“The ball is round, the game lasts ninety minutes, and everything else is just theory”
— Sepp Herberger
With the hopes of a nation delicately balanced, the Matildas took on the Republic of Ireland, in front of a record crowd of 75,784, in their opening game of the Women’s World Cup (WWC) on July 20. An hour before kick-off a shocked silence settled as news broke that Sam Kerr, the Matildas talismanic team leader, had picked up a calf injury in training and would miss the first two matches. While Kerr is especially silky and joyous to watch, the strength of this Matildas side is that they are all especially talented and they proved able to adapt. Playing a traditional 4-4-2 formation, they edged a 1–0 win against a rough and tumble Irish side competing in their first World Cup.
The Guardian reported that after the match Matildas’ goal scorer, Steph Catley, said: “Losing a player like Sam, probably the best player in the world — and just for her as a person — we were completely heartbroken … We had to really gather ourselves pretty quickly … she’s our spiritual leader and whatever role she plays in the next however long, will be massive.” The Matildas face Nigeria and Canada in their next two group stages.
This World Cup is a signifier of how far the women’s game has come since its 1988 pilot edition in China — a trial tournament where Matildas players self-funded training costs leading up to the tournament. Since then, and especially in recent years, popularity has skyrocketed, attendance and participation have grown, and youngsters have an expanding pool of female role models to aspire to. The recency of this growth means most of the current team have been along for the ride.
For Lidia Williams, the longest-serving Matilda and one of six First Nations players in their history, this will be a fifth World Cup, bringing her full circle and onto home soil. Lidia is trained as a zookeeper and writes children’s books; etchings of a women’s era when even the highest level was only a part-time job. Today still, Kerr, arguably the best female football player in the world earns less in a year than Lionel Messi earns in a week.
And there are still clear disparities — the share of prize money for this World Cup is one-quarter of what the men’s game gets. The Matildas have vowed to address this in the immediate aftermath of the cup, and have released a video plea calling for equal prize money.
This united stance by the Matildas is emblematic of how the women’s game sets itself against the men’s — they know they can win, and they have in the past. Following the 2015 World Cup in Canada and the domestic attention it garnered, the Matildas went on strike with the support of their union, Professional Footballers Australia — protesting the lack of financial support and contract security from Football Federation Australia. They won; securing equal pay in 2019.
This success matches the wins of other women’s football teams across the world, fought on principles of basic human rights, and are vital experiences as the game becomes ever more absorbed into the politics of global football.
Nigeria, England, France and Spain are presently involved in battles with their respective football federations over disputes relating to pay, resourcing and coaching. The Jamaican team have been crowdfunding to cover the costs of attendance, aiming to raise $175,000 to pay for things as basic as food and accommodation. The South African team went on strike for their most recent friendly against Botswana, forcing their federation to field a 13-year-old in a makeshift squad. There have also been strong messages of unity between nations, with the Brazilian team arriving on a plane emblazoned with a message of solidarity with women in Iran.
The rapid growth of the women’s game has exposed it to all the perils of football in the age of turbo-charged commercialisation; dirty cash flows and shonky agents, relentless and unethical advertising, privatised and extortionate TV rights, and the list goes on.
So what is there to guard against this?
The honey-tongued cartel acting as the world game’s governing body — otherwise known as FIFA — for all its noble rhetoric has proved time and again its chief motivating principle remains the almighty dollar. No better is this illustrated than through its increasingly snug relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. For this WWC, just as in Qatar 2022, players will be banned from wearing LGBTQ armbands, risking an on-field yellow card if they do.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has dramatically increased its investments in global sports, in what they say is a strategy of diversifying the country’s economy — and what critics say is an attempt to hide an abysmal human rights record. The kingdom has almost entirely bought up golf, Formula 1 and is now becoming a major player in football. Through its Public Investment Fund (PIF), it owns the English Premier League side Newcastle United, is a major financer of FIFA and has most recently supplied four Saudi Arabian football teams with a war chest of US$800 million; aimed at prying away some of football’s global superstars.
Lost in the frenzy of this gold rush is Saudi Arabia’s record as a global outlier on women’s and LGBTQ rights. Its prisons are filled with dissidents, political rivals and queer citizens. On International Women’s Day (March 8) last year, it codified repressive male guardianship rules through a Personal Status Law that discriminates against women in marriage, divorce and decisions about their children. Homosexuality is outlawed — under threat of death, torture, public flogging and chemical castration. Mass public executions are commonplace.
Human Rights Watch calls the Saudi strategy “sports-washing”: a deliberate attempt to deflect criticism from the country’s pervasive and systemic violations of human rights.
Attracted by the glow of a massive global sporting event, Saudi Arabia came knocking on FIFA’s door in February — and when the kingdom's purse is shaken, it seems few can resist. FIFA accepted the kingdom’s lucrative bid in a deal that would see stadiums and cities adorned with “Visit Saudi” slogans — a country that would lock Kerr up for her sexuality.
Promptly, players, sporting associations and human rights organisations voiced outrage over the decision, and underscored the contradiction between the Saudi tourism authority's sponsorship of the WWC and FIFA’s claims that human rights are a key part of its values. Under this sustained pressure, FIFA decided in March not to make the Saudi tourism authority a major sponsor of the tournament.
This should be seen as another victory for the global women’s game, women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. It continues women’s football down a path that makes it so special; taking bigger powers on and winning, carving out space in a style and story that separates it from the men’s game. We all deserve to sit back and enjoy the Matildas’ silky smoothness on home soil while applauding their united voice on human rights.