26,000,000 and counting
The recently published results of FIFA’s 2006 Big Count survey and reviews the statistics gathered since the first Women’s World Cup in 1991 give an intriguing indication of the boom of women’s football around the world. Twenty-six million women and girls are currently playing football worldwide and numbers are increasing all the time.
Statistically speaking, there is one woman playing football for every nine male players (26 million compared with 240 million). This is one of the most telling results of the 2006 Big Count, results from which have already been published in the July and August 2007 issues of FIFA magazine.
However, what is perhaps more striking for women’s football is its growth rate in the past few years. Comparing the 2006 results with those of an identical FIFA survey six years ago shows a 19% increase in the total number of female players (from 22 to 26 million). Taking the number of registered players alone shows an even sharper increase of 54% overall, accompanied by rises of 32% rises at youth level and 14% for unregistered women footballers, who make up the lion’s share of all female players. Even if this impressive increase can partly be attributed to the fact that the 2006 Big Count calculated the statistics for women’s football more accurately than the previous survey in 2000, these increases are undoubtedly much higher than in the men’s game, even though male players still make up the vast majority of all footballers.
In terms of overall growth, a glance at the statistics for “A” international matches played since the first FIFA Women’s World Cup is also very informative. In some years in the early 1990s, the number of women’s international fixtures played did not even reach three figures. However, this quickly increased to 200 or more. The figure has continued to grow apace and a new record of 448 was set in 2006. The influence of the Women’s World Cup and its qualifiers must not be overlooked here. In fact, World Cup qualifiers and continental championships launched outside Europe and Asia have served as the driving force behind this dramatic increase in international match fixtures. This is evident from the increase in the size of the qualifying competitions over the years. While just 45 teams entered the first Women’s World Cup in the People’s Republic of China in 1991, making for 110 qualifying matches in all, the preliminaries for the 2007 tournament were almost three times larger (119 teams, 295 matches).
Looking at the statistics for international matches also highlights the fact that the inequalities within women’s football are still very large. Over the last four years, a dozen teams have played an average of twelve or more matches per year, significantly more than the four matches averaged by each national team if you take the statistics as a whole. It is no surprise that the most active women’s national teams come primarily from the world’s top ten. China, the USA, Germany and Sweden head the list of most active national teams, while Australia and Mexico are the only teams playing so frequently who are not firmly established in the world’s top ten. The only member of the international elite that does not feature among the most active teams is Brazil, winners of Olympic silver in Athens in 2004. In the past four years, South America’s leading ladies have played only 28 times and, amazingly, after their successful 2004 Olympic campaign, it was two years before they next took the field.
At the other end of the scale in terms of the number of international matches played, there are 100 teams who have played less than the seemingly modest average of four games per year, thus balancing out the frequent activity of others. These 100 sides include representatives from all six confederations.
The great imbalance within the women’s game also manifests itself in another respect, but this does not come as a real surprise and is not something specific to women’s football, as it has to do with small populations and association sizes. The 20 countries (in other words, 10% of all FIFA member associations) with the most women’s footballers combine to provide 8 0% of the 26 million playing the game worldwide. If you take the number of registered women’s players alone, the proportion increases even further to 95%.
Success on the pitch is closely linked with these statistics. In women’s football, success is closely related to the available pool of talent: comparing the number of registered women’s players with the average position in the world ranking confirms this clearly. The same fourteen associations appear in the top 20 in both respects. The exceptions to this trend who do not feature in the top 20 in terms of sporting success include Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Mexico and New Zealand, all of whom are setting about establishing themselves among the world’s elite. By contrast, other teams have defied their relatively small numbers of registered players through their level of sporting success.
One of the obvious conclusions that can be drawn from analysing the various statistics emanating from the 2006 Big Count is that the number of people involved in women’s football has developed prodigiously in recent years. Moreover, the game still has great potential for further growth, but this applies primarily to the 180 or so smaller nations, most of whom are located outside Europe and North America. In the 20 associations with most female players, on the other hand, the qualitative development of the women’s game should be the focal point. Although these 20 associations make up 80% of all players, as mentioned above, it is interesting that the countries that do not make the top 20 in this regard collectively make up 4 0% of the world’s total population. Therefore, when it comes to the number of potential players, women’s football has plenty of scope for an even brighter future.