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Womens Football Goes One Step Further

The breakthrough of new teams into the realm of the elite, thrilling individual performances, record-breaking TV audiences, bumper crowds in full voice and an overall increase and a balancing out of competitive levels contributed to a FIFA Women’s World Cup that has set women’s football up for a potential global explosion.
While the undoubted success of the fifth FIFA Women’s World Cup in China was the culmination of many factors, the most significant contribution came from the overall technical improvement of teams and balancing out of competitive levels. Sure, it was eventual winners Germany— a nation of women’s football machines — and fellow old stagers the USA, Norway and Brazil that once again dominated the proceedings, but who would have thought that in their second game Germany would be held to a 0-0 draw by the team everyone fell in love with, England? Or that undisputed crowd favourites Brazil would go right to the wire with a plucky, never-say-die Australian side who were just pipped 3-2? And who could have predicted that two of the world’s top-five ranked sides, Sweden and Denmark, would go out in the first round? Such displays led FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter to offer the following insight into how the women’s game had progressed on the eve of the second semi-final between the USA and Brazil in Hangzhou: “Generally speaking, I think there has been a big improvement in the individual technique of all the teams, and also in the rhythm and speed of the games. There has also been an improvement, although not with all the teams, in the tactics. Compared to the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup in the USA, it’s clear that women’s football has now reached a very good level, but not yet in all the continents. But it is now our duty to develop women’s football everywhere, and you will see that we are holding the FIFA U-17 and U-20 Women’s World Cups in regions where development is required.”
While another step up needs to be taken by teams such as Argentina, New Zealand and Ghana to reach the level required to make a serious challenge for the World Cup, it was refreshing to see that emphatic winning margins such as the Germans’ 11-0 opening win over Argentina – a source of criticism of the standard of women’s football in the past – proved the exception rather than the rule. These teams also certainly had moments where they caused discomfort for the other teams in their groups, as well as boasting a crop of standout players to keep an eye on in the future.
In terms of individual brilliance, however, the queen of the tournament was Brazil’s twinkle-toed youngster Marta. The current FIFA women’s World Player of the Year added to her already well-stocked trophy cabinet, winning the prestigious Golden Shoe and Golden Ball awards. She delighted and amazed the crowds with her breathtaking skills and break-neck speed, and her performance in the semi-final against the USA alone would be enough to fill a promotional video for women’s football. Her efforts over the duration of the Women’s World Cup caused a journalist from New Zealand to comment, “Marta is not only the best thing I have seen in this tournament, she is the best player I have seen the whole year — male or female. She is absolutely unbelievable.”
While Marta will be the clear inspiration for young girls dreaming of success in women’s football, others staked their claims as role models for the new girl-next-door image of the women’s game through their athleticism, talent and professionalism. England’s Kelly Smith, Bronze Ball winner Cristiane and her Brazilian team-mate Daniela, Silver Shoe winner Abby Wambach of the USA and Norwegian Bronze Shoe winner Ragnhild Guldbrandsen all joined German stalwart and Silver Ball winner Birgit Prinz in bringing fans to their feet and putting them in the best of voice.
It was not just the players who caused a sensation. A new breed of female coaches drew considerable admiration, not only for their ability to direct their teams to outstanding performances, but for their high degree of articulacy, approachability and personal style. From the chic but commanding figure of German coach Silvia Neid to English coach Hope Powell, whose influence generated a spate of copycat braided hair styles, female coaches came to the fore and earned significant respect from local Chinese and international audiences.
In terms of audiences, both attendances and global television coverage indicated that women’s football really is a sport on the rise. At 37,218, the average attendance at the tournament was just 101 short of the record set in the USA in 1999. Had the final game been played in a stadium with a higher capacity than the 31,000 available in Shanghai, the tournament organisers would certainly be celebrating a record-breaking event. The outstanding behaviour and sportsmanship of Chinese fans, who were more than cooperative when Typhoon Wipha resulted in the postponement of matches and venue changes, also deserve a special mention.
What did break records, however, was the television audience. An average of 8.6 million viewers around the world watched the 32 live matches, which were available in 200 countries in all six confederations. This represented a 25% increase in transmission from 2003 as well as a growth in the number of broadcasters in the various regions, with sometimes up to three TV stations in the same country covering the tournament live.
Figures in individual countries were just as impressive. Locally, more than 70 million viewers in China tuned into CCTV-5′s coverage of the first six days of the competition, with 19.1 million people watching the Steel Roses play Denmark. The Scandinavian countries also followed their teams avidly, with the Sweden-USA game capturing a massive 63.5% of the audience forTV4. In Norway, over a quarter of a million viewers watched their Fair Play award-winning team’s hard-fought 1-1 battle with Australia. Further south, Germany and England’s first three games were watched by average audiences of 2.4 million and 750,000 respectively.
Viewers far and wide would certainly have been delighted with what was relayed into their living rooms. In addition to what was happening on the pitch, the events surrounding this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup were nothing short of spectacular. The highlight for many was the opening ceremony in Shanghai on 10 September. What seemed like thousands of little Rang Rongs – the very cute Chinese mascots – doing a football dance in giant boots and smiling footballs brought a tear to the eye and captured the true essence of the endearing innocence and depth of heart of women’s football.
There is no question that China has taken the women’s game to a new level of global acceptance and popularity. The progress of nations such as Brazil, England, Australia, and Korea DPR is a sure sign that associations all around the world are investing in their women and it is paying dividends. If more follow suit, the next Women’s World Cup is really going to be a cracker. Bring it on – we cannot wait.