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Opinion | The World Cup promises to be big. The women’s game? Even bigger

Hard to believe it was only two years ago.

Canada collectively held its breath as Julia Grosso lined up her kick. As Grosso’s well-aimed shot found the back of the Swedish net and clinched soccer gold at the Summer Olympics in Japan, Canada exhaled in relief and exhilaration.

It was the first time a Canadian women’s team had won gold at the Summer Games in any sport, and a wonderfully timed moment of accomplishment that came just as the light at the end of the COVID tunnel was starting to become evident.

Most remember where they were when Grosso scored. I was in Prince Edward Island, perched at the edge of a chair along with family and friends as we got to experience something that, particularly for the women in our group, had long seemed unimaginable.

It was a realization of a dream for the members of the Canadian team, but also for so many Canadian women who had played the sport. Many had been pushed for too long to the fringes, considered secondary to men’s sports, denied proper funding equal to men at the university level unless they were willing to fight for it, and fight hard. Yet it was Canada’s women who had found soccer glory first.

It was a spectacular moment. It felt like the summit had finally been reached.

Turns out, of course, that wasn’t the summit at all. It was just a stop en route to much more ambitious heights.

The next of those will be reached this week when the host Australians, led by star striker Sam Kerr, open the 2023 World Cup against Ireland before an expected audience of more than 82,500 at Stadium Australia in Sydney. The game was sold out more than a month ago, and more than 1.3 million tickets have been sold for the tournament in Australia and New Zealand.

Television rights for the tournament were sold on a stand-alone basis for the first time, rather than being bundled with men’s soccer events. Estimates suggest two billion viewers may tune in over the next month.

When have the world’s female athletes in any single sport ever had centre stage entirely to themselves, and for this long, quite like this?

The answer is never. Certainly, never outside the Olympics. History, it seems, is being made in women’s sports every day, and this is going to be another monstrous step forward.

This tourney will begin by going head to head this weekend against one of golf’s biggest events, the British Open, and won’t be bothered one bit by the competition. The golfers and their internecine battles will have to accept second billing.

The women’s event will go on until Aug. 20, generating headlines and news and probably controversy. France has created a stir with a promotional video that initially purports to show spectacular highlights of the country’s men’s team only to reveal the manoeuvres were actually delivered by the women’s team. Special effects were used to superimpose the likenesses of male stars like Kylian Mbappé onto the bodies of French women like Sakina Karchaoui and Delphine Cascarino.

“When we support les Bleus, we support les Bleues,” says the kicker line at the end, an unprecedented effort in that passionate soccer nation to put its men’s and women’s teams on an equal footing, at least on a promotional basis.

For the first time, 32 teams will compete for this year’s World Cup title, up from 24 in 2019. A record nine teams have female coaches. There are at least a half-dozen teams that could be viewed as serious contenders, and there is plenty of marquee talent. Iconic stars like Christine Sinclair, Megan Rapinoe and Marta are believed to be playing in their last World Cup. For the brilliant Sinclair, now 40, it is her sixth tournament.

Pretty much every corner of the planet is represented in this tournament, which began with only 12 countries back in 1991. Eight nations are competing for the first time.

What this is, folks, is the biggest global sporting event of the summer, and quite possibly, depending on the lens one chooses to use for such things, of 2023. As big as it all seemed two years ago in Tokyo when Canada’s best female soccer players won Olympic gold, women’s soccer has managed to get much bigger, and at warp speed.

As with all things FIFA, one must be willing to look past the corrupt practices of that organization to fully celebrate this event. Perhaps FIFA is fortunate that all sports seem to be plagued in one way or another these days by questionable practices and sources of revenue, which might in some way make the power brokers of soccer seem no more corrupt than any other sport.

Canada, of course, has struggled with its own bureaucratic issues involving the questionable business practices of Soccer Canada. Pay equity is still a distant dream in general for women’s soccer. The women will compete in Australia and New Zealand for about one-quarter of the prize money available to men’s national teams at the Qatar World Cup last year.

These are undeniable growing pains, and shouldn’t be minimized. At the same time, more women are playing professional soccer around the world than ever, and there is a domestic professional league in Canada planning to debut in 2025 with eight teams. This World Cup should give that effort a boost.

This event is only going to get bigger by the time the 2027 tournament rolls around. There are already four bids to host that one.

What’s clear is that there are no limits at this moment as to where this might go. Any business interested in using sport as an advertising vehicle ignores women’s sports, and women’s soccer, at its peril.

What seemed to have reached unthinkable heights two years ago in Tokyo with Canadian gold was, in reality, just getting revved up.

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin


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