The USA's victory at the Women's World Cup and Fifa's failings amid the indifference of France
Nothing can quite prepare you for your first World Cup. Especially when it is being billed as likely the ‘biggest ever’ Women’s World Cup. Perhaps I was too keen when I was essentially asked what I wanted to cover and replied “as many games as possible”. It felt like a good idea at the time. In hindsight, it still does. But in the heat of travel day, match day, travel day, repeat, it sometimes felt like a misguided one.
For me, this World Cup began back in 2017. With the European Championship in the Netherlands just weeks away I was approached to write a weekly women’s football column in the Guardian. Delighted, but watching that tournament from my sofa, I set my sights on France and doing everything possible with my two-year run up to get there, one way or another. In many ways, the momentum of my writing on women’s football reflected and directly resulted from the momentum building behind women’s football in England. It was an exciting time to be covering the women’s game. A new England manager was in and, regardless of a complete FA balls-up of the Mark Sampson scandal and the subsequently distasteful way in which Phil Neville was appointed, expectations started to rise. Moreover, the Netherlands’ surprise victory in their home Euros1 showed European growth.
The domestic game in England had, and has, overall, benefited – although there have been many casualties that surely could have been avoided along the way – from the increased attentions of the FA and its three-year Gameplan for Growth. The 2019 World Cup may not have been a target in that plan – in fact being competitive by the 2023 edition was the aim, this edition deemed to be arriving too soon into the project – but the Lionesses were going to France with a serious chance.
And with the eyes of the country, and the world, on the tournament, phenomenal goalkeeping, VAR controversies, Thailand’s first ever World Cup goal, ticketing crises, England’s charge, perceived US arrogance, Europe’s dominance and, of course, Megan Rapinoe, meant there was no shortage of talking points. Finally millions of people were talking about the football. Not whether women should be playing football, or whether they could, but the games, the movements, the issues.
However if I was unprepared for my first Women’s World Cup, and the effect it would have on me, France was even more so. Steaming into the Gare du Nord on the Eurostar, I was hyped. Paris, though, seemingly wasn’t. I bounded off the train keen to join the excited masses; instead there was nothing. Well, not nothing, just the usual station bustle. No posters, no Women’s World Cup presence at all. The Champs Elysées was lined with Roland Garros banners. Heading towards the stadium a lone taxi bearing the image of a women footballer, but with nothing to suggest why, sped past. The Parc des Princes itself was low key, signage nearby reserved for pointing media and VIPs to their various entrances.
First up on my journey was Fifa’s two-day Women’s Football Convention, a slightly surreal event. Taking place following the Fifa Congress, the convention used the same restrictive hall with the press penned off from attendees and required to use a separate entrance and back rooms. The talk was good, mostly, but, as some in attendance commented later, talk has become more than cheap in the arena of women’s football.
The event had barely begun and I was required to dash from the conference venue to the stadium to catch the opening press conferences of France and South Korea and then the opening ceremony press conference. The former gave me the first taste of the dry, direct humour of France manager Corrine Diacre, the latter the opportunity to put some questions to the head of the Local Organising Committee Erwin Le Prevost on the physical presence of the opening game and competition in general.
“Depends what you’re expecting from posters and setting up an event in the city?” he said. “The means we have available to us is bigger every year in every competition thanks to Fifa support. It’s a Women’s World Cup by Fifa, the main aim is to fill the stadiums and to have the biggest TV audience possible.”
It was bullish, and a crude dismissal of questions over how you actually fill stadiums, how you motivate people to attend and the power of a physical, as opposed to digital, presence and mass marketing. Their strategy, though, was exposed. Because contrary to the assertion that 20 games were sold out before a ball was kicked, the material reality was very different. Not a single game was immune to pockets of empty seats, except perhaps the much-anticipated France v USA quarter final.
The Netherlands v Cameroon match in Valenciennes was the first game other than the final, semis and opening game supposedly to have sold out but the mass of orange was punctured by empty red seats. Yet months in advance tickets were unavailable to punters. I should know: with my mum coming over as I was missing her 60th birthday, I tried repeatedly to get her and my sister resale tickets to no avail.
The logistics of the job soon kicked in. The 9pm kick off, a regular feature of games in the tournament, meant escaping the beautiful brutalist concrete ground at gone 1am. With a flight at 9.50am the next morning, a seemingly civilised time in any normal context, five hours of sleep was barely achieved – and that would become the norm.
