This Women's World Cup has greater significance than almost any other sporting event - it could start a revolution

Jim White
Paris hasn't quite woken up to the Women's World Cup yet but the French are notoriously late  - FIFA

Twenty-four teams will be attempting to win the magnificently titled La Coupe du Monde Feminine, starting Friday night as France take on South Korea, and their journeys to this stage show why this tournament is so significant.

England manager Phil Neville has been full of enthusiasm for the whole-hearted support his team have received from the Football Association. He has spoken in awe of being flown by private jet back from matches, of the supercharged amenities open to them at St Georges Park, of being gifted exactly the same preparation as his male counterparts.

But such backing is by no means the norm among the teams competing here. Many of those arriving in France have done so despite rather than because of their national football organisations. Argentina qualified after a two-year period with no games, no coach and no world ranking, as the women players battled with their own FA over equal access to facilities.

Chile’s FA disbanded its women’s team after they failed to make it to the last World Cup and they didn’t play for 981 days until regrouped in time to qualify this time. While Jamaica are only here thanks to the financial backing of Cedella Marley, Bob’s daughter, who restarted the national side in 2013 after it hadn’t addressed a fixture for four years.

Even the hosts are not without issues. The Vichy law prevented French women from playing the game may have been rescinded in 1971, but the fact the national women’s team were asked to leave the Clairefontaine training centre last month because the men’s team wanted to use the facility suggests this remains a country where priorities remain askew. Not least for those who prefer to play in a hijab: they are banned by government dictat from doing so.

This is why this tournament carries a significance way beyond the norm. Success here would oblige many a recalcitrant governing body to start treating the women’s game with something closer to the approach they reserve for the men. In what promises to be the biggest, most widely watched competition in the 28 year history of the Women's World Cup, this is a game that can no longer be ignored.

The Parc des Princes will host many of the games at the Women's World Cup Credit: REX

It is a tournament which has been embraced in most venues although, on the eve of the big kick-off in the Parc des Princes on Friday night, Paris appeared to be a city seemingly unaware that history could be about to unfold in its midst. There was little bunting, few replica shirts in evidence and of half a dozen foreign visitors approached, only one realised the Women's World Cup was about to begin. Though he did ask if his inquisitor knew how to get hold of tickets.

“You know if you go into retail places you will see the Fifa Women's World Cup again and again, that's a step up this year,” said Jean-Francois Pathy, the Director of Marketing Services at Fifa when he was pressed about the lack of visibility for his competition in the capital. “Same on the broadcast side this year, we'll have 206 broadcasters covering the event. Of course we can always do better but I think it's a tremendous improvement from where we've been in the past.”

In truth, he added, the French are often slow starters when it comes to getting behind big competitions, Parisians in particular prone to drag their heels. And he has a point. Last summer, more than a million people might have filled the Champs Elysees to welcome home their World Cup winning team, blanketing the city in a red, white and blue haze of smoke and flares, but fewer than two thousand French supporters made their way to Kazan to watch Les Blues open their campaign.

Indeed there is a real sense among those involved that, while it might appear that the notoriously aloof denizens of Paris have yet to seize the mood, the imagination is there, waiting to be captured. If this goes well, its protagonists insist, the women’s game is about to launch into a fresh orbit. Not just in this country, but across the world.

“The hope is the same scenes will be repeated,” said Laura Georges, the former French international defender of the triumphant celebrations last summer. “We hope to see the same atmosphere, the same feeling.”

France won the Men's World Cup in 2018 Credit: ACTION PLUS

Certainly Fifa is confident about the support within the stadiums. As of Thursday more than 950,000 tickets had been sold. The opening game in Paris and the semi-finals and final in Lyon are all sold out. And many of the group games will take place in front of full houses, including all those involving the champions the United States.

More to the point, it is expected that over a billion people across the world will watch the action on television. It might be less than a third of the number who watched the men in Russia, but such a figure would represent enormous progress on the last time the competition was staged in 2015.

This is the point: the hope is with greater prominence will come not just acceleration in participation, but fundamental change in attitude. Because a significant number of those involved in this competition are not just playing the most important matches of their lives, they are, as they do so, fighting for the right to be treated as equals.

The more attention their efforts on the field garner, the more chance the women involved here have of making a difference. If this goes well, nobody can ignore them any longer; with success, the hope is, will come change. That is why, as it gets underway, this is a tournament that has greater significance than almost any other sporting event. This could be the start of a revolution.