We’re all anxiously awaiting the return to some version of normalcy in life, and for many of us, that means bringing back the sports we love. The immediate questions there are the most pressing: Will there even be a season? If so, what will it look like? Will there be fans in the stands?
The National Women’s Soccer League is grappling with these questions just like every other sports league (NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird was part of a call with the White House on Wednesday which involved professional sports leadership from across the United States). Some feel that the league’s existence as a much smaller operation makes it nimble and well-suited to adapt; others acknowledge the obvious, which is that money is even tighter in women’s sports and women’s soccer globally faces an “existential threat” due to this COVID-19 pandemic, a reality which world players union FIFPro laid out in a release on Thursday.
There is a fragility to the business models of women’s leagues, the sources of which are deeply rooted in longstanding and embedded sexism. This pandemic will affect the lives of everyone involved, from players and coaches, to front-office staff and media. FIFPro lays out some of the challenges and opportunities here.
Most immediately is getting back to play. That’s finishing seasons in Europe, starting the NWSL season, and finishing some of the remaining Olympic qualifying matches for the women’s tournament. The Olympics have already been pushed back a year, to summer 2021. The Women’s Euro looks set to be moved to 2022, since the Men’s Euro will now take place in summer 2021.
Looking ahead, though, what type of issues could this cause for the 2023 Women’s World Cup? It’s a question which understandably is not at the forefront, but the ramifications of this pandemic could include preparation for that marquee tournament.
Inexplicably, there still isn’t a host for the 2023 World Cup. Site visits to the four finalists — Brazil, Colombia, Japan and a joint bid between Australia and New Zealand — were completed just before the pandemic effectively shut down the world, but the FIFA Council was supposed to vote on a 2023 World Cup host this June. That vote was to take place at the 70th FIFA Congress, originally scheduled for June 5 in Ethiopia, but that meeting was rescheduled to Sept. 18, 2020.
I reached out to FIFA last week asking what this all might mean for the selection of a 2023 World Cup host and received the following statement:
“As part of the bidding process for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023, FIFA completed inspection visits to all candidate member associations. The findings of the FIFA delegation will be included in the Bid Evaluation Report that will be published on FIFA.com.
“Additional information about the publication of the Bid Evaluation Report and the selection of the host(s) of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 by the FIFA Council will follow in due time.”
Will the vote for the 2023 host have to wait until FIFA Congress can bring together delegates in person? As of now, that will be September, but that could be delayed once again. Can a virtual vote happen reliably, given the transparency questions which have surrounded World Cup voting (mostly on the men’s side)?
The past several Women’s World Cup hosts were named slightly before their respective, preceding tournaments, allowing for four years of preparation time. Even that isn’t as long as it miight sound; compare it to the men’s game, which included Qatar controversially winning 2022 hosting rights in 2010.
The 2023 Women’s World Cup was already going to be a condensed preparation effort for whichever country (or countries) hosts the tournament. Add to that the fact that it will be the first time the women’s marquee event expands to 32 teams, a decision rushed through congress after last year’s success. Sure, the countries bidding have a lot of infrastructure in place. Sure, nobody could have predicted this pandemic. But, as we’ve been asking for over a year now, how did we get to this point — to where we don’t even know where the next Women’s World Cup will be played?
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