Why is Spain in the elite of women’s football | Women’s Soccer World Cup 2023


For those looking at women’s football for the first time, the list of dominant teams in recent decades and their notable differences from men’s football may come as a surprise. The eight women’s soccer World Cups played between 1991 and 2019 have been won by four countries: the United States four times, Germany twice, Norway and Japan. With the exception of Germany, none of the other three countries stand out in the men’s soccer championships. By contrast, Brazil, which has won five men’s titles, and Argentina, which has three, have never won the women’s competition. Far from being due to chance, these striking gender differences in success in international soccer are clearly related to the degree of equality between men and women in countries.

There are three possible explanations, not incompatible, for this gender gap in the performance of the national teams. First, economic development is correlated with the emancipation of women. In richer countries, technological advances in homes, lower fertility or a more balanced distribution of domestic tasks among couples increase the personal autonomy of women and allow them to invest more time in activities such as sports. In this way, economic development would increase the available talent and lead to better women’s soccer teams.

Second, the empowerment of women in societies through economic and political market policies would reduce gender inequalities and soften gender roles. Soccer would not thus be perceived as a predominantly masculine activity. In general, countries where women have similar opportunities in society to men tend to invest more in women’s sport.

Finally, women’s teams could achieve better results when investing directly in the promotion of women’s football through media coverage and, most especially, the creation of national leagues. The promotion of women’s football is all about specific strategies on and off the pitch to increase interest and awareness of the game.

If the main determinant of success in women’s football were economic development, there would be no need for gender policies, especially in sport; we would simply have to wait for the positive externalities that would arrive sooner or later. However, if the factors that weigh the most were the empowerment of women and the promotion of women’s football, good active policies on both fronts would be decisive.

The scientific evidence available to us and the very success of the Spanish team in the 2023 Women’s World Cup clearly show that action must be taken through general and specific gender policies in football and that waiting for the benefits of economic growth is not a winning strategy.

In a study we published a few months ago (“Waiting or Acting? The Gender Gap in International Football Success” in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport) with data for 116 countries between 2003 and 2019 we found that women’s football is far from being a by-product of men’s football. Women’s teams achieve better results in championships when women are empowered in the country and when policies designed to promote women’s football are implemented. According to the Gender Inequality Index (GII) prepared by the United Nations and which reflects gender inequalities in reproductive health, empowerment and the labor market, in 2021 Spain was the 14th country in gender equality on a list of 170 countries. The four semifinalist countries in the 2023 World Cup, Spain, the Netherlands, Great Britain and Australia, were among the top 27 most equal countries. It is worth noting that Argentina was in position 69 and Brazil in 94. On the contrary, the data do not support the argument that greater economic development translates systematically and automatically into a higher quality of women’s football and, therefore, there, in better positions in the national team championships.

Undoubtedly, the success of the Spanish team precisely in the 2023 World Cup and not in previous editions has a lot to do with the extraordinary transformation of women’s football in our country in recent years. These are changes such as the broadcasting of the women’s league matches on television, the growing coverage of the media, the professionalization of the players and coaches, the determined commitment of the big clubs such as Real Madrid or the FC Barcelona for women’s football or the creation of the Professional Women’s Football League in 2021.

At the current moment of the political debate in Spain, when the possibility of setbacks in the gender policies of some regional governments is looming, the international success of our women’s football clearly demonstrates that the reduction of gender gaps requires a role assets of public administrations and the agents involved. Let’s learn about women’s soccer.

Ignacio Lago Peñas He is a professor of Political Science at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. Santiago Lake Peñas He is a professor of Applied Economics at the University of Vigo. Carlos Lago Peñas He is a professor of Physical Education and Soccer at the University of Vigo.

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