On July 7, the U.S. national soccer team defeated the Dutch team to claim its fourth Women's World Cup title. The event, which drew thousands of spectators, players and members of the news media to host country France, produced some spectacular play and exciting results — along with a hefty dose of controversy surrounding the introduction of video-assisted replay (perhaps better known as VAR). Despite its wide reach and international diversity, one of the most notable aspects of the Women's World Cup, in general, seems to be its disconnection from underlying geopolitical forces. Unlike its counterpart men's tournament and the Olympics, little in the way of international politics seems to steal the spotlight from the biggest stage for women's soccer.
Two conclusions could be drawn from this observation, the first an optimistic one: The Women's' World Cup is a rare international sporting event that truly is about the competition, the athletes and all of the other decidedly positive features of sports. This view holds with the party line of governing institutions like FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, which maintain that sport should exist in a space free of politics, or exist only as a force for social good in the political sphere. The second interpretation is decidedly cynical: The tournament's dearth of geopolitical meddling reflects the continued second-class status of global women's sports in general. In other words, most geopolitical actors don't consider it a valuable platform for their various ends. My heart likes the first interpretation, but this space requires some consideration of the second.
Bidding and Hosting
There is, of course, no clear framework for evaluating just how geopolitical a sports event is, there is only evidence of the instrumental value international actors place on sports. For example, state-sponsored doping programs confirm that a nation believes there is something to be gained by competitive success at any cost. Similarly, the willingness of a country to naturalize foreign-born athletes is another indication that on-field victories yield advantages off the field. These forces have not yet come into play in international women's soccer. (Although some teams include players born and raised elsewhere, their ancestors came from the home nations, a standard that is distinct from the outright "renationalization" seen in men's sports and, to a lesser extent, in women's international track and field.)
Looking beyond the field of play, the bidding for and hosting of international megaevents is another key realm in which sports become geopolitical. As I have discussed in other pieces for Stratfor, there are a variety of reasons that nations compete for the rights to host events, ranging from prestige and legitimacy to financial gains and infrastructural advancement. While fewer overall countries in recent years have entered the competition to host the globe's biggest sporting events (the Winter Olympics especially), the fact remains that being a host site for these prestigious events is an enticing prize. Even just taking part in the bidding process can be a rather powerful means for a country to advance its economic and policy aims. Thus, a closer look at the history of the bid process for the Women's World Cup can function as a proxy for the soft power saliency of hosting the event.
Since the Women's World Cup's debut in 1991, China (1991, 2007) is the only non-Western host of the Women's World Cup to date, joined by Sweden (1995), the United States (1999, 2003), Germany (2011), Canada (2015) and France (2019). That these countries are traditional powerhouses of the sport (as well as countries where women's sports development is valued) comes as little surprise. The presence of China, where international competition is never far from geopolitical aims, offers fair pushback to the suggestion that this is a globally apolitical event. The history of the bidding process for the event shows that there has been little interest from countries outside of the West: Chile (1999), Peru (2011), Zimbabwe (2015), South Korea (2019) and South Africa (2019) have all at least entered some stage of competition to host a Women's World Cup. Of those, only South Korea's bid went as far as the final selection stage; the rest withdrew earlier in the process. Australia and New Zealand have also engaged in the bidding process, but in sporting terms, it might be fair to lump these Commonwealth nations with the West.
This small sampling of contenders pales in comparison to the countries that engage in the bid process for the men's World Cup or the Olympics, but that's an apples-to-oranges comparison at best. A further limit on the comparative perspective is that the Women's World Cup is a relatively young event. Furthermore, only six of its tournament hosting spots were subject to open bidding; China was awarded the inaugural event after hosting a successful test tournament in 1988 and was awarded the 2007 edition outright after having relinquished 2003 hosting duties to the United States in the middle of an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome. Despite these limitations, the bid process likely remains the best proxy to gauge the geopolitical and soft power potential of the tournament, a potential that actually appears to be gaining some momentum as we look ahead to the 2023 tournament. As of this spring, a record nine countries have submitted expressions of interest: Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa and South Korea. Oct. 4 is the deadline for the full bid submission, and it is likely that some of these candidates will drop out in the interim, but the increasing global diversity of potential hosts is a welcome trend. Furthermore, there have been indications that the South Korean bid could turn into a joint offering with North Korea, which may be all of the evidence needed to confidently postulate that this event has turned the geopolitical corner.
Almost all of the meaningful indicators portend that as the Women's World Cup matures, everything about it will increase globally.
Are All Politics Geopolitics?
