Every year, the Club World Cup provides the opportunity to compete for the title of Best Club in the World. Fans get to see their beloved Raja Casablanca take on the likes of Bayern Munich, see Cruz Azul play against Auckland City, and watch River Plate compete against FC Barcelona in a final match in front of 67,000 fans. Yet the title is reserved for men, while women have no official route to drive their clubs to a World Champions trophy.
The success of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, which drew more than 1.35 million enthusiastic attendees, precipitated a significant increase in investment, attendance, and viewership of women’s soccer globally. Olympique Lyonnais recorded over 22,000 attendees at the first round of their Champions League semifinal, the highest in French women’s football history. A similar number of tickets were sold for NWSL expansion team Orlando Pride’s home opener, and the team boasts a record number of season ticket holders. The Asian Football Confederation announced a 4-year strategic plan for Women’s Football earlier this year to build off its successes in the last two World Cups. And in March, 41,000 people watched Venezuela’s U-17 team beat Brazil and lift the South American trophy.
Growth in the women’s game is obvious. Now FIFA has the opportunity not only to capitalize on this success but to expand on it, making a positive mark on the global game. In early 2015, FIFA’s Task Force for Women’s Football proposed a FIFA Women’s Club World Cup, to kick off in 2017. Following through with the tournament would help reinforce the fact that the women’s game should be equal to that of the men’s, while also helping women’s soccer to continue to grow.
However, we’re halfway through 2016 and the infrastructure for such a tournament does not exist. It took 11 years to launch the men’s version, and there were already regional tournaments in place. Currently only two regional women’s tournaments exist – the UEFA Women’s Champions League and the Copa Libertadores Feminina.
And the UEFA Champions League, run by one of the richer federations, has been highly criticized for the lack of prize money teams receive. The visiting club almost always assumes the cost of travel and lodging, while the home club pays for local transport. UEFA pays between €3,500 and €7,500 per team, depending on distance traveled. And the recent expansion of the tournament to include more teams placed in the middle of the European women’s coefficient ranking) increased travel costs, without a corresponding increase in financial support from UEFA.
In the end, the winning club earns a total of €330,000 euros, while the winner of the men’s tournament makes around €50 million, depending on group stage performance. Simply participating in the group stages earns a men’s team €12 million.
A Women’s Club World Cup would meet almost all of FIFA’s stated development goals for women’s football, including providing support and development for sustainable professional competitions. But implementing the competition would certainly have its difficulties. The tournament would need to be financially viable for all participants, which, at the moment, looks like a rather large obstacle. Certainly some federations would require convincing as to the value of funneling resources into women’s football in the first place. And which clubs would even participate in the 2017 edition?
So why now?
Really, why not now?
Despite the continued sexism, despite the patriarchal attitudes, support and participation for women’s soccer has grown in the last decade. The 2015 Women’s World Cup was the most successful competition thus far. The tournament expansion to twenty four teams allowed for a larger playing field, with 134 teams participating in all stages, and record participation from certain regions. Eight new teams participated in the final tournament.
Even though five of the eight teams finished in the bottom eight of the tournament, potential for the future is evident: Costa Rica shocked the world with its surprise draws against Spain and South Korea. Thailand’s FA promised continued investment in their women’s program after the team qualified for the World Cup for the first time ever. Despite not making it past the group stages, the first-time qualification of the Spanish women’s team allowed for media coverage of the Spanish FA’s sexist treatment of the team, which resulted in their coach stepping down after 27 years at the helm. And, coached by a 26-year-old first-timer, Ecuador booked their ticket to the World Cup through the heroic efforts of a team comprised of mostly amateur players.
With domestic leagues in 70 countries spanning all FIFA regions, creating and administering regional tournaments is certainly viable, but structural support from FIFA will be necessary. So, too, would investment, as evidenced by the frustrations surrounding the UWCL. But FIFA has doubled funding for women’s soccer development from 2015-2018, and hopes that this investment will incentivize clubs, national federations, and regions to follow suit.
The surge in attendance and viewership of league competitions after the World Cup demonstrates the return on that investment. This interest was not limited to the United States, where the U.S. Women’s National Team participated in a champions tour of the country, numerous media appearances, and a parade through New York City. World Cup viewership reached all-time highs in Europe and Asia, and England’s Women’s Super League recorded a 48 percent increase in attendance after the World Cup.
Despite the financial obstacles, the Women’s Champions League provides opportunities for women in Europe to play at a higher level, leading to more chances to make soccer their livelihood. The tournament’s expansion allowed for greater participation of teams from countries not generally featured, providing the impetus for teams to develop and build their leagues and infrastructure (although, of course, increasing the prize money would further increase those incentives). Organization of further tournaments in other regions would produce a similar effect, if the right support is provided.
A Woman’s Club World Cup could spur this all on. Teams and leagues feed into the regional tournaments, fueling competition, which further fuels national investment. The tournament itself has the potential to provide FAs and regions with the resources to compete globally. In that way, it would provide another avenue for developing the women’s game at the top level. If FIFA’s goal is to grow participation and provide equal opportunity to women, implementing the same competitions available to men is necessary, and there is no better time than now.
And at the end of the day, who wouldn’t want the opportunity to add “World Champion” to their resume?