16 with a straightforward looking group.
And will Germany end up winning?! Well of course they might.
And what is always important in any big sporting event is a decent effort from the hosts. Nobody is expecting miracles from Canada, but it will be beneficial for the tournament if they do well. They play in the opening game against China in Edmonton.
Over half the target of one and a half million tickets had been sold by mid-May. An indication of the pulling power the game now has and the work it still needs to do.
And as I’ve said before, that work needs to be an invitation not an order. Nobody should be told they must like or follow women’s football. There are still issues with the league standard in my own county, England, for example, that need honest not brutal assessment. Room for improvement, definitely. And I don’t want to see more of the pompous and misguided TV coverage that apes the men’s coverage. Don’t follow their mistakes. Be different, be fresh, be bold, have personality and don’t be a mumbler going through the motions. Whatever sex you happen to be.
But the standard in the World Cup will surprise a few cynics and doubters. Did you see the 2015 final? It was an absolute thriller in which Japan beat the USA on penalties, and it was technically excellent too.
I’ve been encouraged by the build-up on social media. Many players are using the ever-precarious twitter in a positive way, for instance. In fact the Canadian squad was announced on a social media platform via the players themselves. Names need to be made, personalities need to be explored. It’s important that Panini stickers, which are right back in vogue, are being sold in many regions for this tournament.
Perhaps, if we’re honest, the biggest indicator of progress has been negative headlines. In England Manchester City’s Toni Duggan was heavily criticised by her club’s fans for posing with United manager Louis Van Gaal. Fair enough – it shows she is important enough for them to care. And at times the American goalkeeper Hope Solo has hardly had the safe hands of a keeper. She was recently suspended from her team for a month for getting into a car with husband who drove ‘under the influence’.
The media has a responsibility to nurture the game. I don’t mean forcing the issue, there is nothing worse in this field than male executives introducing lame women’s sport ‘projects’. I know who they are and their levels of barely-concealed misogyny over many years.
I mean the media seizing the opportunity for covering something that can matter to people. Should football fans in England want to know if the women’s team best France? Hell yeah. And it’s fantastic that all games here can be accessed live through national broadcaster the BBC. Television deals throughout Europe, in America and in qualifiers Australia, for example, have been encouraging.
This is all a welcome breath of fresh air for FIFA of course, After the turbulent years they have had, what better than a vibrant, exciting women’s World Cup to remind people what the organisation should actually represent? A sport it has helped grow and flourish. Interesting to think the women’s World Cup has only existed for 24 years and was the idea of the much maligned Joao Havelange. People don’t want to ever see a positive side to FIFA – but if players should be blessed with good balance so should the media.
23 nations will have joined Canada for the 2015 tournament and not many squads would have had grand airport send-offs…but when they come back it might be a different story. For some this will be life changing. For the women’s game – THIS is their time to shine in the spotlight.
More people than ever before will be watching.
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport