What we learned from the FIFA Women's World Cup

USA win again, but France 2019 was a victory for women's football as a whole with the tournament making headlines across the globe.

The slogan of the FIFA Women's World Cup was "Dare To Shine", and that challenge was grasped with both hands.

To the victors the spoils, and it was the United States who retained the title to claim their fourth World Cup in the eight competitions since its inception in 1991.

They were led by the unstoppable Megan Rapinoe (more on her later) who claimed the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player, and shared the Golden Boot with team-mate Alex Morgan after her six goals at France 2019.

We've got more on that below as we round up our takeaways from the biggest and best Women's World Cup yet, which include why the USA haven't yet qualified for the Olympics despite the beaten finalists and two other nations booking their spots at the Tokyo 2020 Games.

1. The women’s game goes global on social media

While the USA Women's National Team (USWNT) has long been a source of national pride in the United States, France 2019 has put women's football well and truly on the map in a global sense.

It trended hugely on social media with celebrities, from Hollywood stars to world leaders, cheering on their teams.

And, just as in the men's game, controversial incidents grabbed the world's attention - not least those which involved the video assistant replay (VAR) system.

While some responses were not suitable for a family audience, others were somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

The host nation embraced the tournament and, while attendances at group games were sometimes disappointing, there was no doubting the enthusiasm as France made it to the quarter-finals.

Like everyone else, they found the USA too strong, but gave the holders a scare at the Parc des Princes in what was dubbed ‘Le Grand Match’.

France's men made it to the semi-finals of the European Under-21 Championships in Italy, but tweets involving the women's side attracted far greater interest.

Beaten finalists the Netherlands went into the tournament as European champions, but their exploits in France have taken their popularity at home to new heights.

It was a similar story in Australia with fans waking up in the early hours to watch their Matildas in action.

Led by forward Sam Kerr, they made it to the last 16 before going out on penalties to Norway.

Even in Spain, where women's football has often been a distant second to the exploits of Real Madrid and Barcelona, there has been a definite shift.

Here's how the players were greeted on their return to Madrid after their narrow 2-1 defeat to the eventual champions in the round of 16.

2. Audiences go through the roof

FIFA had set a target of one billion viewers across the world for the tournament.

While the final figure is not yet known, it has definitely eclipsed the 750 million who watched the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada.

FIFA expect 'one billion viewers' for Women's World Cup in France

FIFA expect 'one billion viewers' for Women's World Cup in France

In Britain, home to the biggest men's football league in the world, England's Lionesses smashed TV viewing records with 11.7 million tuning in to watch their semi-final defeat to the USA.

That made it the most watched television programme of the year so far.

According to the BBC, "Prior to the tournament, the record UK TV audience for a women's football match was four million, but that mark has been broken four times in France."

France's second-round win over Brazil set a new record for a domestic TV audience for a women's football match... in Brazil.

Despite their multiple FIFA Player of the Year award winner Marta, the home of 'joga bonito' had never truly embraced the women's game until now.

An average of 31.2 million in Brazil watched the game although that was almost certainly beaten by the audience for the final.

Crowds at the matches also picked up during the tournament.

Ahead of their semi-final with England, 20,000 USA fans travelled to Lyon with some paying up to 800 euros (900 US$) for a ticket.

Bigger crowds and bigger TV audiences means more representation of women providing the inspiration for girls to take up a sport which has long been a global phenomenon among their male counterparts.

There were no fewer than 62 media rights licensees for France 2019 compared to 37 in 2015.

Also, brands who backed players before the tournament have seen their exposure rise.

It's a snowball effect which will only lead to further growth in the women's game.

Megan Rapinoe celebrates after scoring the opening goal of the final from the penalty spot
Megan Rapinoe celebrates after scoring the opening goal of the final from the penalty spotMegan Rapinoe celebrates after scoring the opening goal of the final from the penalty spot

3. USA a class apart

USA had a redemption mission in France after a quarter-final defeat to Sweden at the Rio 2016 Olympics, their earliest ever exit at a major tournament.

They swept aside all before them.

The USWNT started with a 13-0 thumping of Thailand, the biggest win in FIFA Women’s World Cup history, with Alex Morgan finding the net a record-equalling five times.

Ten of those goals came in the second half alone including a flurry of four in six minutes.

The Stars and Stripes won all of their group games before getting past European rivals Spain, France, and England all by 2-1 margins.

In the final, they were simply too strong for the Netherlands with Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle scoring second-half goals to secure a fourth world title.

Rapinoe, with her lavender-dyed hair and trademark goal celebration, has become a global icon and the most high-profile ambassador for the women's game.

An outspoken advocate of civil rights - she famously became the first white athlete to join Colin Kaepernick's 'take a knee' protest - the 34-year-old made headlines for her blunt response to being asked if she would visit the White House, a tradition for victorious American teams.

That provoked an angry response from President Donald Trump, although he looks to have become a fan judging by his tweet after their victory in the final.

Rapinoe is also passionate about LGBT+ rights with her partner the four-time Olympic basketball gold medallist Sue Bird.

After the quarter-final win over France, she explained that gay footballers were essential to success in the competition.

Despite scooping the player of the tournament and top goalscorer (shared with Alex Morgan) awards, Rapinoe was not going to remain silent about the timing of the competition.

Rapinoe was aggrieved that the Women's World Cup Final, which she said should be "Cancel Everything Day", was held on the same day as the final of the men's Copa America and the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

And she let the world know her displeasure, and why, in the post-final press conference.

The next battle for Rapinoe and the players is off the pitch.

Before flying out to France, they filed a lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) alleging "institutionalised gender discrimination".

