Opinion

Australia's World Cup must be lightning rod for women's progression

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Australia and New Zealand 2023 is just what football called for in a time of need, a global stage to showcase the best of Australia’s cultural and gender diversity, and appetite for the beautiful game.

When the announcement was made in the early hours of Friday morning, the vision of Matilda’s players celebrating with the Australian bid team was one of pure joy, it was a proud moment to be Australian.

My first FIFA World Cup with SBS was France '98 when a youthful, outrageously talented Les Bleus team rode a fervent wave of national pride all the way to lifting the fabled trophy at the Stade de France in that unforgettable final against Brazil.

But when France hosted its next World Cup 21 years later it would take on much greater significance for me.

Last year’s Women’s World Cup did so many things for so many who love the world game.

It showcased in a four-year cycle how far the standard of international women’s football had come.

It also shone a light on the struggle for women’s football in many countries to gain even the basic backing, facilities and respect from their federations and football communities.

And as a male who had covered so many international events for SBS, I can say, hand on heart, it was the first time I truly understood and appreciated that struggle.

Before Australia’s first group match in Valenciennes, speaking to two Italian journalists prior to the match, I asked about the acceptance of women’s football in Italy given some of the bigger Serie A clubs had recently stepped up their investment in the women’s game.

A male reporter started answering by saying that Italy had made good progress in greater acceptance only to be cut off abruptly by his female colleague, eyes narrowing, who retorted with stories of women being verbally abused and spat on by men driven by a culture of prejudice and football machismo.

Commentating with Sarah Walsh, we were next to Italian great Carolina Morace, whose emotions spilled over after the Azzurri’s historic win over Australia.

Afterwards she shared a few words about the struggle that women’s football had endured in Italy to gain acceptance in such a male-centric sporting culture.

After the miracle of Montpellier, Australia’s win over Brazil, the Australian media gained a greater understanding of how little support the Brazilian FA had provided their national women’s team despite them being one of the best in the world for over a decade.

When a brave Brazil went out to France 2-1 in the round of 16, the vision of Marta on a FIFA global interview, literally pleading with the next generation of players was chilling against the backdrop of prejudice in their country.

"The women’s game depends on you to survive. So think about that. Value it more. Cry in the beginning so you can laugh in the end.”

In France, Megan Rapinoe was a purple haired lightning rod for acceptance.

She inspired the USA to another World Cup win, took on a president and used her unflinching self-belief to lead the charge for equal pay for US women’s and men’s players - a cause fans chanted in support of after the trophy was lifted in Lyon.

Whilst the women’s game has advanced in Australia, the battles towards equality have been real. Talking to many Matildas across different generations, their struggles (in particular for the pioneers) were visceral and highly emotional.

Wage parity between the Matildas and Socceroos makes Australia one of the only countries to achieve this landmark in world football and sets a wonderful narrative as co-hosts of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The story of women’s football is a compelling one and we are in the biggest ever global growth phase of the women’s game.

Australia and New Zealand now get the chance to add a unique twist and more importantly become a vessel for the growth of the game domestically, layered with gender acceptance and the advancement of attitudes.

One thing’s for sure - the first senior FIFA World Cup down under is going to be one for the ages and if fate can touch the hosts, well anything is possible.

David Basheer has commentated on the 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cups for SBS.