The U.S. is No. 1 again in the FIFA world rankings, and while the Americans are not the favorites in the Women’s World Cup, it’s always a surprise when the world’s elite program does not win the title. It was that way in 2007, when the top-ranked Americans lost in the semifinals, and again in 2011, when Japan stunned the top-ranked Americans in the final. The U.S. did win it all in 2015, though it wasn’t at the top of the rankings that year. The question, once again, is how much longer the U.S. can stay at the top of the heap.
The rest of the world has been catching up to the U.S. women’s national soccer team for the past 30 years, though the achievements haven’t been evenly distributed around the globe. European teams in particular have narrowed the gap, but teams from South American and Africa are still searching for success.
Entering this year, seven of the top eight World Cup squads of all-time by Soccer Power Index were from either the U.S. or Germany. In this World Cup, France and Australia are in that conversation, both rated more highly than the world champion U.S. team of 1999. This year’s teams from the Netherlands, England, Japan and Canada are close behind.
This is no accident. The European federation reported almost 2.1 million registered female players in FIFA’s 2014 women’s football survey, just shy of the 2.3 million registered in the U.S. and Canada alone. Elsewhere in the world, though, progress has been slower. The developing African and South American federations reported just 54,055 and 25,459, respectively. The top 20 nations in FIFA’s rankings had 91 percent of the registered players.
Since the U.S. won the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991, the primary reason given for the Americans’ international success has been Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits gender discrimination in federally funded educational programs. The national team still faces inequality: Players filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit in March and have used some of the interest in the World Cup to spotlight unequal pay. Still, the American players are the products of the world’s most successful player development organization. If a country set out to build an international powerhouse from scratch, the process would look a lot like what has happened in the U.S. in the past 47 years: Require equal scholarship funding for male and female college athletes; furnish rosters with the fruits of a nationwide travel soccer system; and pump money into the national team for the best players to train together and test themselves against the most skilled opponents in the world.
In Europe, the best clubs, leagues and national teams are funneling money into the women’s game like never before. The number of professional and semipro players is up from 1,680 in 2013 to 3,572 in 2017. The number of girls’ youth teams is up from 21,285 in 2013 to 35,183.
Europe may also have an advantage that isn’t universally present: the interest in soccer that has made so many of its nations dominant on the men’s side. The total women’s football budget across the continent has more than doubled from 50.4 million euros in 2012 to 111.7 million euros in 2017, according to a report from the European federation. Barclays, the title sponsor of the English Premier League, has signed a three-year sponsorship deal with the Women’s Super League, the top women’s professional league in England. Atletico Madrid and FC Barcelona’s women’s teams played in March before an announced crowd of 60,739, a world record for club matches. That’s an anomaly for anywhere, including Europe, but it also far exceeds any club crowd in the U.S.
With more resources, European clubs are attracting more of the world’s top players, and the most successful women’s soccer organization in the world is not an American franchise but France’s Olympique Lyonnais, which has won six of the past nine Champion’s League finals. France has the highest-paying women’s soccer league in the world, according to Sporting Intelligence’s 2017 global sports salaries report. The average player salary in France’s top league was $49,782, compared with $43,730 in Germany, $35,355 in England and $27,054 in the American NWSL. The maximum salary this year in the NWSL is $46,200, while Lyon reportedly pays several players in the six figures. Fifteen of the club’s players are on World Cup rosters: eight for France and seven spread across six other countries.
On other World Cup contenders, though, women face myriad issues, primarily that the national federations pay them little or nothing and that international matches are difficult to schedule. Teams in developing countries play in the World Cup and the Olympics (if they qualify) and in their continental tournaments, but they rarely find matches outside of those years. By August 2016, only four of 10 teams in the South American federation were in FIFA’s rankings because they had played so infrequently that they were deemed “inactive.”
Argentina, ranked 37th on the women’s side, may be the biggest example of that disparity. Its players went on strike in 2017 after going unpaid, and they have had to pay for their own travel, uniforms and health insurance. In March, the national federation gave the 16-team women’s league professional status — but the teams were allocated just $2,600 per month for the top eight players, or about $330 each.
In Africa, the conditions are similar. The Super Falcons of Nigeria have won 11 of 13 African titles and have qualified for every Women’s World Cup. But their coaches and players have often worked without pay. The team protested at its hotel after winning the 2016 African Cup of Nations, refusing to leave until the federation paid the salaries and bonuses the players were owed. “This is a fight about the welfare of the team,” forward Asisat Oshoala told BBC Sport at the time. “It’s about the way the team has been handled over the years. We are champions. We went out to fight for the nation even without being paid. Not everything is about money, but of course it is an issue.”
With women’s soccer development still emerging in much of the world, several countries have struggled to schedule even friendlies. Last year, with another World Cup trip looming, Nigerian midfielder Ngozi Okobi implored her country’s federation to arrange “something big” for the team. “We’ve witnessed how the gap is gradually closing on the continent between us and others,” she said. “We can’t wake up one morning without top matches and then start traveling to France.” Governing bodies, though, have lagged in providing funding for such matches, placing another roadblock between these countries and international success: When they do put together a group of 20 competitive players, who do they play?
In all of these areas, the quadrennial World Cup is critical for assessing progress and laying the foundation for more development. For Thailand, South Africa or Argentina, a win in the group stage — or even a goal or two — can help raise the profile of women’s soccer back home. An important piece in the equation is FIFA, which has taken steps in recent years to move toward promoting the women’s game. The world governing body established a women’s football division in 2016 with an eye toward reaching 60 million female players worldwide.
Khalida Popal is an activist for women’s soccer, the kind the sport has relied on for years. She grew up in Kabul, Afghanistan, playing in hiding during the Taliban regime. She founded the Afghan women’s football league and practiced on a NATO base before later leaving the country amid death threats from extremist groups and seeking asylum in Denmark. Now an administrator for the Afghan women’s national team, she works to bring sports to European kids in refugee camps. Count her among many who see the World Cup as a potential spark for developing countries to place more resources in women’s soccer and for girls to become familiar with the sport. “There’s still a long, long way to go, but if we compare … it is happening,” Popal said. “Many positive changes are taking place.”
Stipends of $330 per month for the Argentine players and endorsement deals for European leagues are marginal, but they are steps. Countries of all kinds are working to build women’s soccer programs the way the U.S. did — they’re just a few decades behind.
Check out our latest Women’s World Cup predictions.