England’s women face uphill struggle at World Cup

21 June 2019 Consultancy.uk 6 min. read
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As the first round of the 2019 World Cup in France draws to a close, the tournament has clearly captured the imaginations of global sports fans in a way never before seen in women’s football. While this historically neglected side of the beautiful game has come on leaps and bounds around the world, a new study predicts that England’s Lionesses face a stern task if they are to bring home the trophy.

Football is indisputably the world’s sport of choice, with billions of players and fans spread across the globe. However, amid the mass spectacle of the game, it is all too easy to forget that for the longest part of soccer’s history, more than half the population were excluded from it.

Even on football’s home turf, the UK, the women’s game was stifled for decades – the legacy of which is still felt today. Having grown in popularity during the First World War, when male leagues were postponed, women’s football enjoyed a brief golden age in the UK in the early 1920s, when one match achieved over 50,000 spectators. The Football Association, rather than supporting this, swiftly initiated a ban in 1921 that disallowed women's football games from the grounds used by its member clubs. The ban stayed in effect until 1971.

The outlook for the women’s game was no better elsewhere, either. Even after 20 years of slow progress, when FIFA finally agreed to host an officially sanctioned international tournament between female footballers in 1991, it refused to allow its ‘World Cup’ brand to be tied to it. Instead, this led to the absurdly titled ‘FIFA World Championship for women's football for the M&M's Cup’ taking place in China, in what is now recognised as the inaugural Women’s World Cup.

Probability of getting knocked out in each round

Now in its eighth edition, the Women’s World Cup has continued to progress, often in spite of as much as thanks to FIFA’s involvement, and France’s tournament has subsequently been described as ‘the most important in history’ of the event. There is a sense that France 2019 could be a turning point. Twenty years after the record-breaking 1999 Women's World Cup which propelled the women's game into wider consciousness, the next month provides an opportunity to not only build on those foundations but to surpass the achievements of the 1999 ground-breakers.

Women’s World Cup in France

So far, on the pitch at least, the tournament has not disappointed. Brazilian legend Marta has broken the World Cup goal-scoring record for a footballer of any gender, scoring her 17th goal at her fifth tournament to surpass Germany’s Miroslaw Klose. Meanwhile, Australia’s Matildas defeated Brazil in a pulsating 3-2 comeback, worthy of any World Cup finals. The USA, the holders, thrashed Thailand 13-0 – scoring more goals in one game than the men’s team could muster in the last two World Cups they qualified for (they failed to reach the 2018).

Off the pitch, however, women’s football is still stymied by a lack of investment. The aforementioned Marta has taken to the pitch in brandless boots in protest of the fact that kit manufacturers would not offer her the same sponsorship deal as her male counterparts. Meanwhile the USA’s team has filed a federal class-action lawsuit seeking equal pay to its less successful male counterparts, who continue to take home the lion’s share of the United States Soccer Federation’s sponsorship money, despite doing substantially less to earn it. Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg has refused to play for the Norway team for similar reasons.

There is a long way to go then, before football’s community can even start to talk about parity. However, there is a sign – arguably a slightly tenuous one – that the corporate community is starting to see that there is money to be made here, which may in turn accelerate this process of change. That is that a consulting firm has deemed the Women’s World Cup worthy of analysis.

Consulting firms have a long tradition of attempting to demonstrate their analytical prowess by calling how popular sporting events will end. Boston Consulting Group, for example, wrongly predicted Roger Federer would win Wimbledon in 2018, in the hope it would show the potential of an innovative new AI programme. Elsewhere, but equally as wrong, KPMG’s football research team suggested that the clubs with the highest operating revenue were set to monopolise the latter rounds of the 2019 Champions League.

If consultants think that there is enough momentum behind a sport, then, they will attempt to forecast its results in order to attract attention and ultimately clients. Football consulting firm 21st Club has published a report anticipating France to win the trophy on home soil, as the men’s team did 21 years before them.

According to consultant Sophie Tomlinson, 21st Club’s model technically rates the USA as the best team in the world on paper. However, as France are not far behind them, and have home advantage, they are favourites to become the first ever joint holders of the men’s and women’s World Cups. According to the research, England, however, will likely have to settle for the ‘Best of the Rest’ tag once more, having finished third four years ago.

Tomlinson stated, “England have the highest probability of making the semi-finals of any nation (48%). But they would then likely face one of the US or France, a tough route to the final. England to bring it home: 14% [compared to France’s chances of 24%].”

At the same time, the Lionesses will face stiff competition from the team which dumped them out of Euro 2017. Tomlinson added, “The Netherlands are the current European champions and go into their second ever World Cup with a strong attacking line-up. Arsenal striker and top scorer in the English league Vivianne Miedema will be joined by former FIFA women’s player of the year Lieke Martens and Lyon’s Shanice van de Sanden in their attack. Netherlands to become both the reigning World and European champions: 11%.”