In Nice the first thing that hits you, other than the sticky heat, is the inflated cost of everything. The French Riviera isn’t exactly known for being France’s bargain basement but food and taxis were extortionate. I dumped my bags in my hotel and headed to the stadium for my first experience of the England press pack on tour. A mixture of younger, newer women’s football journalists and a host of names more synonymous with the men’s game had already been clicking; I had been following the banter train from afar via the FA’s England media WhatsApp group, which was initially set up for logistics, but descended into social organising, piss-taking and general chaos.
After the Phil Neville and Shelley Kerr MD-1 press conferences (tournament football becomes a world of codes: Matchday-1, MD-2, MD+1 as the usual designations of Monday, Tuesday... blur into one homogeneous mass) a string of taxis headed into the Old Town for food, with my husband and six year old, out for three days, joining the mass of journos for dinner. As we plodded round Nice in the soul-sapping heat, particularly for the kiddo, Scotland fans ahead of the opener were out in force. In the stands though they were outnumbered, and their side ended up losing 2-1.
As the England pack departed for Le Havre the following day, and the family headed home, I picked up two women’s football stalwarts, one suffering an immense hangover, and set off on a three and a half hour drive to Montpellier for Canada v Cameroon. It was my first time in a left-hand drive and first time on French roads bar a brief wedding booze run to Calais in 2016, and it was eventful. First there was attempting to record the Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast pulled up on a busy road in a village on the outskirts of Nice, then I drove for 20 minutes with my door open and an alarm beeping periodically, before finally an exasperating search for the hotel car park around the one-way system from hell saw me drive down a pavement while my companions carefully attempted to placate a sweary meltdown.
After less than 24 hours in Montpellier, with Cameroon’s chaotic but exciting football causing all kinds of trouble for Canada’s resolute defence the midpoint, it was back to Nice on a drive extended by two hours as three accidents crippled the roads.
Up next was France v Norway and to say I was a little distracted was an understatement. Extreme panic set in when I realised I’d left my phone on the seat of the taxi I’d just leapt out of, distracted by arguing with intransigent steward while trying to get within a 15-minute walk of the media entrance. With no way of contacting the driver I half-ran to the stadium media centre to get connected to WiFi. With the help of Find My iPhone, a French journalist, my fluent dad (from afar) and a super nice cab driver, my phone was delivered to my hotel’s reception. A new VAR controversy, Ingrid Engen seemingly getting the ball ahead of Marion Torrent but being penalised with a penalty, and an own goal from the usually unerring Wendie Renard shared my screen with my tracked mobile.
An 8.40am flight to Paris again tested me after a weary late KO and finish. Picking up a hire car in the French capital I headed north, passing from tree-covered hills to the industrial grey of Le Havre in the blink of an eye.
A very welcome 3pm kick off in Valenciennes for the Netherlands v Cameroon, after a smooth three-hour drive east towards the Belgium border, meant a first look at the European champions and their uniformed dancing swarm of fans that weaves it was towards the stadium before every match. Gabrielle Onguéné’s strike cancelled out Vivianne Miedema’s header to leave the Oranje sweating a little more than planned at half time. Two second-half goals secured the win but the Dutch team’s defensive frailties were again on show. As were my mum’s organisational frailties. Despite warning that over 22,000 fans were descending on a town with a population of 44,000 she had decided not to book a table for dinner.
Watching France’s final group game, against Nigeria, at Roazhon Park was unlike Nice and Paris because Rennes is much more of a football city. There, the crowd was buoyant, the Rennes ultras occupying their usual spot behind the goal and chanting, singing and lighting flares. Renard’s twice-taken penalty to ensure France topped Group A left Nigeria manager Thomas Dennerby fuming on the final whistle. “If I gave you honest opinions, they would probably send me home,” he said. Yes, Chiamaka Nnadozie had stepped off her line, and was booked for it, but Renard hit the post making the Nigerian’s movements inconsequential. The rule was then amended mid-tournament to remove the automatic card as Fifa panicked, seemingly fearing that they would see a raft of goalkeepers sent off in penalty shoot- outs for unintentional infringement of a rule many were struggling to adhere to.
The match itself was hard to judge, England were good, the starts for Georgia Stanway and Rachel Daly were effective, but Japan were poor, their finishing awful.
