A familiar figure was missing when the USA captain Carli Lloyd stepped forward to collect the Women’s World Cup in Vancouver in July. Where was the self-proclaimed “godfather of women’s football”, the man who had presented the trophy to every winner since 1999? The opportunity to bask in reflected glory in front of 50,000-plus spectators and a worldwide TV audience of millions is not one Sepp Blatter would usually forsake.

Alas, in this gruesome year for Fifa the need for discretion meant the organisation’s embattled president was 5,000 miles and nine time zones away. Vancouver’s BC Place is barely 30 miles from the American border. While the FBI were unlikely to send a SWAT team across the 49th parallel it still seems to have been too close for comfort even for a man yet to be indicted with any offence by the US investigation into Fifa corruption. “I won’t take any travel risks until everything has been cleared up,” Blatter had told German newspaper Welt am Sonntag.

The decision would have been taken with regret. Opinions on Blatter’s support for women’s football are mixed. He will never live down the infamous suggestion in 2004 that players wear skimpier shorts to appear sexier. He has also had difficulty recognising such renowned players as Alex Morgan and Marta at Fifa World Player of the Year galas. Only belatedly are women featuring in executive roles at Fifa. Nevertheless, under his watch Fifa has invested in the women’s game and the World Cup has grown hugely in profile and stature. Whether this has been at his behest or not, it has been facilitated. 

This was not guaranteed to happen. The misogyny that the women’s game still attracts in England, belatedly one of the sport’s more engaged nations, is tame compared to the difficulties female footballers face in many parts of the world, often parts whose football associations have been the bedrock of Blatter’s election successes. Nevertheless, Fifa has backed the women’s game globally with age-group competitions and provided finance for individual associations to develop the sport.

The 2015 World Cup, the seventh staging, was expanded from 16 to 24 nations (echoing a similar expansion in the men’s tournament in 1982, the 12th edition). Even with a broader field it was noticeable that none of the 24 qualifiers were from Muslim nations (though Islam is the most popular religion, with 39 per cent of the population adherents, in Côte d’Ivoire which made its debut at this tournament). Of Fifa’s 209 members, 128 countries entered qualifying, plus hosts Canada; among those who did not were the men’s 2022 hosts Qatar.

The other debutants along with Côte d’Ivoire were Cameroon, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and Thailand. At the other end of the scale seven countries maintained their record of appearing at every finals: Brazil, Germany, Japan, Nigeria, Norway, Sweden and United States.

Four of the group seeds came from the ever-presents: Brazil, Germany, Japan and the USA, with France, ranked third in the world, and Canada making up the sextet. Brazil were seeded ahead of higher-ranked Sweden “for geographical reasons” and the gerrymandering did not stop there. Unlike at the men’s finals, all seeds were pre-allocated into groups. This, Fifa eventually admitted to Sports Illustrated, was “for ticketing and promotion reasons” to help matches attract live spectators and TV viewers. Thus the European seeds played in the East, Japan in the West, and Canada in the larger stadia. Placing the US in Winnipeg was harder to fathom but TV ratings, and the cross-border exodus from Minnesota justified the move.

But rigging the draw made it unbalanced with the world’s three top-ranked teams, USA, Germany and France likely to be in the same half come the knock-out stages. Conveniently, Canada, if they won their group, would be in the other half.

United States and Germany, with four wins between them, were favourites, but both had issues. The USA had not won since 1999, when Brandi Chastain helped spark a boom in the sport after celebrating her winning penalty in the final shoot-out against China by whipping off her shirt, exposing a black sports bra and creating one of the sport’s iconic images, one that was on newspaper front pages across the US.

The USA had since won three Olympic golds but had been beaten in the 2011 World Cup final, by Japan on penalties. With the finals so close to home, expectation was high. Fox Sports, the TV network covering the finals in the US, launched the twitter hashtag #scoretosettle ahead of the finals, which proved prescient. 

However, the need to succeed had led US Soccer to fire coach Tom Sermanni 14 months from the finals, replacing the Scot with English-born, US-naturalised Jill Ellis. She had a minor problem with Alex Morgan carrying an injury and a major one in the shape of Hope Solo.

The US goalkeeper was Morgan’s predecessor as the advertiser’s golden girl, but her high-profile reputation had been sullied by a series of brushes with the law. In January 2015 her husband, Jerramy Stevens, a former NFL player himself well-known to police, had been stopped on suspicion of drink-driving. The vehicle was, according to website TMZ, a US team van. When news emerged that Solo was with Stevens, and had “belligerently” contested the arrest, the United States Soccer Federation suspended her for 30 days. Ellis said Solo had made “a poor decision that has resulted in a negative impact on US Soccer and her teammates.” Solo missed matches in France and England, but returned immediately after suspension.

