2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup: Where will the women’s professional game go from here?

July 20, 2023


As the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand sees the game at heights of popularity unimaginable even 10 years ago, University of Michigan professor Andrei Markovits, author of “Women in American Soccer and European Football: Different Roads to Shared Glory,” offers insights on the future of the women’s professional game and the rivalry between the North American powers of Canada and the United States and their European opponents.

Rising popularity

Last year, the European Championship final between host England and rival Germany drew 20 million television viewers in each country, when the previous 12 finals were barely even reported upon by the media.

On the arguably more important club level, too, recent matches in the Champions League witnessed spectatorship in the high five-digit range when, less than a decade ago, they were played before a smattering of thousands and all but ignored by the public. In North America, the popularity and panache of the National Women’s Soccer League’s Angel City Football Club represents a new and qualitatively remarkable change in the game’s cultural presence.

The future of the women’s professional game

The game will henceforth progress “from strength to strength.” But whose strength?

In many ways, the World Cup will witness multiple showdowns between the North American powers of Canada and the United States and their European rivals Germany, Sweden, England, France, Holland and Spain, in particular. There is some truth to Fox Television’s promotional claim that it will be the USWNT against the rest of the world. While a tad arrogant, U.S. players don’t disagree.

These showdowns will feature two very different developmental systems that formed women’s soccer on either side of the Atlantic. Where North American women, starting in the 1970s and spurred by reforms such as Title IX, entered a soccer world that was left open for them by men preoccupied with traditional team sports, their European sisters were forced to contest what had arguably been the most male-dominated space in European public life.

Men’s soccer, weakness in North America—the opposite in Europe, Latin America

The absence or weakness of men in soccer played an important role in the founding moment of the women’s game. This fact is demonstrated by the success and prominence of the United States and Canada and teams from North and South Korea, China, Japan, Australia, and even Norway and Sweden. Men’s soccer was weak in all these countries. This helped women attain a leading presence in the game’s early years of the late 1980s and 1990s.

Traditional European soccer powerhouses (England, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Holland) and Latin America (Brazil, Argentina) maintained a weak presence in the women’s game’s early years. Indeed, it was met with ubiquitous contempt and derision by these countries’ soccer establishments, which viewed this development as another unwanted American cultural intrusion.

However, hard-won access to the holy grail of men’s soccer in Europe has come to show welcome results over the past few years. American dominance will be challenged as never before—at this World Cup and going forward. At the last World Cup in France, the quarterfinal matches were contested by seven European countries and the United States. To be clear: The latter emerged as the champion, but the ride will prove much harder at the impending tournament and future ones.

No longer intruders

After being treated as unwelcome intruders by the soccer establishments in all European countries, women have gained full, even enthusiastic, acceptance of Europe’s vaunted club-based culture, including its time-tested player-development apparatus. International teams are important cultural drivers, to be sure. Yet club teams also carry huge cultural weight in their communities and beyond.

Today, European teams with the pedigree, stature and resources of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Wolfsburg, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, and Olympique Lyons have embraced the women’s game wholeheartedly.

The NWSL today is new, plucky and stocked with American talent. But it cannot compete with these club leviathans, not financially nor developmentally. In many important ways, culturally and developmentally, women’s soccer in North America remains largely the purview of youth clubs, high schools and colleges.

The North American equivalent of Real Madrid?

One could argue that this is the Tar Heels of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with their 22 national titles. This program and the college-based world produced a national soccer team that has ruled the globe since 1991. That’s when it won the first of its four titles—in total obscurity, unknown to most Americans and the global soccer community that added contempt to its ignorance. Women’s soccer is very different today. The environment is massively improved in every respect.

Yet the question to be meted out on the fields of Australia and New Zealand is whether the college-based American system will continue to dominate in the face of a competition featuring the European powerhouses. We shall see!