FIFA announced today that the Council has unanimously agreed to expand the number of teams in the 2023 Women’s World Cup from 24 to 32 teams.
This will affect the bidding process, which was already underway based on a 24-team tournament. Bids were originally supposed to be submitted by October 4, 2019, but will now be due in December of 2019, with the host announced in May 2020. This will give the host nation approximately just over three years to prepare for the World Cup, as opposed to the four years and two months that France had to prepare for 2019, and the similar length of time Canada had to prepare for 2015, when the tournament expanded from 16 to 24 teams.
This will almost certainly strain many bidding committees, who put together estimates and had to get local government buy-in based on 24 teams. Consider that bids need to include practice fields for every team; hotels; buy in from potential host cities to commit to things like transportation and security; and, obviously, venues. Committees that were expecting to be done by October will now not only have to scramble to adjust to eight more teams with only three more months of prep time, but will also have to find a way to pay the people on those bid committees with a budget that was meant to last until October.
In the announcement’s press release, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said, “The expansion reaches far beyond the eight additional participating teams; it means that, from now on, dozens more member associations will organise their women’s football programme knowing they have a realistic chance of qualifying. The FIFA Women’s World Cup is the most powerful trigger for the professionalisation of the women’s game, but it comes but once every four years and is only the top of a much greater pyramid.”
On the surface, this is a welcome change, precisely for the reasons Infantino mentioned. In practice, this may be too much, too soon from FIFA, which doesn’t exactly have a great record of financial oversight of the women’s games. There is little reason to be confident that lower-ranked teams will make a sincere effort to overhaul their women’s national teams to be truly competitive, or that they will apply any funding from FIFA in good faith. At this year’s World Cup, Chile’s Christiane Endler outright said federations do not use money specifically earmarked for women’s soccer to the benefit of women’s programs.
There’s also the matter of proper qualification tournaments, like CONMEBOL using the two-week-long Copa América Femenina as their qualifier, as opposed to the years-long process of home-and-away games for the men. Unless FIFA and the confederations are prepared to invest more in better qualification tournaments, which will help keep federations invested in their teams on a more consistent basis instead of in little spurts centered around the World Cup, this proposal is just going to see more Thailands qualify, then get sacrificed on the group stage altar with blowout scores.
Infantino has said that he wants to institute other proposals to help grow the women’s game, including a women’s Club World Cup, doubling World Cup prize money, and increasing FIFA’s overall financial investment. But those are all just words. What FIFA really needs to commit to is serious financial oversight of federation spending on their women’s teams, as well as instituting strict rules demanding a baseline level of investment in women’s programs, such as mandating a certain number of women’s training camps or friendlies every year before any of the national teams are allowed to compete internationally.
FIFA seems to have realized that the women’s game isn’t going anywhere, so they might as well get onboard and at least use the appearance of supporting women to get some goodwill. Whether they will seriously and thoughtfully commit to growing the game in a responsible way seems much less certain.