Off-the-Field Turmoil Complicates Top Women’s Teams’ Chances in World Cup

Canadian players protest inadequate funding and unfair treatment.

by Sydney Wiser ‘23

It has been 95 days since the men’s World Cup ended in a thrilling penalty kick shootout, and soccer fans are now gearing up for another high-profile tournament, the Women’s World Cup (WWC). The success of the 2019 WWC, where global viewership was 1.12 billion and the level of competition was deep, showed the growth of the women’s game. In response to the 2019 success, FIFA expanded the number of teams that can compete in this year’s WWC from 24 to 32, which is the number of teams that compete in the men’s World Cup. This change brought excitement to fans who are ready to see the top women’s teams compete at the highest level.

However, as the WWC approaches, many of the top teams face off-the-field challenges from their federations over wage inequality and coaching decisions. These conflicts have raised questions about the ability of some of the best teams in the world to hold their own in the WWC.

Arguably the most anticipated match of the 2019 WWC was the faceoff between the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) and the host nation, France, in the quarterfinals. Since that 2-1 defeat, French fans have eagerly awaited a WWC rematch. However, recent conflicts within the federation have caused three of France’s top players, including longtime captain Wendie Renard, to opt out of the tournament. Renard explained her decision on social media, citing reluctance to support the current national team “system” and concerns over her mental health in the national team environment. Her teammates, forwards Kadidiatou Diani and Marie-Antoinette Katoto, echoed these concerns. Their actions have put pressure on the French Football Federation to fire head coach Corinne Diacre just five months before the WWC.

The up-and-coming Spanish national team is ranked seventh in the world and has what many consider the “golden generation” of Spanish players. As they’ve climbed FIFA’s rankings, fans are excited to see what this WWC has in store for them. In September, though, 15 of their senior players resigned from the team after a dispute with the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RSFF). Captain Irene Paredes and back-to-back Ballon d’Or winner, Alexia Putellas, also have not represented Spain after sharing frustrations about head coach, Jorge Vilda, with the RSFF. The RSFF has since released a public statement backing Vilda and the Spanish national team is without 17 of their best players.

The Canadian women’s national team is the reigning Olympic champion and has built a strong side ahead of the WWC. However, the team has struggled with their federation, Canada Soccer, over budget cuts. The players requested the same level of investment from their federation that the men received during their World Cup year but were ignored. They attempted to boycott the She Believes Cup this February but, after facing threats of litigation from Canada Soccer, they ultimately participated in the tournament where they finished last. While the players and federation reached an agreement over the 2022 budget on March 3, a collective bargaining agreement, which is the end goal for players, has not been finalized.

After years of disputes with their federation, the USWNT secured a collective bargaining agreement last year which guaranteed the team equal pay and investment. However, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), where the majority of USWNT players play, is still dealing with the aftermath of multiple coaching abuse scandals. Two seasons ago, five coaches were fired for sexual and verbal abuse. The NWSL players used the popularity the league gained after the USWNT won the 2019 WWC trophy as a way to put pressure on league officials to make changes. Now, the pressure is on the young USWNT team to keep the momentum going as they head into the 2023 WWC, which begins on July 20 in New Zealand and Australia.