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Women on the Ball

The Women's World Cup starts in Canada on June 6, 2015 – for the first time with Swiss participation. It is high time to have a look at the world map of women's football. Because nowadays there is no team sport that is more popular with women.

Ninety thousand spectators, penalty, one shot, and – goal! Brandi Chastain rips off her shirt, pirouettes, drops to her knees, stretches her arms in the air, and displays her athletic torso and her black sports bra to the spectators at the Rose Bowl stadium, and 40 million TV viewers. She has just kicked the US to the World Cup title in women's football.

The date, July 6, 1999, was when the boom began that women's football has since experienced. The picture of the jubilant footballer adorned not only the front pages of Sports Illustrated, Time Magazine, and Newsweek, but also those of many international newspapers. The authentic photo engraved itself on the collective memory, even in those countries where women's football was still not very popular. Because it demonstrated to the whole world that women's football could be so full of emotion, so powerful, and so sexy.  

Most Popular Women's Team Sport in the World

She had wanted to show young girls in particular how wonderful football was, Brandi Chastain explained later in an interview with the LA Times. Three years later, the feature film Bend It like Beckham became a blockbuster, grossing over USD 76 million. In the film, a girl of Indian origin in England overcomes every cultural and sexist prejudice to pursue her passion: football.

Nowadays, women's football is more popular than ever. More than 30 million girls and women actively play football all over the world – no team sport is more popular among women. FIFA recognizes 177 active national teams today; in 1997, there were just 50. This year, 24 of them will be contesting the World Cup between June 6 and July 5, eight more than in the last World Cup and double the number at the first World Cup in China in 1991.

US – a Great Power in Women's Football

One thing that has not changed since 1999 is that the US is once again the favorite to win the tournament. This may come as a surprise to those who know football as a men's sport, where the US only plays a minor role. So how can this historical dominance of women's football be explained? One reason is the sport's unique degree of popularity, by international standards: 53 percent of the world’s women footballers come from the US or Canada. In those countries, there are 450 women footballers for every 10,000 inhabitants – in Europe, the number is 71, in Asia 17, and in Africa 14. This could be because women in the US did not have to storm a male bastion – men in the US traditionally prefer to indulge in basketball, American football, baseball, or ice hockey, rather than in football. Also, there has been a law in the US (Title IX) since 1972 that imposes gender equality in all disciplines, including sports, on schools and universities. By contrast, many European football associations are steeped in tradition – such as the Deutscher Fussball-Bund in Germany and the English Football Association – and long barred women from playing. A FIFA survey in 2014 showed that, even today, suspicion about and prejudice against the women's game are still rife in some parts of the world: One-third of the member countries surveyed indicated that football was regarded in their country as something that was not for women.

France as Insiders' Favorites

But back to the US, where the popularity of women's football can also be seen in spectator numbers. At a match in August 2014 between two of the top teams in the NWSL women's professional league, 19,123 spectators poured into Providence Stadium in Portland to cheer on the home team against the Houston Dash. By way of comparison, in the German women's Bundesliga last season, all of 3,440 spectators made up what was a record crowd at the match between 1. FFC Turbine Potsdam and FC Bayern Munich.

And, after the US, women's football in Germany is the most developed and its quality is high. The German women's team won the World Cup in 2003 and 2007 and, since the Champions League for women was introduced in 2001, eight of the thirteen titles have been won by German teams. This year, however, the serial winners from Wolfsburg lost in the semi-final against the strong French team of Paris St. Germain. This is a further indication of the strength of the French players, whom the Swiss national coach, Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, is not alone in picking as the insiders' favorites for the World Cup.

Strong Platform for the Swiss Women

And the Swiss? They have qualified for the finals of the World Cup for the first time ever. At last, it should be added, because the women's and girls' game in Switzerland has developed strongly and the promotion of young talent has been professionalized. Today, there are 26,000 girls and women playing club football, and the top club FC Zurich only just missed out on a place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. However, like their male colleagues, most top Swiss players earn their money in foreign leagues – Ramona Bachmann with the top Swedish club FC Rosengård, Lara Dickenmann now at Wolfsburg, and Ana Maria Crnogorcevic, who will be playing for Frankfurt against Paris in the Champions League final three weeks before the start of the World Cup.

At the World Cup in Canada, the much criticized artificial turf could work in favor of the technically strong Swiss women. In addition, the Swiss had a favorable draw. Second place in the group, behind title defender Japan, is within reach if the Swiss concentrate on their task against Ecuador and Cameroon. But no matter what the result, the World Cup will draw a lot of attention to Swiss women's football. "The general public is increasingly aware that there is a successful women's national team in Switzerland," says Voss-Tecklenburg.

Struggle for Attention

Which brings us back to Brandi Chastain's goal celebrations and the topic of attention. Because, despite its many successes, women's football is still struggling with this today. And, as with the men, it is also the case that the greater the attention, the more the clubs and associations earn, directly from tickets and TV income, indirectly from sponsors and investors. And, in turn, more money means more professional structures, better players, and the opportunity for the most talented to make it as professionals, or even to become rich. Until now, women footballers only succeed in this if, like the US player Hope Solo, they can shine esthetically as well as at sport, and sign lucrative sponsorship deals. By contrast, the best Swiss women players barely earn more than CHF 6,000 per month – and hence a fraction of the salaries in the men's game.

FIFA Is Promising Spectacular Images

FIFA too is aware how important attention is for the promotion of women's football. For that reason, it takes media coverage extremely seriously and organizes the World Cup tournaments as glamorous events. In Canada, the world's best football directors will be standing by with between 20 and 22 high definition cameras to capture the most spectacular, the most dramatic, and most dynamic moving images of the World Cup, and then broadcast them worldwide.

Globally, FIFA is expecting a TV audience of several hundred million fans. "We will ensure that broadcasters and fans can benefit from the most comprehensive TV production that there has ever been at a women's football tournament," Niclas Ericson, director of FIFA TV, promised. How did the communication scientist Marshall McLuhan put it? "The medium is the message."

And so one thing is already clear: Whoever wins the title, this World Cup's biggest winner is women's football worldwide. Afterwards, it will be even more popular than it is already.