We’ve already seen some high-class football and some real drama at the World Cup in France. Indeed, it’s the biggest women’s football tournament of all time – and by quite some way too.
Here are five notes to take home from the tournament so far.
5 – People have been very interested indeed.
The creaking old cliché that women’s football is a pointless exercise in mechanistic equality has been well and truly conquered by flashes of brilliance at this World Cup. Viewing stats in the UK in particular have hit record highs. 6.1m UK viewers for England’s opener versus Scotland was enough to break the existing women’s record, before that was smashed once more as England overcame Cameroon on Sunday – 6.9m viewers.
Fans have been travelling over from all corners of the globe to get in and amongst the action in France. An average of 19,000 fans in attendance per game so far is lower than recent tournaments it must be said. However, this has allowed the slightly smaller venues like Valenciennes and Reims to reach near-sell-outs.
The colour and support and nail-biting have been there for all the world to see. We may not see record attendances at this World Cup – in fact we won’t do, given the stadium capacities – but the media’s attention on this World Cup is making it the biggest edition ever.
4 – Winning 13-0 doesn’t set you up for anything.
The USA ran riot against tournament minnows Thailand in their opener. National hero Alex Morgan helped herself to five as thirteen unanswered goals gave the Americans a monumental opening day win. Then came another plucky underdog – Chile. They were swept up 3-0 before the first real test came as the USA prepared to face Sweden in their final group game.
Early goals in both halves handed the Americans a 2-0 win, but the performance wasn’t what their perfectionist ex-players Hope Solo and Abby Wambach would have wanted, watching on from the stands.
But it got even worse as Jill Ellis’ side came up against Spain in their first knockout tie. The Spanish are really newcomers to elite level women’s football and finishing bottom of their group at the last World Cup is their only previous campaign. Nevertheless, they caused the USA real problems. In the end, the favourites only qualified for a mouth-watering quarter-final tie with hosts France thanks to two contentious VAR penalties. Spain scored in open-play and the USA did not.
Suddenly, the outright favourites to retain the title here look very beatable indeed. It only increases the drama.
3 – VAR is still not working.
I don’t write this part of the article as a hater of VAR. I write it as a football fan. A fast, effective, error-free version of VAR is still yet to appear before our eyes.
Across the pond, in the men’s Copa America, Venezuela have conceded five goals so far – all five of them chalked off by VAR. Here in France, it’s arguably been even more problematic. The waiting is a clear issue. It’s such an obvious issue that I shall not even go into it.
The most ridiculous thing of all has been the farce of retaken penalties. Whenever a goalkeeper saves a penalty at this World Cup, it automatically goes to VAR to assess whether they moved off their line before the ball was struck. If so, it’s retaken until either they remain on the line or, instead, the penalty goes in.
It really does seem so very pernickety to pick up on this. Perhaps clamping down on diving is a better focus? No, FIFA doesn’t see it that way. It’s priority is to stop goalkeepers creeping off their lines. For that reason, Scotland are out of the World Cup and plenty of outstanding penalty saves have been overturned and banished from memory.
Penalties have been given that really shouldn’t have been. And on the other side of the spectrum, clear penalties have been turned down and waved away. Most notably is Fran Kirby’s clear obstruction in that cringeworthy match with Cameroon. Then, in stoppage-time and with the game already won by England and lost by Cameroon, an 18-year-old substitute crunched the legs of Steph Houghton. The referee was questionably diplomatic – denying England a penalty for the Kirby foul and giving a yellow card to the stomping offender.
There have been lots of moments where VAR was right of course. The disallowed Cameroon goal in the same match was quite rightly overturned because of a marginal offside call, for example.
Still, in FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s words, the world football governing body is striving for “100% accuracy” from VAR. We’re far, far, far from that still.
2 – Europe is dominating women’s football too.
At the 2018 men’s World Cup in France, all four semi-finalists were European nations. And a record number of European countries have reached the Last 8 in the women’s World Cup just a year on. Some historically very good non-Euro nations have really struggled this year.
Notably, New Zealand endured a desperately disappointing stay, losing to all three Group E opponents: Holland, Canada and even Cameroon. China finished third and below Spain in their group – going out in the Round of 16 to Italy. Other than failing to qualify in 2011, this is China’s worst ever appearance at a women’s World Cup. In four games, they scored just once.
With the USA still involved in the tournament, the odds are perhaps that the eventual winner may not be a European nation, but Germany, France and the Netherlands will all feel they can bring an end to America’s dominance of women’s football over the next couple of weeks.
1 – England must find another gear.
Only in their opener with World Cup debutants Scotland have the Lionesses conceded a goal so far. Still, eight goals at the other end is yet to convince fans and pundits that England really can push to challenge at the latter stages of this competition.
England have had good balance. Nikita Parris, Lucy Bronze and Jill Scott have taken responsibility with excellent displays, while Ellen White keeps scoring and Karen Bardsley keeps the score down at her end. Phil Neville’s young side have looked full of confidence and at times masterminded some beautiful attacking moves.
But an occurring theme is that the performance drops after half-time, and England offer a free foothold back into the game to their opponents. In all four matches so far, the Lionesses have faced intense pressure at the back in the middle stages of their matches.
Against Scotland and Argentina in one-goal wins, the final minutes were a tough watch for invested supporters, while the Japan and Cameroon performances offered occasional lapses in concentration and unforced errors.
Phil Neville has said he wants to win a World Cup and believes his players have enough quality and to make good on that. His side have won every game so far, but he’s still not happy. And looking at the other quarter-finalists, nor should he be.
I simply cannot wait for the next match to begin. It’s Japan against the Netherlands in the final second-round match, by the way. It kicks off in four minutes. And when it does kick off, I probably won’t want it to end. Long may this brilliant festival of football continue. Do you miss the Premier League? I’m not sure I do.