FIFA, the world governing body of football, is obviously under the spotlight for a myriad of wrong reasons at present, but at least it got something right when two decades ago it introduced policies to bring more females into the most popular sport on Earth.
It has worked to a certain extent. The women’s program in the Cayman Islands is a fitting example. In only a decade, there have been numerous successes. Many teenagers and young women have excelled and received football scholarships to American colleges. Shenel Gall even became a full-time pro in Europe, for a while.
Although there is still an extremely long way to go before reaching anything like parity with the men’s game, at least the just concluded Women’s World Cup in Canada made football more appealing for aspiring females.
The U.S. team won the trophy for a record third time, smashing reigning champs Japan 5-2 in Vancouver on Sunday. Carli Lloyd was the game’s stellar performer. The American midfielder scored a first half hat trick, including a marvelous shot from 50 yards.
Women’s football in America is incredibly popular in terms of participation and as a spectator sport. The men tend to stick to the classic American sports of baseball, basketball, gridiron and hockey.
But with players like Lloyd becoming household names, it’s no wonder the sports marketing executives are rubbing their hands in glee.
Lloyd overcame an indifferent start to the tournament to finish as one of the most valuable players at the World Cup. It’s surprising then that Pia Sundhage, the former U.S. coach, claimed Lloyd was difficult to work with because she always craved praise. It seemed quite the opposite at Canada 2015. When Lloyd and her teammates were not playing to their potential in their early games, she publicly berated everyone, including herself. It was a timely rallying call by the U.S. captain that evidently generated the necessary response.
For an attacking midfielder, Lloyd has scored prolifically, 69 times in 202 international appearances. The 32-year-old Houston Dash dynamo looks set to continue scoring vital goals for her country for a long time. And if she continues playing at this level with no serious injuries, Lloyd could even be in the U.S. squad for the next World Cup in 2019.
Lloyd’s performances overshadowed Abby Wambach, the U.S. all-time goal scorer who had a relatively quiet World Cup. Wambach, 35, won’t be around for the next World Cup, but she has the satisfaction of going out with the most coveted medal in football.
Staging the tournament on artificial turf was not greeted with enthusiasm, but no serious injuries were recorded.
The Canadians were knocked out of the tournament by a rampant England side in front of 54,000 fans in Vancouver, but at least one of their own, Kadeisha Buchanan, made a big impression.
She is only 19, yet Buchanan already has the air of a seasoned central defender, blessed with brilliance in aerial battles and also able to play the ball calmly out from the back. The youngest of seven sisters brought up by a single mother, Buchanan is a university student who plays for the West Virginia University Mountaineers in the U.S. She can expect many more World Cups.
Japan, although technically efficient, did not have that extra spark to retain the crown. They came through their semifinal by beating England 2-1 thanks to a bizarre own goal by England’s center-back Laura Bassett in injury time.
Nevertheless, Bassett and her teammates have no reason to feel ashamed after they had a better than expected showing, beating tournament favorites Germany 2-0 in the third-place match.
Bassett was one of England’s better players, as was Lucy Bronze, who outshone her teammates throughout their campaign. Bronze recently had knee surgery and was seen as merely a squad player because she was not fully fit. Not selected for her favored position at right-back in the first match against France, versatile Bronze was used on the left of midfield before gaining her best spot from Alex Scott. Bronze turned to gold from then on and the 23-year-old Manchester City stalwart had a superb tournament. Mark Sampson, England’s coach, rates her as the best right-back in the world and joked that England has entered the “Bronze age.”
Fittingly, Carli Lloyd won the Golden Ball for being the tournament’s most valuable player. Amandine Henry of France received the Silver Ball as runner-up, and Japan’s captain Aya Miyama was presented with the Bronze Ball. American Hope Solo won the Golden Glove as the best goalkeeper for the second time at the World Cup, and Kadeisha Buchanan was named best young player.
All England men’s Premier League games average more than 40,000, yet the Women’s Super League matches attract only a few hundred. The hope is that the millions who watched England’s exploits on TV are inspired to spectate at club matches now – and also get involved in playing, officiating and coaching.
Manchester City provided the biggest chunk of the England team, including Jill Scott, Steph Houghton, the captain, Karen Bardsley, the goalkeeper, Bronze and Toni Duggan. Manchester City’s gates have the league’s highest average attendance – but are still only 949. Maybe it will climb into four figures now.
That could be as early as this weekend because the Lionesses are plunged back into league action after a two-month hiatus.
Birmingham, placed just two points below City in the Women’s Super League table, visit City on Saturday, so there is little time to bask in their World Cup achievements.
The ripple effect is palpable. Women in other sports are inspired by the Lionesses and British tennis starlet Heather Watson giving Serena Williams a close game at Wimbledon. The England women’s cricket team announced they want to capitalize on the feel-good factor when their own Ashes series gets under way later this month. The gulf with the men is still extremely wide, but at least the gap is gradually closing.