In the world of women’s soccer, victory has long been synonymous with the United States. Since the inception of the Women’s World Cup in 1991, the United States has consistently secured at least a third-place finish and won the tournament four times—twice as often as any other nation. In 2023, however, the behemoth of women’s soccer was knocked out in the round of 16. Instead, Spain emerged victorious, despite previously never advancing beyond the round of 16. While the loss saddened American fans, it also signifies encouraging progress in the global landscape of women’s soccer. The downfall of the US women’s national team is the product of rising international competition—a testament to the increased attention paid to the sport across the globe.
The US women’s national team’s success story began in 1972, when Congress passed Title IX, a groundbreaking civil rights law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in any educational program or school receiving federal government funding. Before Title IX, a mere 8 percent of US women held college degrees, discriminating against female faculty members was legal, and it was commonplace for universities to have female quotas.
Title IX’s primary intent was ensuring equity in the American education system. However, the law has had an unintended but transformative impact on American athletics. Proving an incident of sex-based discrimination in academics can be challenging. Proving that female sports received less funding than male sports, on the other hand, was relatively easy. Consequently, Title IX was primarily enforced in school-sponsored sports.
In the following decades, female youth participation in athletics surged. In 1971, only 8 percent of high school student-athletes were girls. Ten years later, 53 percent of student-athletes were girls. By 2019, over three million female high schoolers participated in athletics. Soccer, in particular, underwent a remarkable transformation, evolving from a sport with just 700 female high school athletes in 1971 to an astonishing 394,105 in 2019. This rise in participation significantly bolstered the talent pool of American female athletes, allowing the US women’s soccer team to assemble an exceptional roster.
Around the globe, however, the history surrounding female sports is quite different. In the 1970s, while the United States was implementing Title IX, countries with a strong male soccer culture, like Germany, France, Brazil, and England, enforced bans on women’s soccer. England’s Football Association, for example, stated that “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” Similarly, Brazil’s government argued that football was “not suitable for the female body.”
Even today, there are only 33,000 youth soccer teams for girls versus 1.4 million soccer teams for boys in Germany. In Brazil, only 1 percent of players are women. In England, just 41 percent of secondary schools provide equal opportunities for girls to participate in soccer during gym class. Worldwide, 12 percent of youth soccer participants are female, and over half of these girls are Americans.
The disparities between women’s soccer in the United States and in the rest of the world became apparent in 1991. That year, China hosted the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup. The tournament featured a modest 12 teams, a stark contrast to the previous year’s men’s tournament, which boasted twice as many. The game duration was 80 minutes, 10 minutes shorter than the men’s matches, due to concerns that the women might grow too exhausted to play a regulation match. There was even discussion about using a smaller, youth-sized ball instead of the size five that was FIFA standard. Total attendance for the women’s tournament reached only 510,000 spectators, compared to the 2,527,348 spectators that attended the men’s tournament a year earlier.
The United States dominated the tournament, winning every game and achieving an impressive goal difference of plus 20—four times greater than the runner-up, Norway. Their success proved the impact of Title IX. As other nations had not promoted equality in female sports to the same degree as the United States, their teams fell short on the global stage—a pattern that has persisted in subsequent Women’s World Cups.
Now, however, a transformation is underway. Countries across the globe are beginning to pay attention to women’s sports. According to the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), the governing body for European soccer, there are now nearly 1.3 million registered female soccer players on the continent. Promisingly, this growth is seen most among young players. In fact, over the last five years, the number of youth leagues has nearly doubled.
This transformation is, in part, a result of increased private investments in women’s soccer. Europe’s renowned, multimillion-dollar clubs are beginning to give the women’s sport more attention. In the summer of 2021, Arsenal, one of England’s premier football clubs, made substantial investments in its women’s team, upgrading training facilities and implementing uniform analytics tools for both the men’s and women’s teams. In January 2023, the club publicly demonstrated its commitment to the women’s team by featuring images of its female players alongside male players in new stadium artwork. In recent seasons, the women’s team has played several matches a year in the 60,704-seat Emirates Stadium. These games now enjoy global broadcasting coverage. Likewise, in Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid’s women’s teams competed in front of a massive crowd of 91,000 fans in 2022. The May 2023 Women’s Champions League final in the Netherlands even sold out a 34,100-seat stadium, a scale rarely matched in the US National Women’s Soccer League. By investing in women’s soccer, the private entities that shape the sports world have committed to the women’s game.
Governments worldwide have also begun to match the United States in its funding of women’s sports. The UK has committed £600 million ($715.8 million) to ensure girls and boys have equal sporting opportunities. Australia has pledged $200 million to fund the Play Our Way program, dedicated to enhancing sporting facilities and equipment specifically for women and girls. These government-backed initiatives not only encourage girls to play sports, but also demonstrate that governments believe women’s sports equity is an issue worth caring about.
One of the most crucial shifts has been in cultural attitudes toward women’s sports and women’s rights more broadly. Spain, the champion of this year’s World Cup, is one notable example. In Spain, both sports and society have long been entrenched in a sexist “machismo” culture. Despite the nation having a strong soccer culture, the women’s national team achieving a World Cup win would have been unfathomable just a few years ago. However, attitudes toward women’s equality have shifted in recent years. In 2018, millions of Spanish women went on strike against machismo culture and sexism. A year later, on International Women’s Day, half a million women took to the streets to protest gender inequality.
As a result, Spanish society has begun to change. In the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Report, Spain jumped from 29th to 8th in global gender equality, making it one of the most improved nations in the world. This transformation has not only allowed women to participate more in a sport ingrained in Spanish culture for centuries, but has also garnered increased support for the Spanish national soccer team. The evolving attitudes toward Spanish women in soccer paved the way for their World Cup victory this year. The story is similar in other countries, such as 2023 World Cup newcomers Morocco and Vietnam. A national team’s success is a testament to its nation’s support for women’s sports.
This year, the Women’s World Cup expanded beyond what the players could have imagined in 1991. The tournament has grown to include 32 teams. Nearly two million fans attended the matches in total, with an additional two billion tuning in to watch from home. Worldwide, the games enjoyed extensive news coverage, and players became household names. The tournament also generated a remarkable $570 million in revenue.
The world still has a long way to go in achieving gender equality in sports. While some women’s teams have made significant progress in recent years, women are still prohibited from playing soccer in many countries. Female soccer players continue to face challenges of unequal pay, limited resources, and harassment. Notably, during this World Cup, Spain’s Royal Spanish Football Federation President Luis Rubiales nonconsensually kissed a player while celebrating the team’s victory, leading the team to boycott their federation. But, if this year’s Women’s World Cup proves anything, it is that the world is paying attention to women’s sports.