England’s next game, against Cameroon, was utterly bizarre. An elbow to the face of Parris by Yvonne Leuko set the tone for the match. An indirect free-kick from inside the box after Augustine Ejangue poked a back pass to the goalkeeper Annette Ngo Ndom saw the entire squad stand along the goal line, but still concede. Before the end of the first half Cameroon looked as if they were about to walk off, fuming at Ellen White’s clearly onside goal being give after a VAR review. I had not seen anything like it, nor had many of the watching media as the team initially refused to restart the match, their manager helpless on the touchline. A resurgent second half and the Cameroonians were close to another boycott after Ajara Nchout’s goal was ruled out for an extremely marginal, but nevertheless correct, offside. For the underdogs though, it was another injustice, and the referee struggled to contain their frustrations. VAR was again consulted, but ignored, for a Fran Kirby penalty appeal and Steph Houghton was clattered off the pitch while her ankle was raked with the referee safely swinging a yellow card in the air as the match drew to a close. It was later understood that Fifa believed that the referee, whose performance was adjudged as good, made mistakes in her late decisions in the interest of concluding the game with both teams on the pitch – for me, unheard of.
Back in Rennes, I walked to my hotel – this time, presumably because of short availability, a very plush place. A knock on the door at 7pm and I was presented, much to my amusement, with a plate of mini meringues. I needed it, and for close to 24 hours I crashed. Holed in luxury, I doodled a picture of Canada’s Jessie Fleming for the Mifa project (which brings together artists and designers to design stickers of players missing from the official Panini album) then spent the next day in bed watching Love Island and ignoring a mounting pile of work.
Another controversial penalty conceded by Japan, this time Saki Kumagai penalised after Vivianne Miedema’s shot ricocheted off her limp arm, put the Dutch through. Ultimately, it was the lack of any kind of cutting edge in front of goal that hampered Japan’s campaign and was eventually their undoing as they failed to capitalise on their periods of ascendancy.
With a friend in tow, I drove back to Le Havre for England’s most complete performance, in the quarter-finals against Norway. The press pack reunited in our regular and I spent match day doing my expenses, going in search of a post office so I could send off receipts and taking another trip to the launderette. With no air con in my hotel and the heat wave in full flow I felt my luxury stay in Rennes was being counterbalanced.
With Caroline Graham Hansen passed fit to play for Norway, nerves were high. But Jill Scott’s fourth-minute goal eased them. I celebrated. I couldn’t help it. And when Bronze’s belter flew in for England’s third I was on my feet, not least because I had backed the right horse for my sidebar. The frustrations over England’s changing media schedule, which prompted a host of journos bombarding travel teams to get plans changed, were well and truly forgotten. We were riding high on the England wave.
Then the race was on for the hottest game on the Women’s World Cup ticket. France’s quarter-final against reigning champions the USA, to determine England’s semi-final opponents, was just hours away: a dash to the hotel, a hurriedly ordered KFC to the working area by the reception, 800 words of England follow-up written, and then a brisk walk to the stadium on the advice of others who had warned of an almighty media queue.
They were right to urge haste. The queue snaked across the concrete outside the ground as staff handed out water. Inside, three hours before the game, almost all working area seats were already taken. It was a huge evening. Megan Rapinoe’s two goals to pour scorn on President Trump’s mocking “put your money where your mouth is” response to her “I’m not going to the fucking White House” comment were spectacular.
And post-match there was no sign of her holding back. “Go gays!” she said after the 2-1 quarter-final victory in Paris and when asked to comment on whether it being Pride month made her contribution more personally significant. “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team – it’s never been done before, ever. That’s science, right there! I’m motivated by people who like me, who are fighting for the same things. I take more energy from that than from trying to prove anyone wrong. That’s draining on yourself. But for me, to be gay and fabulous, during Pride month at the World Cup, is nice.”
The walk through the Parc de la Tete d’Or to the England team hotel in Lyon was scorching but calm, though the press conference rooms were as far from calm as is possible. After a round table with Parris I crammed myself between a couple of video cameras and, while journalists were standing against the walls and sitting on the floor around the chairs, Bronze, the focus of attention, was bemused.
A brief deluge of rain, the first and last of the trip, meant a jump in cabs to somewhere for dinner. There, tournament fever showed it had fully hit with Phil Neville quotes hangman played as we amused ourselves with a paper fortune teller on the match’s outcome folded out of a placemat.
With the official Fifa press conferences again having shuffled around, once we had confirmation that Neville’s would be taking place at 6.30pm on MD-2, the Sunday before England v USA, I hit the WhatsApp group. Having covered the work of Equal Playing Field, which promotes and campaigns for equality in sport and uses the PR impact of breaking Guinness World Records to do so, I was keen to rope as many as possible into their World Cup venture – the record for the longest ever five-a-side game. With a bit of cajoling and the work of EPF head of communications Maggie Murphy, we got a group of just shy of 20 journalists registered and ready to take part after the Neville’s press conference taking place the following day.
