By Samantha Lewis
“For us, women’s football is much more than a game,” says the introduction to Australia and New Zealand’s historic joint bid to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup. “It is a game-changer for women in our countries, where we celebrate our proud history of advancing women’s leadership, promoting women’s sport and striving to make gender equality a reality.”
Women’s sport has never experienced a period quite like the past five years. While its history stretches back over more than a century, it’s only recently that women’s sport—and women in sport—have bubbled to the surface of our cultural consciousness.
We saw it in over one billion people watching the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France. We saw it in the record-breaking 86,174 fans filling up the Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch the T20 Women’s World Cup final in March. We see it in the development of fully professional women’s leagues around the world. We see it in increased media coverage and growing participation numbers and unprecedented corporate investment. We see it in the young girls who say that they want to be an athlete when they grow up, knowing full well that they finally can.
Of the four bids still in the running to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup—Australia/NZ, Japan, Brazil, and Colombia—it’s the Australia and New Zealand bid that harnesses and celebrates this global momentum.
As its introduction states, the “As One” bid recognises that women’s sport has a far greater role to play off the field than what it does on it. Sport occupies an almost religious place in cultural life. We drape ourselves in its symbolism and congregate at its sacred sites. We take part in its rituals and traditions, we sing its songs and its praises, and feel ourselves becoming part of something larger—something more meaningful, perhaps—than what our ordinary lives may offer. Sport, therefore, is central to our negotiations of identity and community, of power and of purpose, of who does and doesn’t belong.
Women’s sport has always been a powerful lens through which questions of equality, diversity, and inclusion are closely examined. The past half-decade of growth in women’s football, for example, can be traced along a series of protests that spilled into mainstream conversations about the status and value of women’s work.
In 2015, the Matildas were one of the first women’s national teams to take part in a formal strike to highlight unacceptable working conditions and contractual uncertainty. In 2017, the first ever women’s Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg withdrew from national team duty, dissatisfied with the way women’s football is treated in Norway. In 2019, the entire Spanish women’s league refused to play to protest their lack of a collective bargaining agreement that would have guaranteed minimum wages and standards. And most recently, the US women’s national team brought an equal pay lawsuit against their federation while also calling for equal World Cup prize money. All this is to say that women’s sport has become a hyper-visible platform that addresses the wider systems of oppression and exclusion that have kept half the world’s population on the sidelines.
This, ultimately, is why Australia and New Zealand’s bid matters. “As One” isn’t just aimed at bringing a football tournament to the Asia-Pacific; it intends to use sport to facilitate women’s involvement across our entire cultural landscape through programs aimed at participation, leadership, professional development, and social progress. In other words, the “As One” bid embraces the moment that women’s sport is currently experiencing, while also acknowledging the central role women have played in the development of not just sport, but all of modern life.
Of all the bids currently in consideration, it’s Australia and New Zealand’s that practices what it preaches. Politically, our two nations were the first to give women the vote, and some of the first to elect women as government leaders. In sport, we were some of the first to form national football teams and some of the first to institute equal pay for them. Australian and New Zealand women have occupied decision-making positions in federations and confederations, as well as in global organisations like FIFA, while also producing coaches, referees, officials, and administrators who have helped make the entire sport industry what it is today.
That legacy—of women being part of the process—extends to the bid team itself, which is organised and led almost entirely by women. In fact, when the bid teams were invited to present their case to a conference of UEFA officials in March, it was only the Aus/NZ bid that had a woman delivering its message in the halls of power.
Major tournaments like the Olympic Games and World Cups are those rare moments where women’s sport proves itself capable of measuring up to the standards of legitimacy and success that our patriarchal sporting world has constructed: TV viewership, ticket sales, social media engagement. Hosting such an event down under wouldn’t just be a boon for women’s sport domestically; it could supercharge the global momentum that had been galloping along before the coronavirus halted it in its tracks. Indeed, as men’s sport proves, long-term thinking and consistent investment and coverage of sport can result in one of the richest and most powerful industries on earth. All it takes is a handful of people in a room, deciding to see the value of it. That decision will be made on June 25, and sport itself will be reshaped forever afterwards.
Part of Siren Sport’s mandate has been to reveal the contributions and the sacrifices women continue to make to sport. It’s these women—be they players, workers, or fans—that the “As One” bid sees and celebrates. Women’s sport has always been about more than what happens on the pitch, the court, or the field. It has always been “more than a game.” It is, and will always be, a game-changer. Let’s hope that FIFA believes so, too.