When the United States beat the reigning champion, Japan, in the 2015 Women’s World Cup final, it felt like a high-water moment. Over 25 million people watched — the largest ever for a broadcast of American soccer, male or female. I worried that women’s soccer would then retreat back into the shadows, with no one following it until the next World Cup or Olympic cycle. But since that milestone, the women’s soccer world has been, to my great surprise, full of good news.
Looking ahead to the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France, I expect it to get even better.
In this era of outright hope in the women’s game, the United States is still the beacon. But it’s not just here: After decades of neglect, federations and clubs have poured money into the women’s game. More and more women from around the world are able to make a living playing the sport. Some professional teams in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico are even offering college scholarships to their players — following the United States’ precedent of preparing players for futures beyond soccer.
In Europe, most of the storied clubs have women’s sides (Real Madrid is a notable exception). In 2018, the English pro league went fully professional, offering top-notch facilities and competitive salaries and attracting star players. New pro leagues in Mexico and Colombia are proving that machismo-rich cultures can embrace the women’s game. In Bogotá, Colombia, in 2017, over 33,000 fans packed into the Estadio Nemesio Camacho for the first-ever women’s league final. A 2018 final in Mexico City drew a world-record crowd for a women’s club match — 51,211 fans packing the Azteca.
In Cameroon, too, the public is hungry to watch: During the 2016 Africa Cup of Nations in Yaoundé, 40,000 filled the stadium — five hours before kickoff. During Euro 2017, the Netherlands sold out every game, and a whopping 83 percent of the Dutch population, 4.1 million, watched the final on television.
With that international growth, the United States faces stiffer competition, but its players have gained opportunities to play for Lyon (Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe), Paris (Tobin Heath, Allie Long) and Manchester City (Carli Lloyd). When you factor in the crop of young, talented newcomers — including 24-year-old Lindsey Horan and 20-year-old Mallory Pugh — you may be looking at the most promising team in history for the 2019 World Cup.
The 1991 team, the first American World Cup champion, was composed of trailblazers who fought for opportunity and protectively mentored members of this new generation, who are doing the same for the next, fighting for equality and a sustainable pro league — a fight that is rippling around the world.