The future is women, said FIFA president Gianni Infantino on his Instagram, And thanks to the fans for supporting what will be the greatest FIFA Women’s World Cup ever!
The FIFA World Cup, the world’s most prestigious international soccer tournament, has served as a platform for countries to showcase their athletic prowess, national pride, and cultural heritage for almost a century. Even so, it has sometimes reflected the political tensions and rivalries at play in the world at large. So it’s not surprising that during the Cold War both the Soviet Union and the United States recognized the political power of soccer and sought to exploit it.
The Soviet Union was known for its sporting prowess and viewed soccer as an opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of its communist system. The government invested heavily in sports infrastructure, and youth development programs were established to groom talented players.
The Soviet national team’s success in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, where they won the gold medal, set the stage for their participation in subsequent World Cup tournaments.
Similarly, the United States recognized the potential of soccer as a diplomatic tool to counter Soviet influence.
In both nations, though, Cold War soccer was a male dominated sport. For a timeline of Men’s Soccer during the Cold War click here.
The first men’s World Cup took place in Uruguay from the 13th to the 30th of July in 1930. The games were played under FIFA sponsorship. (1)
Although historical accounts show that women have been playing soccer since the early 19th century, the first Women’s World Cup didn’t take place until 61 years later in 1991 when FIFA officially endorsed a women’s tournament to be held in China. Unlike the men’s games, however, there was to be no prize money. (Time Magazine )
Soccer During the Cold War
Throughout the Cold War, FIFA World Cup soccer provided a stage where nations competed, collaborated, and transcended political divisions. The tournament acted as a catalyst for diplomatic exchanges and showcased the power of sports in bridging ideological gaps. Often, the World Cup offered moments of unity and mutual understanding amidst the global tensions of the era.
Nevertheless, during the Cold War, negative events sporadically cast a dark shadow. The Munich Massacre, Olympic boycotts, and politically motivated decisions occasionally tainted the spirit of fair play and demonstrated the extent to which global politics influenced the world of sports.
The Munich Massacre
One of the most tragic incidents in the history of the Olympic Games occurred during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Palestinian terrorists took Israeli athletes hostage, resulting in the deaths of 11 Israeli team members and one German. The Massacre shook the world and had a profound effect on Olympic soccer. Play was suspended for more than a day, but despite pleas from some nations to cancel the event, it eventually resumed.
The Munich Massacre resulted in increased emphasis on athlete protection with stricter security protocols in place in subsequent World Cups to ensure the safety of players, officials, and fans. The event highlighted the vulnerability of major sporting events to acts of terrorism and served as a sobering reminder of the risks involved.
Olympic Boycotts and Soccer
Both the Congress and the Olympic Committee voted overwhelmingly not to participate, and I reluctantly agree with their decision because the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in violation of all reasonable international laws.
— Jimmy Carter
The Cold War witnessed several politically motivated Olympic Boycotts that affected soccer tournaments within the games. In 1980, the United States led a boycott of the Moscow Olympics in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. As a result, 64 countries, including the United States, did not participate in the soccer competition. The absence of key soccer nations weakened the tournament’s competitive nature and diminished its overall appeal.
Four years later, in retaliation, the Soviet Union and its allies boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. This boycott affected the soccer tournament, with many Eastern Bloc countries missing out on the opportunity to compete. The absence of these nations further undermined the sporting significance of the tournament, leading to a diluted field of competitors.
Politically Motivated Decisions
Beyond boycotts, politically motivated decisions influenced FIFA and Olympic soccer during the Cold War.
In 1974, FIFA controversially awarded the 1978 World Cup hosting rights to Argentina. At the time, Argentina was ruled by a military junta, and concerns were raised regarding human rights abuses and political repression. FIFA’s decision sparked protests and boycotts, as countries debated the ethics of participating in a tournament held in such a politically charged environment.
Similarly, the 1986 World Cup in Mexico faced scrutiny due to the political situation in the host country. The tournament was held during a period of political unrest, with ongoing clashes between government forces and rebel groups. These circumstances prompted discussions about the appropriateness of staging a global sporting event amid domestic turmoil.
The Beautiful Game Is Skeptical of Women
While the Cold War was raging, a battle for women’s participation on FIFA’s international stage was also ongoing. Take a look at the timeline below for important happenings.
1970: The Turin-based Federation of Independent European Female Football (FIEFF) stages an ‘unofficial women’s world cup’ in Italy. Seven teams participate; Denmark prevails.
1971: The same federation stages another women’s tournament in Mexico. Six finalists take part; Denmark beats the host country in the final.
1972: FIEFF folds, but women’s soccer leagues continue in the early- to mid-1980s through Mundialitos, or little world cups, smaller, invitational tournaments. Italy hosts four times.
