By Christian Radnedge
LYON, France (Reuters) – Although it ended in a familiar outcome with the United States retaining the trophy, the women’s World Cup broke new ground in a tournament full of drama.
Records were smashed, with the U.S. extending their world title haul to four, Jill Ellis becoming the first female coach to win back-to-back World Cups and Brazil great Marta becoming the highest scorer, male or female, at the finals with 17 goals.
But it was more the impact off the pitch, with FIFA claiming a record billion television viewers worldwide, that will mark France 2019 as a defining event for women’s soccer.
Although the hosts could not break their quarter-final hoodoo, going out to the U.S. at a packed Parc des Princes, they played a historic match in the previous round against Brazil.
France needed extra-time to defeat the South Americans, who were still reliant on veterans like former world player of the year Marta.
The 33-year-old made an impassioned plea to the next generation of players in her country after more than 59 million tuned in to make it the most watched women’s soccer match of all time.
The tournament also showcased the improvement in goalkeeping standards across women’s football – so often a point of criticism.
The U.S., who crushed Thailand 13-0 in the group stage, would have racked up another high number against Chile were it not for goalkeeper Christiane Endler making several stunning saves to keep the score at 3-0.
The Netherlands did their best to defend deep in their first World Cup final on Sunday, but in reality it was goalkeeper and captain Sari van Veenendaal who made sure it was 0-0 against the Americans until the hour mark.
Goalkeepers were also under added pressure following the introduction of video assistant referees for the first time in women’s soccer, coupled with new rules on handballs and keepers having to keep at least part of their foot on the goal line at penalties.
The latter caused debate when France’s Wendie Renard hit the post with her spot-kick against Nigeria, only for it to be reviewed and ordered to be retaken after goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie was judged to have come off her line.
The moment highlighted the lack of preparation for officials and checks only became less frequent after a FIFA referees’ briefing on VAR before the quarter-finals.
Overall, 18 of the 142 goals scored at the World Cup came from the penalty spot, a number that would have been higher if England captain Steph Houghton had converted her spot-kick against the U.S. in the semi-final to level the scores at 2-2.
Alyssa Naeher saved it, however, to deny England who had ramped up the tie by accusing the Americans of bad etiquette for team officials scouting the England hotel, a story that added spice to the game.
Questions appeared in the British tabloids about whether the U.S. team were too arrogant and forward Alex Morgan responded with a cheeky teacup celebration when she scored against England.
Until this year the women’s World Cup had usually been played out in a family friendly atmosphere, so the fact that many were riled by these antics showed a new level of passion and seriousness around the tournament.
The rise of teams such as Spain, Italy and Argentina showed the investment in the domestic game from those countries, traditional powers in men’s soccer, is paying off.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino wants to increase the number of teams participating from 24 to 32, but there is a still a long way to go.
Infantino pledged to double the prize money at the next women’s World Cup in 2023 to $60m (£47.91 million), still a long way short of the $440 million on offer at the 2022 men’s World Cup in Qatar.
“Every player at this World Cup put on the most incredible show you could ever ask for. It’s time to move the conversation forward,” said U.S co-captain Megan Rapinoe after winning the golden ball and golden boot awards to go alongside her second world title.
(Reporting by Christian Radnedge, editing by Ed Osmond)