World Cup fever is almost here and I am very excited for the games to get started. It’s now almost 12 years since I played in my first tournament in China and since then the women’s game has changed remarkably. This feels like a great moment for women’s football to take centre stage, not just as a Women’s World Cup but as a World Cup that everyone can get interested in.
In terms of the wider impact, the last few World Cups have been the most watched sports events of that year and we are now attracting millions of fans from around the globe. Hopefully, we will see lots more people watching the group games as opposed to starting to watch later in the tournament, with England against Scotland in the first game a great example of an opening group game that should attract millions of viewers in the United Kingdom.
Media publicity is going to be very important in helping to build that momentum from the start. So that means mainstream sports correspondents getting there for the first matches and not turning up when it gets exciting after the group stages. I hope they have news every day covering the back pages. It is being broadcast live on the BBC so that is going to allow people to watch all the games on a free-to-air basis. The lack of free-to-air coverage continues to be a barrier for top women’s football matches: the recent Champions League final is a case in point.
I actually think we’re past the point of needing to inspire a generation of young girls to play – there are already many girls who have been inspired in the seven years since the London Olympics and since the bronze-medal achievement in 2015 who now want to play football regularly. There are millions of girls around the world who have made that decision already, so now it’s about access and making sure they can continue to improve their skills.
What is important is that we try to consolidate young girls and young boys as women’s football fans. We have to make it easy for them to fall in love with the sport and find new favourite players to aspire to be. There have been ticketing problems with some families not being guaranteed to be next to each other. Since women’s football tends to attract more family supporters, this is a costly mistake by Fifa which I hope can be addressed soon to avoid disrupting the watching experience of women’s football’s family fan base.
What makes this summer’s tournament even more exciting is that it is potentially the most open World Cup we have ever seen. If you look at all of the groups, each one has a really difficult game for the projected favourites. So many teams now have players who are at top European clubs and are gaining experience of playing in the latter stages of the Champions League or their domestic competitions. That means they are going into big matches tactically ready, in optimal shape physically and with a winning mentality.
Scotland are a great example of that depth. They are about to play in their first World Cup which suggests inexperience but nevertheless it’s really hard to call that opening group game against England. It would be naive just to think it’s going to be an easy win for England because they won 6-0 at the Euros two years ago. Scotland have players like Erin Cuthbert, who scored in the Champions League semi-final for Chelsea and won player of the year, Kim Little, who just won the league with Arsenal and Jane Ross, an experienced forward who led the line last season for West Ham.
The reality of the situation is that in the dressing room before the game Scotland players and many players from many teams will be thinking: ‘So what if it’s our first tournament? We have players in this room that know how to win and can threaten the opposition’. I think that’s just where women’s football is at the moment – even two years ago if you had said Scotland would have a chance of beating England then it would have seemed unlikely. They illustrate the point well because there are so many teams that have improved in such a short space of time.
Italy will be at their first World Cup in 20 years but they have nine Juventus players who have just won the domestic double and I expect they will be the fittest team in their group. Italy have been in the scenic mountains for a pre-tournament training camp which I think is a great idea: to be in a tranquil setting before the pressure of the World Cup kicks in.
In Italy’s group Australia are a team who are renowned for their physical, relentless approach and fitness levels but if you watch them more closely they are also tactically very astute and technical. They have creative midfielders, are always looking to use the width of the pitch and have one of the world’s deadliest goalscorers in Sam Kerr.
Even if you steer away from the teams that are always the traditional favourites like the US, Germany or France, there are so many emerging sides who have given the tournament real depth. Nigeria are another good example. Their forward line has Asisat Oshoala, who changed the energy of the game when she came on and scored in the Champions League final last weekend for Barcelona, and Ini Umotong at Brighton, who I expect will be snapped up by a bigger club sooner or later. With speed, power, goalscoring ability and big-game experience they are going to cause a lot of problems to whoever they play.
I do believe the winner will be a European team like England or the Netherlands. The Netherlands had a bumpy road to qualification but have a complete team in all positions and in Vivianne Miedema a striker who is the best in the world in my opinion. They also have experience of winning a major tournament which could be vital. For England, expectations will be bigger than ever. They have everything required to win and it will take more than ever before to do so.
Whatever happens, it should be an incredible few weeks. I’ll be right in the thick of it and I hope you will be too.