1986: Norwegian delegate Ellen Willes speaks before the 45th FIFA Congress in Mexico—the first woman to do so—and demands that it better promote women’s soccer.
1988: FIFA, stages a women’s invitational (not a World Cup) in China, bringing together 12 teams including a fledgling US team. The US loses to Norway in the quarterfinals. Notably, women’s matches were 10 minutes shorter than men’s.
1991: Sixty-one years after the first Men’s World Cup, FIFA officially endorses a first Women’s World Cup to be held in China. However, there is to be no prize money.
More than half-a-million fans attend the games, watching 12 national teams compete. Team USA beats Norway in the final, and FIFA’s then-president, João Havelange, writes, “women’s football is now well and truly established.”
1995: Women’s matches return to 90 minutes at the World Cup in Sweden.
2007: The Women’s World Cup finally has prize money.
2023: Prize money for this year’s event is $150 million—a massive increase from the $30 million prize pot during the 2019 Games. Still, this only a third of the $440 million in total prize money allocated for the men’s World Cup.
The 2023 Favorite?
The USA women’s team has won the championship three times before. Will they win again? We’ll see. But what we do know is that the women’s tournament, while late to the game, generate sa lot of excitement now. This July, the Women’s World Cup is on track to be the most attended standalone women’s sporting event in history, with more than a million tickets sold.
The FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 is scheduled for July 20-August 20, 2023. Sixty-four matches will be staged across 10 stadiums over the course of 32 days.
For the first time in its history, the FIFA Women’s World Cup will be co-hosted by two countries: Australia and New Zealand. It is also the first time that it will be staged in the southern hemisphere—where it’s currently winter.
The two host countries will each play on opening day. New Zealand will kick off against Norway and Australia will play Ireland.
The US is entering this year’s tournament a heavy favorite, and is a strong contender for a three-peat. This would follow their three previous wins: first, in 1999, they beat China 5-4 in a penalty shootout during the final in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl; next, in 2015 they beat Canada; and, finally, they won the subsequent 2019 World Cup in France. (Time Magazine)
The Politics of Identity
New Zealand’s indigenous population will be highlighted in all aspects of the games
Every city that will host a match is listed with its English and Indigenous names, and FIFA announced this month that it would fly First Nations and Māori flags in every stadium.
In New Zealand, the decision reflects an ongoing conversation about the nation’s identity. For decades, many New Zealanders routinely mangled and mispronounced the Māori names of the country’s cities and towns. Taupō (“Toe-paw”) was pronounced “Towel-po.” Ōtāhuhu (Oh-tah-hu-hu) was “Oter-hu.” And Paraparaumu (“para-para-oo-moo”) was sometimes simply referred to as “Pram.”
. . . [Now] many are choosing to use their cities’ original Māori names over their English alternatives. . . . The changes are an effect of a decades-long movement to revitalize a language that risked being extinguished by colonialism.” (For more on the Maori click here.)
Here are a few more tidbits
Haiti, Morocco, Panama, Portugal, the Republic of Ireland, Vietnam, and Zambia will be competing in the Women’s World Cup for the first time. This will be the Philippines’ first men’s or women’s FIFA World Cup tournament.
To date, only four nations have emerged as champions — Germany, Japan, Norway, and the U.S.
The most goals scored in World Cup history (both men’s and women’s) are by a female athlete from Brazil. Marta Vieira da Silva—a striker better known as Marta—has scored 17 goals across five World Cup tournaments between 2007 and 2019. Now, at 37, she will be taking part in her sixth World Cup, hoping to add to her record and help the Brazil women’s team win their first World Cup.
Neither Russia nor Ukraine will be participating. Russia has never participated in the Women’s World Cup
A Personal Note
I did not set my alarm for 3:30 AM (EDT) this morning to watch the first game. Maybe you didn’t either. If you were sleeping too, you can watch the highlights below. Between the heat and the smoke, so far it’s not been my kind of summer. But now there’s some indoor fun. I think I’m going to spend a lot of time glued to my screen! Maybe you’ll be doing the same!
(1) FIFA – the Fédération internationale de football association – is the international governing body of association football, beach soccer, and futsal. It was founded in 1904 to oversee international competition among the national associations of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
Want to learn more. Read The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer (2019) by sports journalist Caitlyn Murray.
The New York Times
Featured photo by James Boyce (Flickr)
Massacre by txmx (Flickr)
Graffiti depicting the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who, following “disappearances” of their children during the military junta, donned their signature headscarves and pleaded for answers from the government at the Plaza de Mayo on a regular basis. Some of the mothers who are still living continue the practice, but with less frequency than in earlier years.
Viewing Party by Chris (Flickr)
La Boca by Matt Hintsa (Flickr)
US Women’s Team courtesy of Wikimedia
Maori War Canoe by Scott 1346 (Flickr)