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Introducing the Women's World Cup Wayback
A ten part series looking at the history of the Women's World Cup
I’m excited to be launching a new project in the lead up to the World Cup. It’s called the ‘Women’s World Cup Wayback’ and over the next month or so I’m going to be bringing you an essay on each of the World Cup finals, starting from 1991 and going all the way up to 2019. In order to do this, I am launching a paid subscription for Flying Geese for the first time. I will be releasing a handful of the years for free but the rest will be paywalled. As I am launching a subscription for the first time, you can get 10% off if you sign up this week.
I will also be continuing the paid subscription into the World Cup (and further on in the future). I started Flying Geese as a daily newsletter during Euro 2022 and I will be doing the same thing for the World Cup for subscribers (with some occasional free days dotted along). So if you are looking for recaps on all the games being played, this will be the place to be!
I first started considering a project like this a couple of months ago when I realised that, whilst I knew the overarching history of women’s football, I had actually never taken much time to dig into it. I could reel off the winners of each of the World Cups but I hadn’t watched any of the finals prior to 2015. That felt like a limitation on my understanding of the development of the game.
The history of women’s football is complicated, mainly because large parts of it are inaccessible. Important stories have been lost, or at the very least buried within the archives. Within England there is a historical narrative that has been constructed from what has been researched and gone on to be so often repeated as to become cliche. It charts the rise of women’s football during the First World War up until its ban by the FA in 1921 with the Dick, Kerr Ladies as its poster girls. The game sort of then magically reappears in 1971 and really gets going in the 1990s.
Obviously the very nature of women’s football being banned does place limits on what can be reconstructed but what has been lost goes beyond even what could be found in a history book. Even as women’s football began to be ‘officially’ played again, it remained out of sight. Whereas men’s football journalists and players often refer to a first World Cup that they remember, creating a shared knowledge that is passed on to younger fans, women’s football was not readily available to consume in the same way. England’s first appearance at a Women’s World Cup in 1995 was only shown as highlights on ITV.1
Across the world, the women’s game has had different moments which have inaugurated it into the public consciousness. The 1999 World Cup win for the US Women’s National Team is seen as their stand out moment, whilst in England, 2015 felt like the year that the Lionesses really announced themselves. I do wonder, however, if in the future the Euros win from last year will overwrite the popularity that existed around reaching the World Cup semi-finals in 2015 and 2019 - a real time reshaping of women’s football history.
All of these individual moments add up to what is seen as a slow but constant progressive trend to accept women’s football, a framing that is familiar across minority struggles. It creates an implication that there will be inevitable improvement, as liberal institutions gradually bring in and support the previously marginalised group. There is often an implicit deterrent to demand immediate change, whilst agency is removed from campaigners and activists who have actually pushed for recognition, in favour of the institutions who have begrudgingly changed their minds.
It also implies that things cannot go backwards. Take, for example, the supposed acceptance for LGBTQ+ people typified by legislative changes like gay marriage and compare it the current vicious attacks being enacted by the UK and US governments on transgender people. Within football, if the support for the women’s game is constantly getting better, how are we supposed to understand the ritual disdain for it that remains throughout the sport?
In the lead up to this summer’s World Cup, Canada, Spain, France and Haiti are just some of the countries who have complained about how they have been treated by their federations. Just last week, the Jamaican Women’s National Team were forced to release a statement saying they were ‘compelled to express [their] utmost disappointment with the Jamaica Football Federation’, detailing ‘subpar planning’, ‘extreme disorganisation’ and missed payments of their ‘contractually agreed upon compensation’.
In fact one of the few consistent lines throughout the history of women’s football has been the extreme reluctance of federations to show support for this side of the game. For that reason, I questioned whether it was right to start this series in 1991, the first ‘official’ World Cup. As Michel Foucault theorised, naming or formalising something is often the best way of bringing it under your control.2 For FIFA, bringing women’s football under its umbrella allowed it to be in charge of how it grew. Given the improvements made over the last 32 years, it is reasonable to be sceptical as to how much commitment there has been to that growth. The brinkmanship over the European TV deals for the World Cup is just one example of how FIFA has continuously put profit ahead of access, development or equality for women’s football.
Progress narratives also obfuscate the historic support or acceptance of women’s football. The intra-war crowds are often quoted as the stand out ones in England but tournaments in the 1970s also attracted huge crowds of people. There were 40,000 at the final of the Coppa del Mondo in 1970 in Italy whilst 110,000 were at the unofficial 1971 Women’s World Cup final in Mexico. Attendances for other Mexico games during the tournament were over 80,000.3 With 63,000 at the 1991 final and more than 90,000 at the 1999 final, questions about attendances have a lot more to do with the marketing and accessibility of women’s football, than they do about whether there is interest in it. Once again the way the history of women’s football is discussed influences the narratives that surround it today.
I hope these pieces over the next couple of weeks help reflect on what the history of women’s football has been and how some of the dominant narratives which have come to exist around it perhaps are more about controlling the game, than they are representing it. Understanding and exploring the way the game has changed in some ways, and not in others, illuminates how we see women’s football today.
But even more importantly than that is these World Cup finals are really fun. There’s some awful defending, penalty shoot-outs, a golden goal, familiar names, unfamiliar names. I will put a YouTube link for the full match within each piece so you can watch along as well. I feel like I am much richer for having taken the time to immerse myself in these historic games and there has been no better way to fill in the down time before everything gets going Down Under.
Wrack, S (2022), A Woman’s Game: The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Women’s Football
Foucault, M (1976), The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Volume 1
Theivam, K and J. Kassouf (2019), The Making of the Women’s World Cup: Defining stories from a sport’s coming of age