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In a way Fifa has been clever. The body leading the charge towards a biennial men’s and women’s World Cup has somewhat sidestepped the mistake of the most recent attempts to shake up football. The proposed European Super League and secretly planned Project Big Picture reduced women’s football to a footnote, an afterthought.
Fifa did the same but moved quickly to rectify the situation by bringing in the former US women’s national team head coach Jill Ellis to lead its technical advisory group (TAG) on the future of women’s football. In the two-times World Cup winner it has a figurehead to stand alongside the head of global football development, Arsène Wenger, and put a palatable face to its plans.
In tasking Ellis with pulling together for the TAG some of the biggest names in women’s football – including the US forward Alex Morgan, the Chelsea manager, Emma Hayes, and the referee Bibiana Steinhaus-Webb – Fifa has outdone the doomed club-led revolutions of the ESL and PBP and recognised, albeit belatedly, that you cannot ignore women’s football when discussing the game’s future.
There are, though, huge gaps. The balance of continents represented on the TAG is askew, with South America and Asia particularly underrepresented, there are no media or fan representatives and Ellis is the only member responsible for running a club team (San Diego, a newly established team without players and yet to kick a ball). Uefa has publicly criticised the group too. “There is no representation of confederations or leagues that have the key expertise to run women’s football competitions within the framework of football calendars on a daily basis,” it said in a statement.
The list of arguments against biennial men’s and women’s World Cups is lengthy. For each there are different challenges, and the global football community has been vocal – on the physical and mental toll of a World Cup every two years, on the impact on the Euros and other confederation tournaments, on a watering down of the impact of the tournament and, in the case of women’s football, on the impact on the Olympics (in which senior women’s national teams compete).
On Monday Ellis was expected to address some of those challenges in a media briefing but she spent three minutes talking about a potential biennial women’s World Cup after 15 minutes covering the minutiae of the number of international windows and their lengths.
It was disappointing and, in the questioning that followed, not much more clarity was garnered. “I don’t want us to be a sport that fits in, I want us to be a sport that casts a shadow, that has a bigger footprint,” said Ellis in her introduction, before single questions without scope for follow-up were allowed.
“It’s statistically written that the lever the World Cup pulls in elevating our sport is massive and that’s why a biennial one is in conversations,” Ellis said. She pointed to the rise in viewing figures, boost for domestic leagues and increased investment after major tournaments as arguments in favour of more World Cups.
Ellis failed to give detail about just how much power the TAG has in the decision-making process. “If it was a foregone conclusion, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing, right? It isn’t a foregone conclusion,” she said. “I don’t want to get caught up in politics. I’m a technical person and I’m about looking and exploring and to me it’s like putting together a gameplan. I want to understand the challenges and the opportunities.”
She later added: “It’s like most votes, right? If everybody gets a vote, they’re going to vote from their heart and what they believe is right.”
Ellis could not confirm whether the vote on a biennial women’s World Cup would be separate from the vote of the men’s and, given how political Fifa voting can become and the fact that Fifa Congress made up of 211 federations, most of which don’t get to compete in World Cups but benefit hugely from them financially, this appears woefully naive and/or wilfully misleading.
“I’m not here to speak about the men’s side. Would these votes be separate? I don’t know that,” said an increasingly bullish Ellis when questioned about the naivety of believing that those in power would “vote from their heart and what they believe is right”.
“I don’t look at the men’s World Cup when I’m doing this. Whether it happens or doesn’t happen, I have to focus on what we’re talking about within the women’s game. I guess the question would be, if the biennial wasn’t a part of the men’s conversation, would this make sense for the women’s game? That’s the position that I have to look at and explore. I do believe it is something that would benefit.”
Ellis failed to provide any convincing evidence to counterbalance the flurry of arguments to the contrary, instead resorting to individual conversations with players: “I had one player say to me: ‘If I could I’d play a World Cup every year.’ One player said: ‘I play in the women’s Champions League every year, the men play in the Champions League every year,’ and I don’t think anyone would argue that that’s not without great value to the participants, the fans, to everybody.”
But this anecdotal evidence is not good enough. It is simplistic. And the comparison between the World Cup and Champions League is bizarre.
Ellis also somewhat dismissively implied that the game stalls between World Cups, undermining the progress achieved by confederation tournaments, the Olympics and the impact of summer breaks on players maintaining their ability to compete at the top level. “I truly believe we should think that our sport should be self-sustaining and the way we do that is to get ourselves front and centre more frequently,” she said. “It’s not to go to sleep for three years.”
We should not sit back and hope that the TAG properly explores all the nuances of these questions, or that the 211 member federations, having taken on the recommendations of the group, vote for “what they believe is right”. All stakeholders should have a say in this conversation including fans, clubs and the huge number of players expected to play in these competitions.