By Helen Owton
The women participating in the FIFA World Cup in Canada are achieving against adversity. They are taking the field amid allegations of FIFA corruption, its president Sepp Blatter’s resignation, controversy over artificial turf, sexist videogame backlash and gender testing.
With 24 teams competing over a full month, it’s the largest and longest tournament in the history of women’s football. In the UK, all 52 matches will be given full coverage across the BBC for the first time. Indeed, this World Cup could rival the men’s tournament so let’s find out a bit more about what else we might expect.
England’s vital statistics
England is at number six in FIFA’s world rankings after qualifying first in the team’s group for the World Cup with a 100% record. The team had a tough friendly with Germany at Wembley who beat England 3-0 in November 2014.
More recently, after arriving in Canada for the Women’s World Cup, England played a friendly against Canada, losing 1-0 despite some strong performances from the team.
England reached the quarter-finals of the cup in 1995, 2007, 2011. This time there is a blend of experience and new talent and the team will be looking to improve progress at this tournament with their new head coach, Mark Sampson.
The artificial turf controversy has clearly highlighted how differently women are treated compared to men – men play on grass in the World Cup, but the women’s teams will play on a range of different artificial surfaces in Canada.
How will this affect the game? Apart from the increased risk of ankle injuries and the heat stress-related health problems from the potential high surface temperature, the women are likely to change their game to adapt to the turf.
The ball moves at a greater speed and players have less control as it rolls out of bounds more frequently. Put simply, it is physically more demanding than playing on natural grass. So there are likely to be more short and midfield-to-midfield passes to control the ball better.
Teams that might already hold the advantage of playing on such surfaces include Japan, which beat the USA on penalties in an nail-biting final at the 2011 competition in Germany. Japan’s style of play is technical; players maintain possession and their passes are short. Whereas USA (winners in 1991, 1999) and Canada, which both have an attacking style of play, might be affected most by the surface.
Eight teams are enjoying their debut at this year’s World Cup: Thailand, Switzerland, Spain, Cameroon, Costa Rica, Ivory Coast, Netherlands and Ecuador. This could lead to some high-scoring games, new plot lines and who knows what could happen in the games being played on a different surface?
Due to the increased number of teams, the format of the tournament has changed slightly. There will two more groups (six groups of four) and a second knockout round. In total 52 matches will be played and it will take seven successful games to win the tournament.
Players to watch
With the new teams, there are going to be a lot of new players to watch out for together with the existing talent, such as the well-known Marta Vieira da Silva from Brazil (who is the best player in the history of the game and FIFA World Player of the Year five times), and Abby Wambach from the USA (who is also among the best in the world and was awarded FIFA World Player of the Year in 2012). Wambach has scored more goals than any international player in either men’s or women’s football.
In the England women’s team, along with Eniola Aluko’s speed and Fara Williams’s tough experience, there is rising star Fran Kirby who has natural ability and intuitive talent on the pitch. She is top scorer for the domestic side, Reading. She grabbed the heart of the nation when she spoke honestly about her struggle to come to terms with bereavement, her battle against depression and her fierce return to Reading, scoring 33 goals in her first season back. She is a talented footballer as well as a huge inspiration to others at such a young age.
At 21, Kirby is not the youngest player in the tournament, however. Vivianne Miedema, 19, from the Netherlands is another rising star and one to watch. She was a key player in helping the national team qualify for the first FIFA Women’s World Cup.
What I love about these women is their ability to push boundaries outside their footballing careers by tackling homophobia (Casey Stoney), standing up against gender discrimination (Wambach leading a discrimination lawsuit against FIFA over the artificial turf), and inspiring other women into football.
The first game kicks off on Saturday June 6 with Canada playing China; let’s cheer them all on with admiration and the respect they deserve.