June 7, 2019 is supposed to be a happy and meaningful date for women’s football. It will be the first day of the 8th FIFA Women’s World Cup. The tournament in France is the culmination of a process seeing women’s football rising popularity. For example, 1.35 million fans attended matches at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, an all-time record that may be broken this year. Moreover, female national teams are now present in EA Sports FIFA video games since the 2016 edition. This year was also the first time that UEFA Women’s Champions league final was played in a separate city then the men’s UEFA Champions League final, in order to create a separate event that will increase women’s football popularity.
However, even though the popularity of women’s football is growing, it is still perceived as inferior to men’s football in many ways. One of the best examples was recently when Ada Hegerberg, the Norwegian striker, won the Ballon D’Or in 2018. Immediately after receiving the award, while being on stage, Hegerberg was asked by the host of the ceremony if she knows how to twerk. Hegerberg instinctively replied “no” and left the stage. The question reflects in a way the vision of women football as inferior, very much like Sepp Blatter’s proposition in 2004 that female football players should play in more “feminine” clothes like the female volleyball players.
Hegerberg is not strange to protests and to the demand of being treated equally as men. In 2017, after the Women’s Euro she retired from the Norwegian national team in order to promote the demand for equal pay for the players like their men counterparts. According to her, the demand was not met yet and therefore she decided not to participate in the upcoming World Cup as well. It means that the world’s best star would not play in the tournament. Imagine that a big star like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo would ban the World Cup. It’s bigger than you can think.
There is no doubt that Hegerberg’s step would affect Norway, that never missed a World Cup and even won the trophy in 1995. Nevertheless, it might not be surprising that such a dramatic move came from a Norwegian important figure in women’s football. She is just following the footsteps of another Norwegian women’s football hero, even though she is less known.
Ellen Wille is known in her motherland as the founder of Norwegian women’s football but probably her biggest achievement was her fierce campaign in favor of creating the Women’s World Cup. The peak of the campaign was during FIFA congress in 1986. She was the first woman to speak in such forum. “I took to the stage at the FIFA Congress, and pointed out that women’s football was mentioned nowhere in any of the documents,” she recalled. “I also said it was high time the women had their own World Cup and took part in the Olympic Football Tournament.” Unsurprisingly, most of her male colleagues did not welcome the suggestions. However, FIFA President João Havelange agreed with Wille. With Havelange’s support and after a successful campaign, the first edition of the world cup was held in China in 1991, leading to the following editions afterwards.
On the verge of the 8th Women’s World Cup, there is no doubt that the road for women’s football to gain its proper place is still long, as seen by Hegerberg’s example. However, both moves of Wille and Hegerberg can remind us the power of women and women’s football to empower and give meaning to people.