I recently visited the summer camp that my foundation has organized this year. The kids frequently looked at their mobile phones. They wanted to know how the game was going. That morning, Germany was playing South Korea and everyone could see it: something was at stake.
The World Cup in Australia and New Zealand is exciting. The atmosphere in the stadiums in Sydney, Brisbane and Auckland is excellent. And millions of people in Europe and elsewhere cheer on the players at unusual hours of the day. For a qualifier game to captivate people in Germany would not have happened a few years ago. Women’s football has become more attractive because it is better. Now you can enjoy without saying “yes, but”.
For a long time, women were forbidden to play soccer or had it more difficult. Now the gap that discrimination caused has been narrowed considerably. More and more women play soccer, they do it with more intensity and they are better trained, even as girls and young people. It shows in the dribbles, in the tackles and in the spectacular goals of this World Cup. The one scored by 18-year-old Linda Caicedo against Germany will be remembered for a long time.
His team, Colombia, triumphed despite not being among the favorites. Jamaica knocked out Brazil, the Philippines beat hosts New Zealand and Panama scored three goals against France. All continents were represented in the round of 16. Women’s soccer has become popular all over the world. For this reason, unprecedented competition has been seen. None of the five countries that had already been proclaimed world or Olympic champions participated in the semifinals. The United States can no longer rely solely on its old strengths. They only won one of their four matches and were eliminated in the round of 16. And the team from my country, Germany, also played a very messy game and made tactical mistakes. It did not reach the eighth. Both of them, who have won six of the eight titles so far, are going to have to invent something to keep up with the new competition.
This has its origin in the European soccer countries, in which before this sport was exclusively masculine. For them, investing in women’s football is paying off. For some years now, Arsenal, Barça, City, PSG, Chelsea, Real, Ajax or my club, FC Bayern, have been making their powerful brands available to women.
On Sunday, Germany will lose the exceptional advantage of having won the title with both genders. One of the finalist teams, England, is the strongest in the tournament from a physical point of view. The other, Spain, has only qualified for a World Cup for the third time and is already in the final thanks to the country’s typical style of ball possession.
Europe is one of the winners of this World Cup; almost all the players from the four semifinalist teams work here. The other winner is Australia. The Matildas play for their compatriots, who recognize themselves in the team and give it wings. The euphoria is palpable at 15,000 kilometers.
The World Cup is a sports festival, but also a festival that propagates ideas. When women play football, we talk about equal opportunities and equity. That’s good.
Many men who play soccer are extremely wealthy and have distanced themselves from the mainstream, for example by their decision to play in the Saudi league. Instead, the concerns of most players are more like those of many people. This allows you to use their example or even talk to them about things that concern everyone.
“I would be very satisfied if the footballers could concentrate on their sport,” said Celia Šaši, who co-organised UEFA Euro 2024 with me, in an interview with Die Zeit last week. She herself was a European footballer in 2015, but she left it at the age of 27. She wanted to start a family.
Luckily, there has been some progress. German national team player Melanie Leupolz took her newborn son to Australia. With this, she showed everyone that having a child and a professional career do not have to be at odds if the right conditions exist.
A new generation of women soccer players is setting the pace, but without forgetting the trailblazers. It was moving to see Jamaican Khadija Shaw approach Brazilian star Marta after having knocked out her team, reach out and grab her hand. “I told her that she was an inspiration not just to me,” Shaw later recounted, “but to a lot of girls in the Caribbean and around the world.”
What we are seeing in Australia and New Zealand is sport in the original sense. Everyone wants to win, of course, but participating is everything. With this mix of quality and sporting spirit, the viewer feels pleasantly entertained and can even relax. And if some of them take it as an inspiration for their own lives and exercise more in the future, that’s not bad either.
For us Europeans, this World Cup should be an example for the Men’s Championship. People from different cultures come together, tour the country, celebrate together, watch football. By the way, they show how they want to live: freely, united, in democracy. Sporting events create identity, are synonymous with cohesion and resilience, and help Europe and its partners to adapt to changing times. That has enormous value.
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