In May 2019 when we were recording “Two Girls World Cup” I was trying to pull together stats in order to take a guess at who would win the golden boot. I made up a game called “booze from a boot” and the loser would have to drink beer from a stinky football boot. Understandably I did not want to lose so research was crucial. I had to get it spot on. From memory I think I picked Le Sommer as golden boot and I’d spent hours pulling together as much information as I could on all the strikers involved in the competition. Unfortunately there was very little out there. I read articles, searched wikipedia pages but the best I could find was their wiki stats. For anyone that cares... I didn't lose (thank goodness).
I feel like the women’s football world has changed so much in the 750+ days since the world cup final. Back then I remember none of my local footie team could pronounce the name Miedema and my Dads mates would say things like “there’s a lass from the north east who plays in that England squad!” because they'd read it in the local newspaper.
May 2019 was pre-Lucy Bronze being the GOAT. It was pre-11 million TV views, it was pre-TV rights deals and merchandise opportunities, it was pre-big money Chelsea signings and everything else that came with the brand awareness exercise that was The 2019 World Cup in France. The landscape has changed so much in two years that I barely recognise it from sitting in the stands at the Euros final in 2017.
I feel like the best way of putting it is bwc and awc (“before world cup” and “after world cup”) because dwc (during the world cup) it was like the moment the rollercoaster started moving up the tracks, ready for the big drop. I feel like most clubs and nations have ridden that wave. Most...
The Olympics has been the first glimpse of official, important international football since that incredible 2019 tournament and I think it’s been the most telling look at the huge developments that have been made at club level and national level since the tourno. Personally I think the standard has improved (again) and the entertainment value is at an all time high.
But lets take a look at some facts.
Sweden went into this Tokyo Olympics final after a 3rd place finish in WWC2019. In the words of Sara in a recent episode of “The Women’s Soccer Show”: “Sweden have always been good” and she’s right! Sweden (in comparison to most nations) have taken their women’s team more seriously. Sweden have appeared in 8 world cups (they came runner up in 2003), they got a silver medal at the Olympics in 2016 amongst a bunch of other accolades but they’ve only really had proper funding, travel arrangements, food, coaches and the rest since 2018-ish! Then you look at the players. What’s changed for the Sweden players? How have they personally developed in the 750+ days since they crashed out of the World Cup semi finals?
Across the starting 11 for Sweden v Australia there were three 2020/21 league winners. All three league winners came from different clubs around Europe. Since their World Cup 2019 bronze medal finish the starting 11 have played a combined 33,000+ minutes (420+ fixtures) in the run up to this tournament. The team have evidently been selected on merit with only 2 players playing less than 30 fixtures since WWC2019 (Goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl who was injured and superstar Hannah Glas who’s suffered with ACL issues).
Off the pitch Sweden have had an infrastructure change since 2019 with additional coaching staff and funding at national level but more importantly players are all on full time paid contracts and have (pretty much) consistently played or trained since the world cup (barring the dreaded Covid outbreak). There is no one that can tell me that elite players can switch ability on and off. Players need to play. They need to play important games, they need to train, they need to feel the pressure, they need to grow in confidence. There is no elite physical sport in the world where practice doesn't make perfect.
I said back in May 2021 that I felt Sweden would win the Olympics and I felt Netherlands would come close (football can be a cruel game) but I felt this way because you look across that Sweden squad and there’s captains, champions league finalists, breakthrough players (Bennison!) and athletes that have constantly developed their skills. 2019-2021 saw players being allowed to utilise men's training facilities at club level. WWC2019 instigated change in the infrastructure of clubs and how they treated women.
It’s pretty simple to be honest: investment = an improvement in standard = a growth in followers = return on investment.
Taking a look at GB, USA and Canada
Sweden are the perfect example of a team that’s developed since the World Cup in 2019 but the same applies to Canada, GB, Australia, Netherlands and many others. The majority of players are at top 4 clubs, playing 9 months a year, in full time contracts and utilising the opportunities (sponsorship, accessibility) that come with becoming household names.
I took a look at 4 teams and their development, game time and club level performances since the WWC2019. The starting 11 Canadian squad that beat USA in the semi finals consisted of 7 European players and 4 NWSL players. They’d played a combined 20,000 club level minutes since the 2019 finals. GB had 8 Man City starters, 2 Arsenal and 1 Houston Dash player for their game against Australia. This 11 has racked up 30,000 combined minutes since the World cup. Rachel Daly even travelled across the world to play WSL football whilst in her off season to rack up more elite minutes. Man City (who make up the majority of the squad) train in some of the best facilities in the world alongside some of the most famous player in the world (like Jack Grealish…lol) and the players are beginning to get mega 6 figure yearly contracts and lucrative sponsorship deals to play 20+ games a season for their clubs. They've had a rocky tournament (a temporary head coach, bad selection and not their normal set up) but there is forward movement from player to player and lots of new players coming through.
For me, the only team that hasn’t developed much since 2019 or seen a Lauren Hemp, Hanna Glas or Jessie Fleming appear in their starting 11 is The USA. Now, I’m well aware i’m stoking a fire here but the facts speak for themselves. Since the world cup final in 2019 the USWNT starting line up against Canada have racked up circa 15,000 minutes (less than half the Sweden teams tally). Players like Kelley O’Hara, Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Tobin Heath and Alex Morgan have played less than 20 elite club fixtures in TWO YEARS. Sure, we can blame covid, we can look back to life bwc (before world cup) but this post WWC2019 is a different world. This is not a women's football world where you can get away with having a brilliant international camp every few months and go and win a tournament. You can’t take a year off to do interviews. Women’s football is now a game which requires you to be selected on merit, club experience and physical prowess.
Ironically this is the first Olympics where I feel like women’s footballers are actual Olympians. In 2016 women’s football you weren’t racing a metaphorical 100m final against a bunch of athletes that had spent 4 years jumping out of bed at 6am for their morning session followed by gym sessions by 11am. USA were in the sprint final against teams that didn't have the infrastructure. Sometimes USA were doing the sprint final against part time pros!
This has only been highlighted by the lack of diversity in selection since 2019. Sara mentioned on the semi final episode that people were blaming age for the USA Tokyo demise but I simply don't agree (and Sara didn't either). Age is just a number (just look at Marta and Formiga) but merit is crucial. The NWSL and US Soccer camp have an abundance of talent to pick from that simply didn't make the cut. I wouldn't be surprised if Vladko has a list he's allowed to choose from when it comes to tournament selection. How can it be fair for a player to take a season off at club level and still get selected? Comparatively we saw new players popping up in all the other squads that took part.
From 2030 onwards if the USA truly want to play with the European international giants like Sweden and The Netherlands (and Spain who’s national team will come through to play with the big boys very soon, mark my words) then the USA need to start playing regular club football, training at club level, playing more major club games and picking their squad based on merit.