FIFA Women’s World Cup Assessment


Improve Business Practices and Referees

As a longtime fan of soccer and the U.S. Women’s and Men’s National Teams, the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup wildly exceeded expectations.  The competition was intense and full of drama.  Coaches sought every tactical advantage, and inspired teams left everything on the playing fields.  In the final, Team USA won a landmark fourth world championship in a tense game with a well-coached, disciplined, and competitive Dutch side.  Overall, the women who played in the tournament showed that they and other women around the world deserve to compete on the world stage and that the world would watch.

In September in Milan, experts from around the world will gather for a conference to assess the 2019 tournament as part of the preparation for the 2023 tournament.  Two facts for 2023 have already been announced by FIFA President Gianni Infantino:  player prize money divided among participating teams will double from 30 to 60 million dollars and the number of teams will increase from 24 to 32.  As they ponder methods to grow the women’s game, conference participants will need to look back at 2019 and assess revenue, attendance, viewership, marketing, and referees.  All of these discussions will take place with a loud “equal pay” chorus echoing in the background.

Revenue Distribution – Men’s and Women’s Teams

FIFA has not yet published the total revenue earned from the tournament, but Forbes estimated that revenues would be approximately $131 million, a far cry from the $6.1 billion FIFA earned from the 2018 men’s tournament.  If that is accurate, it would provide an interesting data point for the “equal pay” argument.  The women’s purse was 22.9 percent of total Women’s World Cup revenue, while the men’s prize 2018 money equaled only 6.6% ($400 million) of 2018 World Cup earnings.

Both Forbes and Sports Pro Media criticized FIFA’s business management of the tournament.  Average game attendance declined from 2015 levels by nearly 5000 persons per event, as did TV viewership, although certain markets – the U.K., Spain, the Netherlands, and Brazil – saw viewership increase.  Notably, 62% of viewers were male, suggesting that the women’s game has growth potential.    

Marketing Differences?

For 2023, FIFA will want to do a much better job marketing the competition.  This year’s event was marred by ticketing fiascos and deficient promotional efforts.  Unlike 2018, when commercials, billboards, and flyers announced the men’s tournament to soccer fans all over the world at every opportunity and in every place where they gathered, there was a paucity of such advertising for the women’s competition.  Consequently, many games were played in front of half-full stadiums.  Wildly enthusiastic American, Dutch, and French fans probably saved FIFA’s face.

Referee Inconsistencies

For much of the tournament, the quality of officiating, both on field and video-assisted, dominated the news.  Confusion reigned over assistant referees, per FIFA instructions, refraining from flagging offsides in potential goal scoring situations, reviews of goals scored, rulings regarding encroachment by goalkeepers during penalty kicks, and long delays to complete video reviews.  As the tournament progressed through the Group phase, it began to look like referees were relying on Video Assistant Reviews as a “comfort blanket.”  As a fan who watched many of the games, I certainly felt that inconsistent officiating was distracting attention from the high quality of actual play.

Two incidents and FIFA’s own published referee statistics point towards some truths behind these perceptions.

  • In the 21st minute of the USA-Chile match, Chile took a free kick, a Chilean player broke free and, in real time, appeared to touch the ball past a diving USA goalie into the net.  Consistent with instructions, the Assistant Referee raised her flag for offside after the ball rolled across the goal line.  No VAR review took place, despite FIFA instructions, an obvious offside situation, and a goal being scored.  The game continued; however, when FoxSports replayed the sequence, it showed clearly that the Chilean player had never touched the ball.  In fact, the ball had passed the player and the goalie had dived before the Chilean began to raise her leg for an attempted shot.  Was that interference with the goalie’s ability to play the ball?  We will never know, because a video review was not conducted, and the sequence was omitted from official match highlights
  • In the 50th minute of the USA-Sweden match, Megan Rapinoe crossed the ball towards Carli Lloyd in the penalty area.  Although offside, Lloyd moved towards the ball, drawing the defender into making a dangerous play to clear it to the side.  Play continued and Tobin Heath collected the ball and drove it off Swedish defender Andersson into the net.  The VAR team reviewed the sequence and determined that, although offside, Lloyd’s actions did not constitute interference, and the goal was allowed.  The official highlights contain this sequence.

Under similar circumstances regarding interference by an offside player (see slide 21 of the FIFA offsides powerpoint presentation), two opposite conclusions were reached, the very definition of inconsistency. 

Video Assisted Reviews

As the Telegraph reported, video assisted reviews increased by fifty percent over levels experienced during the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and ninety percent of interventions reversed referees’ decisions.   The rate of intervention, once per 1.6 games during the women’s championship, doubled from the once per 3.2 games average in 2018.  “… [f]ull reviews this summer caused an average delay of a minute and 33 seconds. The decisions led to 13 penalties, four penalty cancellations, four goals disallowed, four goals awarded, three encroachments by goalkeepers during penalties and one red card,” said The Telegraph.  FIFA itself admitted that on-field and video referees combined to commit eight outright errors, but FIFA’s website did not identify them.

According to some, officiating reached a low point at the England versus Cameroon round of sixteen elimination game during which there was more than 16 minutes of added time for four major VAR reviews, two of which overruled the referee in England’s favor (English goal allowed, Cameroonian goal disallowed).  The Telegraph reported that the referee herself said that she refused to accept VAR recommendations for a penalty in England’s favor and a straight red card on a Cameroonian player, “to keep the Cameroonian players on the field.”  In watching the replay of the game, all four decisions appeared to be correct, although, given the high level emotion on the playing field, the referee probably should have ended the match before the potential red card incident occurred. 

Reviewing FIFA’s official post-game statistics for apparent inconsistencies that might have sent the Cameroonian into their emotional tailspin, the referee only called four fouls on English players, who averaged ten fouls per game in their other five games, while assessing eleven fouls on Cameroonian players and issuing them two yellow cards (Cameroon had averaged fourteen fouls and two yellow cards per game in group play).  While watching the replay, there appeared to have been five fouls committed by English players that were not called, including one just outside the penalty area in the 41st minute.  In addition, there was a possible penalty foul on a Cameroonian player (or simulation by her) at the 90+5 point in stoppage time that was not reviewed by VAR.  On the other hand, the referee also ignored an incident during which a Cameroonian player spat on an English player.

Even after the England-Cameroon game, referees and VAR remained at center stage.  A controversially handled penalty decision decided the USA-Spain elimination game.  In the France-USA game, a USA goal was disallowed for offsides and not reviewed by VAR, although video replays clearly showed the U.S. player onside.  Likewise, a clear handball penalty against the USA was also not awarded, despite VAR review (Was this compensation for the previous error?).  The three decisive plays of the England-USA semifinal, Ellen White’s disallowed offside goal, the penalty on Becky Sauerbrunn, and the red card issued to Millie Bright, were all decided by VAR.  And the tournament-winning goal in the final was scored after a VAR review led to a penalty for the USA.

FIFA Reacts

So far, FIFA has met criticism of the performance of its Women’s World Cup referee system with surprise and confidence.  The Telegraph reported that “[FIFA], however, said it had ‘reflected with satisfaction’ on [referees’] performance in France.  Pierluigi Collina, chairman of the referees committee, said: ‘The performances seen on the pitch were absolutely in line with our expectations.”

Address Business Model Deficiencies & Officiating Inconsistencies

Nevertheless, FIFA must address both its business model deficiencies and officiating at its September conference.  To grow the game, both must be improved.  During the tournament, former England international Faye White suggested that “… at the World Cup, it should be the best referee for the job,” regardless of gender.  This seems sensible, given that sports officiating is a profession that any physically fit, ethically responsible individual can perform.  Thus, women could, and should, referee at the men’s event, just as men could, and perhaps should, be selected to referee the women’s tournament.

Quality of play will determine growth for the women’s game, and the quality of play depends on sound business models and the highest officiating standards.  Both fans and players demand a level playing field.  All options should be on the table.  The players and fans deserve it; indeed, they demand it.