Sports

Women’s World Cup 2023 is already boosting Oceania

One year has passed since FIFA announced that Australia and New Zealand had won the rights to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup — the first to include 32 teams and to be partly held in what can be described as a “developing” football confederation, Oceania.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought much of the sporting world to a standstill over the past year, but the 11 member federations that make up football’s smallest confederation, the OFC, have been quietly readying themselves to capitalise on the boom in interest and investment from co-hosting the Women’s World Cup in two years’ time.

Few people were as exhilarated — and relieved — by the announcement as Emma Evans, the Head of Women’s Football at the OFC. Having spent years working as a development officer across the region, Evans knows better than most the significance of the tournament in helping to grow the women’s game across the Pacific.

“The impact that a World Cup will have on our side of the world will be so much bigger in scale than what it might be in somewhere like France, where you’ve already got professional football, you’ve already got millions involved in the game,” Evans told ESPN.

“Whereas, if you focus purely on the impact it could have here — not only on football but also on the regions across Asia and the Pacific — it’s massive. There’s still so much growth that needs to happen, and I think when people here see just how good women’s football is on a global scale and how big a following it has, perceptions and culture will start to shift.

“It definitely validates the work we’ve been doing. You feel trusted. FIFA knows football can thrive here, and that decision, that level of investment, proves it.”

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In the past year alone, several women’s leagues have started up or improved their formats in a number of Pacific nations — including Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. Part of the boom, Evans believes, is due to FIFA’s decision to expand the tournament to include more teams. With New Zealand automatically qualifying as co-hosts, the likelihood of another Oceania nation making its World Cup debut has never been higher.

Evans notes also that every country within the OFC now has “at least one women’s football officers… that alone shows there are growing dedicated resources towards the women’s game now. That’s a big step for our region.”

“To be honest, it feels like it’s almost been bigger across the islands than it has been within New Zealand,” Evans continued. “When I say that, New Zealand are now focused on delivering — both what they can do with their national team and then also delivering the event itself — whereas, for the rest of the Pacific, they’ve gone, ‘we finally have a chance to be at a World Cup.'”

Evans’ work with the OFC revolves around two major principles: Increasing opportunities for women and girls to participate in the game; and providing resources and structures to ensure women’s football — and football more generally — can grow in a sustainable way.

“The more opportunity these girls and women have to play, obviously the better they’re going to be in the long-run. But it’s the same for coaches and referees; it’s about making sure now that the infrastructure around them is right,” Evans said. “It’s fine to grow the game and have more people playing, but if you don’t have the coaches and referees and administrators there to bring it to life, it’s never going to be sustainable.”

Finding a place to play is a particularly difficult task given the geography of Oceania. The combined land mass of the islands that make up the region is dwarfed by the several million square kilometres of Pacific Ocean between them, making even the most basic football tasks — travelling to training and games, accessing equipment, finding new land to build fields — especially tricky.

“There are so many issues when it comes to the geographical spread and transport among those islands; the spread is almost as big as Europe,” Evans said. “It might look like the region covers all this space, but actually on that one island, there may only be one field or one area of beach to play on.

“Trying to encourage football in whatever space you can find is a big one. Making sure there are alternative formats to play — beach soccer or futsal or other small-sided games — is important, but that only gets you so far. At some point, you need to transition to full-sized pitches.

“Travel is another major issue. It could take two weeks to get by boat to a certain island for some of these communities. You might have an extremely talented player, but if it takes her four days to get a boat to the main city to play, and then she’s expected to play or train at a national camp that week and then go back for four days on the boat again, she may have missed two weeks of school. She might also not have been in her best form due to the travel.”

Geography will also play a role when it comes to the promoting and broadcasting the tournament itself.

“There are issues with internet connections within the Pacific so there are conversations happening around setting up World Cup hubs: Where, within each country, there are certain venues fans can go to — whether it’s a stadium or a conference room — to watch live matches,” Evans told ESPN.

“How do we make the tournament as accessible as possible when travel, internet, infrastructure and timing tend to be easier elsewhere in the world? You and I [in New Zealand] can wake up in the middle of the night, open our laptops and chuck a game on; it’s not quite as easy there. Taking the game to the people will be crucial.

Cultural norms and attitudes also make it difficult for women and girls to participate in football in the Pacific, where religion plays a major part in many communities and often shapes deeply the roles and responsibilities of men and women.

“In Australia and New Zealand, women’s football is played on Sundays, but you can’t play on Sundays in the islands because of religious views,” Evans said. “It’s not as simple as trying to convince them that it’s fine, because the land and the fields in many of these countries belong to a particular community who will not let you play there.

“One coach told me that the biggest challenge he faced was getting families to provide their daughters the same opportunities as their sons. He’d ask them to take their son to a tournament and they’d say, ‘Great! Take him! One less mouth to feed!’ He might even make a career out of it.

“But you speak to them about their daughter — same age, same talent, same situation — and they lose a key cog in their household; their cook, their cleaner, the baby-sitter. It changes how the whole family operates. So it’s hard to challenge those norms when that’s something that works for them at this point in time.”

Evans’ hope, though, is that hosting the tournament will normalise the participation of women and girls in the game, and that creating more opportunities in football will provide them with the knowledge, skills, and pathways that don’t just benefit the individual but also their families and communities more widely.

“We’re now starting to see more girls staying at school or going to university, which is bringing some really educated women to the game and to the region,” Evans said. “For me, what’s important is creating a safe environment and platform where they can be involved in what is a very male-dominated sport and in male-dominated societies.”

That, for Evans, is the most important legacy that hosting the 2023 Women’s World Cup will have: Empowering women and girls across the region to dream big and pursue goals that may never have been on their horizons before.

“From an OFC perspective, [2023] is all about changing perceptions,” Evans said. “It’s quite a generic statement, but if we change the perceptions about what women and girls are capable of when given the opportunity — whether as players, coaches, referees, administrators, commentators — that will be the biggest thing that this World Cup can do here.

“It’s so much bigger than football.”

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