If that was all Solo’s return would have been uncontroversial, but in June 2014 she had been charged with domestic violence offences following a dispute with her half-sister and 17-year-old nephew. The case was dismissed in January, in part because the alleged victims refused to co-operate with police. However, the day before the USA’s opening World Cup match ESPN’s Outside the Lines released a devastating account of the night’s events based on police reports and witness testimony. This depicted Solo as a violent, aggressive drunk who not only assaulted her relatives but also abused the police officers who arrested her. Among her comments was a suggestion that her necklace was worth more than the processing officer earned in a year.

The revelations led to more questions about US Soccer and Ellis’s defence of Solo with a New Yorker article decrying the fact that she was allowed to remain with the team. But as Chile’s retention of Arturo Vidal for their successful Copa América campaign despite a drink-driving incident underlined, it is not easy for a coach to drop a key player. Solo, a two-time Olympic gold medal winner and arguably still the best goalkeeper in the female game, was a key player.

Germany’s problems were much more prosaic, though ultimately more damaging.  The reigning World Player of the Year, Nadine Kessler, was absent with knee injury. The midfielder Fatmire Alushi had announced after playing in the Champions League final for Paris St Germain that she would miss the World Cup due to being pregnant, handing Silvia Neid a problem Joachim Löw will never have to face.

With doubts surrounding the US and Germany, many considered France potential winners. Although they had only once reached a semi-final in either a World Cup or European Championship, a long-standing development programme, which included allowing their youth players to train with young male players at the federation’s Clairefontaine HQ, had produced a very talented squad.

Since those three teams were all likely to be in the same half of the draw several other countries also had reason to hope, notably the holders Japan, the South American champions Brazil and the Swedish team coached by Pia Sundhage, who had twice led the US to Olympic gold. The hosts were also dreaming of the final, boosted by a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic Games and home advantage. 

Canada began their campaign against China in Edmonton, in front of 53,058, the highest home attendance to watch a Canadian national team of either sex. It soon became clear that this home support was very much an advantage as the match was settled by an injury-time penalty every bit as generous as the one enjoyed by another host nation struggling to fire in an opening game, Brazil’s men in 2014.

Nevertheless, the penalty still had to be converted, China’s impressive goalkeeper Zhang Yue still had to be beaten. As more than 50,000 fans tensed up, Christine Sinclair stepped forward. That morning Sinclair, 31, had been on the cover of most Canadian newspapers and described in one as possibly the most important Canadian athlete of her generation. Her face was on advertising hoardings the size of houses, she was the star of several TV commercials being aired, Canada’s flag bearer at the close of the 2012 Olympics, Canadian player of the year a dozen times, and scorer of 153 international goals.

She was also the calmest person in the stadium. She rolled her kick just inside the left-hand post and set off on a sprint that would end in the arms of the Canucks’ Geordie coach John Herdman. “Cometh the hour, cometh the woman,” said Herdman afterwards. The hosts were up and running, but it would prove their only win of the group stage as, even with further refereeing assistance, Canada managed only to draw with New Zealand and the Netherlands. Fortunately for them, and the organisers, they still topped a group so tight only nine goals were scored in six matches.

The following day in Ottawa, Germany put 10 past Côte d’Ivoire, reinforcing their status as contenders and bringing into question the wisdom of expanding the competition to 24 teams. Célia Šašić scored a 28-minute hat-trick and Anja Mittag also hit a treble. It was the biggest finals win since Germany hit 11 against Argentina in 2007 but Clémentine Touré, the coach of Les Éléphantes, said, “From this game, we have positive points we can take out – the experience. It’s our first participation in the World Cup, and there was a great crowd here. Our girls discovered something today – a high level of competition – and it did have an effect on us a little bit. We must forget the score from today, forget the negative points and learn from this.”

Indeed, even though Switzerland would also score ten, against an Ecuador team that had already shipped six to Cameroon, the general consensus was teams would not improve without this exposure. The underlying problem was a lack of resources and opportunity. Côte d’Ivoire did not play at all between qualifying in October and May, when they met Cameroon in their only tournament warm-up. They proved swift learners, losing 3-1 to Norway in their third match while Ecuador bowed out with a one-goal defeat by Japan. 

The traditional World Cup Group of Death made its bow on Day Three. With the United States joined by Nigeria, Australia and Sweden it was a justified appellation, even if, with three teams potentially qualifying (as 24 teams were reduced to a knock-out stage of 16), death would be singular. Just how competitive the group would be was obvious with the US grateful for Solo’s excellence as they held off a bright Australia team. That followed a lively 3-3 draw between Sweden and Nigeria with the Super Falcons’ quick and powerful attack bringing them back from two-down at the break.

The action then moved east to Moncton, within reach of the Atlantic Ocean and the odd one out in the list of venues. Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Montreal are all major cities with populations well over half a million. There are 70,000 residents of Moncton and, although technically a city, it feels like a town. ‘Fifa’ as the World Cup was called in the local press, vied for headlines with news of repairs to highway moose fencing while the main attraction in the video presented at the World Cup draw was the Magic Mountain theme park’s water slide. The “coolest thing to do” according to the tourist board is watch the Petitcodiac River’s Tidal Bore, though the two England players sunbathing in Bore Park when I checked the phenomenon  out missed it (which was not difficult).

While the suburbs sprawl and there are malls a mile or so from town, the centre effectively consists of one main street with an attractive mix of bars, restaurants and small stores. So limited are the accommodation options that the four teams billeted in town, England, France, Mexico and Colombia, shared two hotels, which made for some minor embarrassments once the matches got underway. On the plus side the players mingled with fans and reporters in the downtown bars. One night two England players, Fran Kirby and Alex Greenwood, both then 21, were turned away from Bubba’s sports bar for lacking proof of age. The following night bar staff would have seen Kirby scoring a goal and Greenwood making one as England’s campaign gained a belated start with victory over Mexico. 

Moncton was chosen in part because Toronto was preparing to host the Pan-Am Games, in part because Calgary is too close geographically to Edmonton, but also because the city has aggressively pursued event staging. The matches were hosted at the university’s athletics arena, which featured makeshift seating on three sides but not much cover, which was unfortunate as it rains in New Brunswick in June. 

As noted, the rigged draw meant some teams would be better off finishing second in their group rather than first, notably those in Group F who would thus probably avoid Germany and the United States. This did not, however, explain why England approached their opening game against France as though seeking a narrow defeat. That losing was potentially beneficial may have been at the back of coach Mark Sampson’s mind, but at the front was the memory of a winter’s day seven months earlier when the chill running down his spine was not just the consequence of the freezing rain. England’s women had been granted the honour of a Wembley international, their debut on the hallowed turf and final recognition by the Football Association that it had been wrong, in 1921, to strangle a then-buoyant women’s game by refusing to allow matches in stadiums under their jurisdiction.

With a transport strike limiting ticket sales the match sold out. Sampson, confident after a qualifying campaign that produced ten straight wins and 52 goals, sent out an attacking team designed to thrill those 45,000-plus fans who had braved the weather and transport chaos. Germany tore it apart, scoring twice in 15 minutes, adding another before the break, then easing off. “It was horrible walking down the tunnel at half-time,” said Sampson. “We wanted to go toe-to-toe but we got punished. We learnt some big lessons.” 

England, sitting deep and deploying one striker even after going behind to Eugénie Le Sommer’s 25-yard drive just before the half-hour managed one shot on target, a tame one easily caught by Sarah Bouhaddi. It was, wrote the Globe & Mail, “heart versus art, as it’s so often when England plays France, in men’s or women’s soccer. Stout hearts against sophisticated technique.” Technique won, 1-0, though had the refereeing been stronger the result may have been different as Camille Abily escaped sanction after elbowing Laura Bassett in the face.

Later in the evening there was a more edifying tale as Marta, once labelled ‘Pelé in skirts’ by the original, converted a penalty against South Korea in Montreal to become the all-time leading scorer in the World Cup with 15 goals.

Brazil would go on to win all their group matches without moving into top gear, as did Japan. The other contenders, however, found life tougher. Germany were held by Norway, the USA by Sundhage’s Sweden, and France astonishingly lost to Colombia, for whom Lady Andrade caught the eye “skilling up” her exalted opponents.

That put England under pressure, but they nervously beat Mexico before silencing vociferous Colombian support in an echoing Olympic Stadium (Montreal was the one venue that never seemed to ‘get’ the competition). That earned them second place behind France who had responded to defeat by putting five past Mexico.

The USA also topped their group. Ellis seemed unsure of her attacking line-up and the team took heavy criticism back home, but a 1-0 win over Nigeria carried them through. Abby Wambach, the highest international goalscorer in history, male or female, again delivered when it mattered. 

Nigeria thus went home, but Cameroon flew the flag for Africa, beating Switzerland to progress. Spain, who had disappointed, also left along with the Kiwis, who had been badly served by referees. Sweden, finalists in 2003, semi-finalists in 2011, qualified, but only on goal difference ahead of Thailand as the fourth and last best third-placed team. 

The Swedes’ reprieve was brief, Germany steamrollering them 4-1 in the round of 16. Norway also exited, beaten by an England team that came from behind to win their first knock-out match at this level. The remaining debutants, Cameroon, Netherlands and Switzerland all lost, but did so narrowly. They had justified the competition’s expansion.  

The round of 16’s surprise was in Moncton where Brazil went down to Australia, beaten by Kyah Simon’s 80th-minute goal. This was the fourth World Cup finals for Marta, the five-times World Player of the Year, and her fourth failure. She will be 30 this year and it looks as though the greatest prize will elude her.

The Matildas were the only surprise team in the last eight, as the matches became tighter. There had been no need even for extra time in the first eight knock-out matches, but the ninth went to penalties.

This was a pity because France v Germany, in Montreal, was probably the highest quality match of the finals. It certainly featured the teams with the best mix of technique and power. It should also have been settled inside 90 minutes. France unexpectedly dominated, but Nadine Angerer kept them at bay until Louisa Nécib’s 64th-minute goal. That limited reward seemed enough until, with five minutes left, another controversial refereeing decision, a harsh penalty for handball, gave Germany a way back. Šašić calmly scored her sixth goal of the tournament. Still France should have won the match but with four minutes left of extra time remaining Gaëtane Thiney contrived to shoot wide of an open goal. 

And so to the 12-yard torment. The first eight penalties were scored. Šašić then again converted. Claire Lavogez, who had earlier been guilty of a penalty-box dive as laughable as it was rare, stepped up. She was five days past her 21st birthday, the youngest player in the team. Her kick was weak and Angerer had guessed correctly. France, once more, were prematurely out.

The hosts soon followed, defeated 2-1 in Vancouver in front of another 50,000-plus gate by an English team that reached the last four for the first time. The loquacious Herdman, a youth coach for Sunderland until he realised his lack of playing pedigree would stymie his career, was asked if he had regretted not pursuing the chance to manage his native country when the job was vacant 18 months earlier. “You ask the players where they’d rather live,” he said. “And this is a real football country. Women’s football country! So I don’t care what the result is tonight, those fans showed everyone around the world how to support the women’s game …” Then he paused, and added, “Ah, you nearly got us there. I was about to go off on one. But I’m not. But I’ll tell you where I’ll be Sunday [when the final is played]: I’ll be walking around that seafront with my wife and my kids and looking ahead to the future.”

In the other matches Japan edged past Australia with an 87th minute goal and the USA again did just enough, beating China 1-0. It was not a performance to quell the critics, led by Michelle Akers, the goalscoring hero of the USA’s triumph in the inaugural World Cup back in 1991. Akers had told SiriusXM radio, in response to Ellis declaring herself happy with the team’s performances, “When I say, ‘Hey man, I’ll take an ugly World Cup win,’ I’m dealing with the now. And the now is, we don’t have all our pieces together, we aren’t performing at our best, some of our coaching decisions are unexplainable. If [Ellis] is pleased with the way we played, then what the hell is she doing coaching our US team?”

Ellis, however, appeared to possess a quality all coaches need: she was lucky. An hour into the semi-final against Germany, with the match deadlocked, the hitherto commanding central defender Julie Johnston misjudged a bouncing ball enabling Alexandra Popp to get behind her. Johnston pulled back Popp, a clear professional foul, but was booked, not dismissed. Šašić, so deadly from the spot against France, pulled her penalty wide. Four minutes later Annike Krahn, another previously reliable defender, blocked Morgan. The offence was outside the box, but a penalty was given. This one was tucked away, by Lloyd. With a late second the USA were back in the final.

The second semi-final, England against Japan, was also dramatic. Again each team was awarded a penalty, but this time both were scored and the match seemed destined for extra-time when Bassett, who had had a fine tournament, freakishly diverted a cross past her own goalkeeper from the edge of the area. The ball having gone in off the crossbar, the goal was only given after the intervention of goal line technology. It was not lost on English viewers that this aid had only been introduced after England had been denied a goal, in the 2010 men’s World Cup, by its absence.

The nature of the denouement was a relief to the officials as it overshadowed more refereeing blunders. Japan’s penalty was given for an offence outside the box, England’s won by what appeared to be a dive. 

Refereeing is an issue that Fifa will have to look at. While the desire to use female referees is understandable, they have to be up to the job, and in this tournament few were. The problem is the Women’s World Cup has grown quicker than the supply of referees – there are very few women officials with any experience of intense, competitive matches in front of 50,000-strong crowds. As an indication of the difficulties, England’s Women’s Super League (where spectators usually number around 1,000) often has male officials as there are too few sufficiently qualified women.

The need will only increase as women’s games are going to become harder to officiate. At present there is very little dissent while simulation and violent play are both rare (Abily’s elbow on Bassett and a vicious off-the-ball elbow by Ugo Njoku of Nigeria that laid out Australia’s Sam Kerr – and resulted in a three-match ban – were the only nasty incidents). But as much as its supporters like to think the women’s game will not be affected by the cheating and dissent prevalent in the men’s it will surely seep in as the stakes rise.

A degree of gamesmanship is already present. In an unusually competitive play-off for third place between old rivals England and Germany there was a confrontation when defenders attempted to surround Fara Williams as she prepared to take yet another penalty, this one correctly given in the 108th minute. Williams despatched her third successful kick of the tournament to give England their first win over Germany, at the 21st attempt.

Another piece of chicanery was in Canadians’ minds as the final approached. A US win on their soil was the worst possible outcome for many. In the Olympic semi-final three years previously, in Manchester, a Sinclair hat-trick had put Canada 3-2 up against the USA with the seconds ticking down. Literally so, in the case of Wambach, who stood next to the referee and counted the seconds that Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod stood holding the ball. It worked. A free-kick was given. This led to a corner, from which the Americans levelled. In extra-time they won the tie. Few Canadians had forgiven Wambach.

Some may have drawn consolation from Wambach beginning the final on the bench as Ellis started with only five survivors from the XI that had started the 2011 final compared with Japan’s eight. While it is doubtful that these were the best two teams in the competition, the United States certainly delivered the most devastating opening. Sixteen minutes into the contest it was no longer a contest, the Americans being 4-0 up. Lloyd had taken advantage of some poor defending to score twice with Lauren Holiday adding another before Lloyd scored with a shot from the half-way line. She was the first player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final since Geoff Hurst in 1966. Although Japan recovered to 4-2 soon after the break, Tobin Heath quickly quashed thoughts of a shock resuscitation. Wambach was on at the finish, celebrating the one medal she lacked to cap a remarkable career that has taken her from upstate New York to dinner at the White House.

In Blatter’s absence trophy handover duties were assumed by Issa Hayatou, the controversial Cameroonian football baron who may be hoping to assume some of Blatter’s less ceremonial duties when the Swiss steps aside. If so he was given a taste of the possible future as he was booed.

The final attracted an average 26.7m viewers in the US, a record for any national team match (male or female), and 11.6m viewers in Japan. This was in keeping with a tournament that broke broadcast and attendance records (although the latter was helped by Fifa counting twice spectators attending double-headers regardless of whether they watched both games). 

Despite the expansion, playing standards were generally higher. Goalkeeping remains a weakness, but not enough account is taken of the fact that female goalkeepers are significantly shorter than their male counterparts and have often received little specialist coaching. The sport, it is sometimes forgotten, is relatively young, women’s football having been neglected even in major western European countries until the early 1970s. Video footage of the seventh men’s World Cup (Chile 1962) is not flattering to goalkeepers of the time, even the great Lev Yashin.

The United States’ triumph meant the winning coach was female; Ellis was one of eight women coaches of 24. This is unsurprising. Only 1% of Uefa coaching licences are held by women (101 out of 9,488). 

There are other areas where the women feel second-best. Wambach led a players’ revolt against the imposition of artificial pitches arguing (probably correctly) it would not happen to the men. This was another reason for the hosts to dislike the US team. No Canadian players signed the petition and many fans noted Wambach’s club, New York Western Flash, play on artificial turf.

Had Blatter been in Vancouver he could have pointed out to Wambach, as he presented the gold medal, that the surface obviously did not cause her team too many problems. Indeed, the fear of related injuries proved false, although it did affect some games – Sampson said England played a higher line against Japan, enabling them to press the midfield, as they were confident the ball over the top would run off. But if Wambach lost the battle she won the war as well as the Cup. Future tournaments, it was promised, will be on grass, starting with France in 2019.

Progress is being made in most areas. At the first Women’s World Cup, in 1999, perceived gender weakness meant matches only lasted 80 minutes, there was no prize money, one sponsor and a dozen teams. That was an experiment. The Women’s World Cup is now the globe’s biggest female single sport event and Fifa’s second biggest competition. Prize money this year totalled $13.6m. This is less than 4% that on offer at the 2014 men’s World Cup, but unlike the women’s tournament that makes a profit, a huge one which pays for the women’s finals and much else. It is, though, now a matter of when, rather than if ever, the women’s tournament pays it own way.