This Summer’s Women’s World Cup Follows Decades of Challenges On and Off the Field

Predicted to break attendance records, the tournament has already sold over a million tickets

Goal shot
Alex Morgan scores the U.S. team's second goal against England during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup. Richard Heathcote / Getty Images

With over a million tickets sold, the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand could be history’s most attended standalone women’s sporting event, according to FIFA.

“This is the year of women’s football,” wrote Gianni Infantino, the association’s president, in an Instagram post last week, adding that the event will be “the most inclusive and greatest FIFA Women’s World Cup ever.”

Fans are eagerly anticipating this year’s tournament, which will run from July 20 to August 20. By that time, FIFA aims to reach 1.5 million ticket sales.

The event’s current success has been hard-earned. Women’s soccer has long been defined by unequal treatment and unequal access to resources—a struggle that continues today, as the women’s tournament’s total prize money is only about a third of the men’s.

The history of the FIFA Women’s World Cup began just 32 years ago, when China hosted the first official women’s tournament in 1991. But as Time’s Chad de Guzman writes, “International competition among female athletes was already gaining traction before FIFA became involved.”

Organized women’s leagues date back to the late 19th century, when the British Ladies’ Football Club first played in London. Much later, in 1970, an unofficial Women’s World Cup was staged in Italy. Teams from only seven countries competed, and Denmark came out on top.

In 1986, Norwegian delegate Ellen Wille became the first woman to speak before a FIFA Congress, where she advocated for better treatment of women players. When FIFA organized the first Women’s World Cup five years later, it was officially known as the “World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup,” as the Mars candy brand sponsored the event.

The U.S. women celebrate after scoring a goal against England during the 2019 tournament. Marc Atkins / Getty Images

Out of this tournament came a dynasty that continues to this day: the United States women’s national team, which beat out Norway 2-1 to secure the title. On that team was Mia Hamm, who would become the first woman ever inducted into the World Football Hall of Fame, and who has been hailed by many—including Brazilian legend Pelé, who died late last year—as one of the sport’s greatest players

In 1999, Hamm told Jere Longman of the New York Times that her team’s victory in the first ever Women’s World Cup went almost unnoticed. 

“No one met us at the airport, there were no ticker-tape parades,” she said. “One of our sponsors took an ad out in the papers to let people know we had won.”

The U.S. team had to share flights with other teams and make multiple stops on the journey to and from China. According to Time, “Some players even said that their uniforms were hand-me-downs from the men’s teams, and while male players would get to stay at hotels, the women, who were only paid $15 per diem during overseas travel, all bunked in one room at a bed-and-breakfast.”

The U.S. took the trophy home again three more times—1999, 2015 and 2019—and became the most successful team in women’s soccer. And when women’s soccer was first added to the Olympics in 1996, the U.S. women’s Olympic team won a gold medal. 

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A rivalry eventually emerged between the U.S. and Brazilian women’s teams. In 2007, Brazil beat the U.S. in the World Cup semifinals—and then reportedly gloated in their shared hotel afterwards. History seemed destined to repeat itself in 2011, when Brazil went up 2-1 in overtime in the quarterfinals. Had the U.S. lost, the team would’ve experienced its earliest exit yet from the tournament. But in the final seconds of the game, Abby Wambach placed a header perfectly into the goal, tying it up and allowing the U.S. to win in penalty kicks. 

A few years later, in 2014, Sports Illustrateds Grant Wahl ranked the moment among the ten most significant goals in U.S. soccer history. “You kind of wonder how these things are possible,” teammate Carli Lloyd told the publication. “But with this team anything is possible.”

The women’s tournament only started awarding prize money in 2007. This year, the tournament will award $150 million—a significant increase from the $30 million offered for the 2019 tournament, reports ESPN’s Tom Hamilton. But even this is nearly $300 million less than what the men’s tournament awarded last year. 

Pay disparities led to the 2019 lawsuit that the women’s team filed against the U.S. Soccer Federation. Team member Megan Rapinoe—who crossed the ball to Wambach before that legendary goal against Brazil—told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2020 that she believed a “paradigm shift” is needed in women’s sports. When the case was settled in 2022, the women’s team received a multimillion dollar compensation package—and U.S. Soccer agreed to equalize pay between the men and women.

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