The players claim they have been consistently paid less than their male counterparts despite earning more profit, winning more games, and attracting higher TV audience figures.

Ahead of the Women's World Cup, we spoke to some of the players about why they were taking this action.

After notching up their fourth world title to go with their four Olympic golds, there is a real groundswell of support for the USWNT and their quest for equal pay.

4. The teams through to the Tokyo 2020 women's football tournament

The one thing the USA didn't achieve was to qualify for Tokyo 2020.

That's purely because Olympic qualification for the CONCACAF region takes place next year.

Before the World Cup, three teams were already guaranteed their place in next year's tournament - hosts Japan, Copa America winners Brazil and Oceania champions New Zealand.

A total of 12 teams will battle for gold across Japan next year.

Here's a rundown of the qualifiers so far, for a tournament that's now anticipated even more than before following the success of the France 2019 Women's World Cup.

The Netherlands

The Dutch failed to add the world title to the European crown they won on home soil in 2017.

But their quarter-final victory over Italy was enough to secure them a trip to their first Olympic Games.

The Oranjeleeuwinnen knocked out 2011 world champions Japan in the last 16 thanks to a controversial late penalty but, in keeping with much of the tournament, showed great sportsmanship towards their beaten rivals.

There is little doubt that the Dutch are a coming force in women's football and they have youth on their side.

Defender Anouk Dekker was the only player in her 30s in a squad which had an average age of under 26.

Star playmaker Lieke Martens is 26 while 22-year-old Vivienne Miedema is already the most prolific striker in a Dutch shirt - male or female - with 62 goals in 84 games.

While they may have come up short this time, this is a side which will surely improve.

But how are all those fans going to fit into the 'Holland House' hospitality area in Tokyo?

During the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games, Olympic Channel got a sneak peek at what the Dutch party in Japan could look like.

Sweden

Olympic silver medallists Sweden defeated England to claim bronze in France.

In the quarter-finals they exacted revenge on Germany for the Rio 2016 final, beating them for the first time in 24 years to qualify for Tokyo 2020 at the holders' expense.

The Blågult went out to the Netherlands in extra-time in the semi-finals, and they will once again be medal contenders in Japan.

Great Britain

At London 2012, Team GB had a women's team in the Olympic football tournament for the first time as hosts.

The problem before then, and ahead of Rio 2016, was that the football associations of the four home nations - England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland - could not make an agreement to try and send a British team for the Games.

This time, Phil Neville's England - as the highest ranked of the four - would attempt to qualify for Tokyo 2020 with the top three European teams going through.

Having avoided what would have been an embarrassing situation by beating neighbours Scotland in their opening game, England cruised through to the semi-finals with a comfortable 3-0 win over Norway - without FIFA Ballon d'Or winner Ada Hederberg - sealing their place in Japan next year.

Neville will manage a British team, comprising the likes of Silver Ball winner Lucy Bronze, goalscorer Ellen White, and the best of the rest of the home nations, including Scotland midfield general Kim Little.

Read about the incredible story of the evolution of England's Lionesses here.

New Zealand

New Zealand suffered disappointment in France as Cameroon's last-gasp goal ended their slim hopes of reaching the last 16.

But as Oceania champions, they had already qualified for Tokyo 2020, where they will be hoping to get out of their group having failed to do so at Rio 2016.

Their best showing at the Olympics was at London 2012, reaching the quarter-finals before going out to USA.

The NZ hopes in Tokyo, just as in France, depend partly on striker Hannah Wilkinson, whose speedy recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) saw her role in the World Cup.

She'll be hoping for more at the Olympics.

How singing helped New Zealand star Hannah Wilkinson's comeback

How singing helped New Zealand star Hannah Wilkinson's comeback

Brazil

This was perhaps the last chance for six-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta to win the Women's World Cup trophy.

Emotions ran high after their last 16 exit to hosts France, with the 34-year-old giving a heartfelt message to the next generation of Brazilian female players live on TV.

She said, "There’s not going to be a Formiga forever. There’s not going to be a Marta forever. There’s not going to be a Cristiane"

"Women’s football depends on you to survive. So think about that. Value it more. Cry in the beginning so you can smile at the end." - Marta, FIFA Women's World Cup all-time top goalscorer

Formiga became the first player, man or woman, to feature at seven World Cups.

She is already the only participant at every Olympic women's football tournament since its introduction at Atlanta 1996, and hopes to be at Tokyo 2020 for her seventh Games.

At 41, the PSG midfielder is now the oldest player in Women's World Cup history.

Riding the wave

Women's football is in its best shape ever and it's time to capitalise.

While there is still a big gap between the best-paid male and female players, top female footballers are starting to receive annual six-figure salaries with sponsors joining in.

A record number of countries have bid to host the next FIFA Women's World Cup in 2023 but, before then, there is Tokyo 2020 and the 2021 UEFA Women's EURO taking place in England.

Now it is up to the clubs to keep the momentum going.

The English Women's Super League has signed a deal with a major sponsor for the first time, and talks have already begun about playing matches at Premier League grounds next season.

Last year this happened to great effect with Italian giants Juventus, and in Spain where Atlético Madrid's Wanda Metropolitano hosted the biggest attendance for a women's club match in history.

Madrid plays host to women's club football history

Madrid plays host to women's club football history

With the first women's Manchester derby (United and City) on the horizon, and Real Madrid about to launch a women's team, things are taking shape.

If this trend can continue, then FIFA will meet its aim of seeing 60 million girls and women playing football worldwide by 2026.

After France 2019, plenty will have been tempted to lace up the boots and hit the field.

Even more will have been converted into keen supporters of the women's game, boosting prospects for the representation of women in sport and beyond.

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