The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email.
The FIFA Women’s World Cup is underway in Australia and New Zealand. As well as featuring more teams than any previous Women’s World Cup tournament, it has broken records for the number of tickets sold — although organizers did have to give away tickets to some underattended matches in New Zealand.
There have also been some controversies, including confusion about the extent of the injury that kept the Australian star player Sam Kerr out of her team’s first three matches in the tournament, and a question to Ghizlane Chebbak, the captain of the Moroccan team, about her teammates’ sexual orientation that later prompted an apology from the reporter.
To make sense of it all, I talked to Tariq Panja, a sportswriter with The Times who has covered soccer for nearly two decades, and who has been reporting on the tournament from Sydney and Brisbane. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and space.
There are 32 teams this year at the Women’s World Cup, up from the previous 24, with eight of those being debutante teams. How has the expanded format affected the tournament?
In France, four years ago, we had a situation where the United States played Thailand and won 14-0, which is a score that is more akin to a sport like rugby. The fear was if you expand the field, you’re going to have more of these lopsided games with more of these teams that haven’t got the experience. But what we’ve seen is completely the opposite, barring a few scorelines.
We saw Haiti almost tie with the European champion, England. We saw Jamaica, which had never scored a point in a previous World Cup appearance, getting a creditable draw with France, one of the top sides in women’s football. And we had an incredible story out of New Zealand, which had only won its first game, in six attempts in previous World Cups, at the opening game against Norway, and was then humbled on home soil by the Philippines.
What we’ve seen is this increased demand for investment in women’s football from FIFA, which bankrolls in some cases 100 percent of these smaller national federations. To get all of the FIFA development money, these federations have to commit to a women’s program. So that investment has clearly taken place — that’s led to better coaching, more access for girls and women for football programs in their countries.
We’ve also seen record-breaking attendance numbers and ticket sales. That bodes well for the future of women’s football, right?
What we’ve seen is the great professionalization and investment, particularly in Europe, over the last two or three years, where being a professional footballer is now a viable career option for women and girls. Looking at the future, if things carry on this trajectory, you have a viable game that can hopefully sustain itself and generate significant income. But the trajectory is contingent on quality improvement as well. At the end of the day, you can’t force people to watch any sport, so the quality has to keep rising.
How has the tournament been received in its host countries?
There’s a contrast between Australia and New Zealand in terms of interest in the sport. That’s particularly been highlighted in the south of New Zealand, where they have a smaller population; down there, you have had disappointing crowds.
We haven’t had that in Australia; the public here seems broadly interested. And also, these games are taking place while the major Australian sports — AFL, the rugby league — seasons are well underway, so to have spectators attending these games is a good sign, given the competition for the attention of Australia’s sporting public.
Australia is a sports-mad country, but soccer has sometimes taken a back seat to other sports. Has it been difficult for FIFA to cut through?
I met someone here in Brisbane — there’s a rugby league competition here in Brisbane at a stadium five kilometers from where the Women’s World Cup is being held. And given the choice between essentially a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch the World Cup or to go watch the RFL, he’s picked to go watch his team, the Brisbane Broncos. And that is the pressure and that is the difficulty that FIFA will face in holding the competitions here.
What surprised me is the fact that most of these games are behind a paywall. Only 15 games throughout the tournament will be on free-to-air television. I think that contrasts sharply with what the stated aim of FIFA is, which is to grow interest in what is a growing sport. People can’t watch most of the other nations that are competing in Australia until the knockout stages. If you follow the Matildas, the Australian team, on free-to-air TV, there’s a strong narrative behind that team. But the tournament also needs other storylines to filter into the host nation.
This is a sport, I would say, that at the moment needs eyeballs more than dollar bills.
You mentioned that there’s a strong narrative behind the Matildas, but it seems that a lot of that hinged on Sam Kerr. Has her calf injury thrown a wrench in that narrative?
Absolutely. Sam Kerr, I would say, is Australia’s one truly top-class player. She could stand shoulder to shoulder with the very, very best players in the game, and a lot of Australia’s fate hinged on her. The way the news broke an hour before the opening game was certainly one of the biggest shocks you could have for a host nation in a sporting event as big as the World Cup. And that storyline, for the first week, has dominated the local conversation, be it on television, in the newspapers or in the bars: Is Sam’s calf going to make it?
But it’s also raised a bit of tension between the media and the Australian Federation about openness, about transparency, about being honest with the spectators and the media about the extent of her injury.
On Tuesday during a news conference, a FIFA representative told journalists to “restrict questions to the football and tournament only” after the head coach of Zambia’s team was asked about sexual misconduct allegations. Can you tell me about FIFA’s approach to controversial topics?
FIFA has been desperate, desperate to avoid controversy. It was engulfed in controversy throughout the Qatar World Cup. Coming into this Women’s World Cup, the issues around equal pay, the issues about the ability to showcase some causes that its fans cared about — from the L.G.B.T.Q. community, the Indigenous community — FIFA wanted to get them all out of the way before the tournament.
And what we’ve seen in the news conferences is that whenever there’s been any — most of the time — legitimate questions that stray into other areas, FIFA’s designated press officials on the side will quickly try and shut that down. That doesn’t reflect well on a tournament in a country that’s supposed to be open and transparent and very different from the men’s host last year.
Now for this week’s stories: