How the 2023 Women’s World Cup Pushed Social Justice Causes On A Global Stage

Miranda De Olden ’26 in Sports | October 20, 2023

          There are many reasons why I will always remember the Women’s World Cup played in Australia and New Zealand during the summer of 2023. With an in-person attendance of over 1.9 million people, the 2023 tournament was the most attended in Women’s World Cup history. Next to the nearly two million screaming fans, I was there feeling the contagious energy that comes from watching the best soccer players on the planet compete. This year's World Cup also had the most goals scored in women’s World Cup history—164 goals. That is 65 more goals scored than in the first Women’s World Cup in 1991 and 18 more goals than in the 2019 and 2015 iterations of the World Cup. 

          But there are more powerful reasons as to why the 2023 World Cup will be remembered, ones relating to efforts around equity setting the stage for new changes to occur. The first is the acknowledgment of Indigenous peoples and social justice causes.

          At the start of every match, the rights of Indigenous communities in Australia and New Zealand were recognized. Representatives of the traditional owners of the land performed Welcome to Country ceremonies using Indigenous names of places and referencing history and tradition. For example, each stadium used the original name of the land prior to British colonization, such as Tāmaki Makaurau instead of Eden Park in Auckland; Naarm as opposed to the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium; and Meaanjin instead of Lang Park in Brisbane. In addition, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags were flown in the matches that took place in Australia, and the Māori “Tino Rangatiratanga '' flag was used in New Zealand. These flags were given equal importance to the national flags. These efforts reflect conversations taking place in both New Zealand and Australia about each nation's identity, and were being echoed by massive media campaigns carried out by FIFA in partnership with United Nations Human Rights aimed at creating mainstream awareness of the rights of Indigenous peoples around the globe.

          In addition to Indigenous peoples' rights, World Cup organizers and participating teams partnered with United Nations (UN) agencies to advocate for other social justice causes during the soccer matches, including Unite for Inclusion in collaboration with UN Human Rights; Unite for Gender Equality and Unite for Ending Violence Against Women in partnership with UN Women; Unite for Peace in collaboration with UN Refugee Agency; Unite for Education for All with UNESCO; and Unite for Zero Hunger in partnership with the UN World Food Program. Captains and players were also allowed to wear armbands featuring rainbow colors during matches in support of LGBTQIA+ rights, similar to the ones that were banned in the 2022 Men’s World Cup in Qatar.

          Teams and players embraced these social justice causes while the tournament produced record ratings globally. With an estimated 1.5 billion total viewers watching the final, people all over the world were certainly invested! The World Cup’s effort to create awareness of Indigenous Rights and promote social justice causes reached millions across the world and brought new hope in the fight for equity. 

          Secondly, this year’s World Cup sought to diversify the game. 32 teams competed this year, more than in any other iteration of the Women’s World Cup. Haiti, Morocco, Panama, Philippines, Vietnam, and Zambia were among the teams that played in the World Cup for the first time. In many of these countries, the journey to play at the highest level was arduous, and women faced sexist traditional biases and societal objections. A few decades ago, soccer was practically unthinkable as a career choice for women. Not only that, but some of these teams represent nations that have a history of economic and political struggles and have endured deep wounds left from colonialism. Despite all this hardship, many first-timers and underdogs beat far more experienced teams in the early stages of this year’s tournament. Morocco, the first team from a majority Arab country to qualify, beat South Korea. Colombia beat none other than Germany, who was once ranked as the number two team in the world! The Philippines and Nigeria beat hosts New Zealand and Australia, respectively. Newcomers Haiti and Vietnam lost very narrowly to powerhouses England and the USA, and for the first time, three African teams advanced to the Round of Sixteen: South Africa, Nigeria, and Morocco. 

          Playing on the world stage brought attention to countries that had been previously ignored, and it gave female players in these countries a chance to be known and celebrated as prominent national figures. Unfortunately, while given a global stage to play on, a majority of these teams still face large gender pay gaps. Female player salaries remain very low and many players have second jobs in order to support their families. National soccer federations have failed to provide the support needed for teams to participate. In some cases, participating in these international tournaments depended on fundraising campaigns or private donations. For example, a GoFundMe “Reggae Girlz Rise Up” campaign was created to support the Jamaican national team so that they could even attend the World Cup. It was started by the mother of a Jamaican player and was supported by none other than the daughter of reggae legend Bob Marley. In South Africa, the women’s national team relied on a private donation to cover expenses. In addition, teams like Australia and Canada have continued to wage fights for equal pay, and players in Nigeria and Spain have organized boycotts to ask for better pay and working conditions.  
          Addressing inequities in pay and working conditions will require action from the national and international federations. Sadly, FIFA has been mostly ambivalent and has much work to do to support the players on this front. Because women's soccer has gained unprecedented global popularity, players who advocate in favor of ending pay and work disparities have gained allies around the world. The United States Women’s National Team led the way to make disparities visible and improve the pay and working conditions of women players in the U.S. Hopefully, the exposure of inequities in other places of the world and the power that comes from the popularity of the game internationally and solidarity can produce enough domestic and international pressure to make equal pay changes in other countries as well.

          Finally, the power of global condemnation was on full display as the unwanted kiss that took place during the awards ceremony sparked outrage across the world. The incident shed an unwanted spotlight on the sexism and sexual harassment against women and abuse of power in the workplace. The inappropriate behavior from a higher-up official towards a world-champion female player not only started conversations about misogyny and sexual assault but produced significant international media coverage and global backlash. The incident forced FIFA to take action and eventually forced the resignation of the offender, Royal Spanish Football Federation President Luis Rubiales. Rubiales was defiant at first and didn’t want to resign. However, the player, Jenni Hermoso, made it very clear that the kiss wasn’t consensual and tweeted that “no person, in any work, sports, or social setting, should be a victim of these types of nonconsensual behaviors.”  

          Many activists pointed out the general culture of sexism in women's sports prior to this scandal in Spain and in other parts of the world. In 2022, for example, a report on the USA National Women’s Soccer League found systemic sexual misconduct and verbal and emotional abuse by coaches that impacted multiple teams and players. In this case, Jenni had immense public support. After intense media coverage and public condemnation, fans, players, coaches, politicians, and teams from national and international leagues started slogans like “se acabo!” (it’s over!), “We stand with you Jenni” and “Enough is enough”. Eventually, the Spanish coach was fired and Spanish federation executives, including the offender, resigned. Spanish prosecutors are currently running an investigation as sexual assault is a crime punishable with prison time under Spanish law. While many have labeled this moment a #MeToo moment in Spain, I believe that change will only come when policies are created, ones that shape behavior and protect the safety, dignity, and integrity of all women athletes in Spain and around the world. 

          Since the 2023 Women's World Cup was my first World Cup, I must admit that the Australian Women’s National Team and their large fan base added to the magic. Australia was a big player in FIFA-UN’s inclusion and social justice campaigns in addition to being strong advocates in the fight for equal pay. I will always remember the chills I felt when a stadium of 75,000 fans decked out in yellow and green cheered in support of the Welcome to Country ceremony. Not only that, but the excitement I felt watching the best players in the world on huge screens advocating for women’s rights, gender equity, and an end to violence against women was immeasurable. I will always remember it as a part of soccer history in which promoting social justice causes was intentional, as well as witnessing the power of global backlash against sexism and harassment. The 2023 World Cup makes me hopeful for the advancement of the women’s game both on and off the field. Just like FIFA's armband bearing the message “Football Unites the World”, I hope that more and more people around the world will be united in advancing these causes with reforms that will bring change for all women, including women athletes, for the better.