Together with a fellow journalist I dashed to buy shin pads and shorts before heading to the Lyon academy where the EPF-, Adidas- and Twitter-sponsored attempt was taking place. I was also speaking there in a workshop on being a sports journalist. At the front were Shabnam and Mina, two Afghanistan national team players, one of whom I had worked closely with in covering the violent abuse of members of the team. After the success we’d had forcing Fifa to take notice, it was an extremely emotional meeting.
As ‘hotelgate’ broke (members of staff for the USWNT having been spotted looking around England’s hotel, they said to prepare for moving in ahead of the final), deadlines became stretched and I feared for the EPF match. Luckily, for once, poor organisation came to the rescue, with stewards booting writers out of the stadium after an hour. A weary group hopped in minibuses to the academy and got changed. What followed was fun, sweat and relief none of us realised we desperately needed. One by one we were subbed in, played for as long as we felt able, then were subbed out. I kept a clean sheet, a nod to the goalkeeping of my youth.
On Tuesday I left for the stadium early to join a media briefing with Fifa’s head of women’s football. With my chilled EPF metal water bottle in hand I went through security, only to have it confiscated in 40-degree heat as ‘only plastic bottles’ are allowed. Instead I had to settle for the lukewarm bottles of water in the media centre.
The opening fixtures of the Women’s Super League season were announced by the FA, a Manchester derby a highlight, in a clever attempt to draw some of the huge international audience watching back home into the domestic game.
When the team sheet arrived there were gasps, Rapinoe was benched, later said to be due to injury, while Neville had split up the Bronze/Parris right wing. The US though, would win the tactical battle and continue their run of scoring in the first 12 minutes of each of their five games, Christen Press catching Bronze out of position and heading in under no pressure at all to open the scoring. It was agonising to watch, but there was hope as the in-form Ellen White poked in Beth Mead’s cross for the leveller, followed by despair as England’s backline buckled when Lindsey Horan sent a cross in for Alex Morgan to head home, and agony as White had a second ruled out for the narrowest of offsides and Steph Houghton missed a late penalty. Then it was over.
You could argue Neville tinkered once too often, that the starting XI was wrong, the formation not up to scratch, the defence too shaky, but ultimately, while England pushed the Americans hard, they were a class above.
We were deflated, but had little time to be. Many departed for Nice and the third-place play-off the following morning. I travelled into town for the launch of the Association Football Development Programme’s launch of its #FearlessFootball campaign aimed at eradicating the abuses suffered by women in football.
Later that evening and after a period of reflection on England’s World Cup, I was back at the Stade de Lyon for the second semi-final between Sweden and the Netherlands. It was dull, really dull. I just about kept my eyes open; a couple of others struggled to do that. Great goalkeeping from then unsigned pair Sari van Veenendaal and Hedvig Lindahl was the only saving grace. With every person in the press box praying for the match to end in normal time it was inevitable that it wouldn’t. Luckily, Jackie Groenen’s 99th minute goal at least gave us the result early in added time.
The morning of the final felt strange. Five weeks’ work, not counting the two years of build-up, would be reaching its culmination that evening. Arriving at the ground, this time with a plastic water bottle, my mood switched when that too was confiscated for not being from the tournament’s water sponsor. I may have yelled “I’m a journalist not a criminal” at the security demanding I once again ditch it in over 30-degree heat, much to the amusement of those nearby. Inside though, attentions returned to the first meeting of the reigning world champions and the European champions in the final. It was only ever going to go one way. Rapinoe, returned to the starting line- up, secured the Golden Boot, Golden Ball and World Cup with a second half penalty after the Netherlands had done what others had failed to do, keeping out the US for over an hour. A stunner from Rose Lavelle sealed victory.
The Fifa president Gianni Infantino entered the field to boos for the trophy presentation before chants of “equal pay” echoed around the ground, indicating just how effective the American players had been at using their platform to fight for more.
And again there was no sign of them holding back, the purple-haired Rapinoe saying in her post match press conference: “We as players, every player at this World Cup, put on the most incredible show that you could ever ask for. We cannot do anything more to impress more, to be better ambassadors, to take on more, to play better or do anything. It’s time to take it forward to the next step.
A little public shame never hurt anybody, right? I’m down with the boos.”
So was I.