While the Women's World Cup is not yet explicitly geopolitical, the event is not without political storylines. U.S. President Donald Trump made one of his semi-regular excursions into the sports world by taking U.S. team captain Megan Rapinoe to task on Twitter for refusing to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" before matches. Rapinoe held her own, emerging as a gutsy, outspoken inspiration or an ungrateful loudmouth, depending on which side of the angry internet one resides. The tournament reached peak weirdness when some American conservatives proclaimed their allegiance to the French team before its quarterfinal match against Rapinoe and her squad.
Globally, issues surrounding women's rights and gender equity tend to play out in domestic spheres. The structural and economic support provided to women's teams has become a focal point during this tournament, in some ways operating as a proxy for women's rights off the field in their home countries. For some countries, simply acquiring the support to field a team has been a struggle. Nigeria, traditionally the dominant side in African women's soccer, spent all of 2017 without a coach, or even a scheduled match. Things improved slightly after its tournament qualification was secured, but the fight for support has been an ongoing struggle for the team, which previously had to stage sit-in protests to collect their winners' bonuses for the Africa Cup of Nations. The South African and Cameroonian teams were similarly limited by their national federations' skimping on preparation and funding. On the other side of the world, the Chilean and Argentinian women's teams received such little support from their national federations in recent years FIFA deemed both "inactive" for long stretches of time. At one point, Chile went almost 1,000 days between matches. That some of the best teams in the world, from countries with strong soccer traditions, have these hurdles says much about the relative importance placed on the women's game globally.
Where some teams struggle to secure basic resources, others have become lightning rods for domestic debates on gender equity. The U.S. Women's National Team filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation this spring, alleging widespread institutional discrimination. The dispute revolved primarily around the wage gap between the men's and women's national sides, and the debates surrounding the lawsuit reflect broader national tensions on what constitutes equal work and equal pay. Like all complex economic debates, there are a lot of layers to consider, but I think the difference in the bonus structure offered to the U.S. teams captures the situation well: Even if the men lost every game in a non-World Cup year, each player's individual appearance bonus would total $99,000 (the women would get $72,000 in this scenario). On the other hand, a women's player could net $100,000, but only after winning every game in a non-World Cup year (the men would net more than $250,000 for the same performance). That the women's team is the best in the world, while the men are mired in a particularly pathetic era has only heightened the debate.
Meanwhile, for the best player in the world, bridging a domestic pay gap has not been enough. Norway's Ada Hegerberg, winner of FIFA's Balon d'Or trophy, sat out this year's Women's World Cup, continuing her two-year protest of her country's association. The Norwegian women negotiated matching contracts with the men's side in late 2017, but Hegerberg argues that there are still systemic inequities throughout the women's development system that must be addressed.
The Geopolitical Importance Will Grow
At the outset of this essay, I suggested that two interpretations of the measure of geopolitical interest in this year's Women's World Cup tournament may be valid: the idealistic view that it fits the category of pure sport, and thus exists outside the political world, and the cynical, in which women's sports are relegated to the backburner of geopolitical relevance. I think the weight of the evidence clearly dismisses the former: women's soccer is decidedly political. The cynical take, however, requires some revision. Certainly, at the current moment, the Women's World Cup is not a top-tier event in the vein as the Olympics or the men's soccer championship, that passes the geopolitical threshold. But its profile is destined to increasingly grow in that direction.
This leaves a couple of possibilities to consider. First, geopolitical maneuvering surrounding the event will grow in tandem with its stature. After all, the tournament is less than 30 years old, but almost all of the meaningful indicators portend that as it matures, everything about it — from the number of teams participating, to the size of television rights and merchandising deals — will increase globally. Things have come a long way: The inaugural 1991 tournament featured shorter matches, 80 instead of the traditional 90 minutes and there were even debates about women's ability to play with a full-sized ball. FIFA didn't even call it the World Cup, for fear of diluting its brand; opting to include a corporate sponsor in the painfully clunky "1st FIFA World Championship for Women's Football for the M&M's Cup." But there is still much room for progress: Roughly a quarter of FIFA's member associations still don't field a senior women's team (and, as we've seen, there's little guarantee of serious backing when they do). Still, as the increased interest in bidding for the 2023 event suggests, more of the world is paying attention, meaning that its relevance as a theater of geopolitical posturing is inevitable.
The second possibility is that the geopolitical import of the tournament (and women's sport at large) won't necessarily end up looking like what we expect it to. This could mean that that the traditional indicators of the pursuit of soft power through sports, such as doping programs and hosting rights, are not the best frameworks for interpretation, that unique factors and issues will reframe and challenge our current understanding of how sports and geopolitics intersect. There is much more to come and I am very much looking forward to it.