As a proud Kiwi I can’t wait for the FIFA Women’s World Cup to come to New Zealand and Australia next year – and prove that the women’s game has finally come of age on the global stage.
I still remember a speech I gave in New Caledonia over a decade ago when – shortly after taking over as head of the Samoan Football Federation – I spoke candidly about the challenges and gender bias I faced.
I recalled how I was regularly told I had no idea what I was talking about, that my ideas and suggestions were routinely ignored and that I was laughed at simply because I was a woman.
The women’s game has also faced many obstacles, from a lack of infrastructure and having to fight for access to the right facilities, all the way through to a negative perception around women and girls even playing football.
But hey – look at us women now.
A fortnight ago England’s Lionesses won the Women’s Euros at Wembley, the spiritual ‘home of football’ in front of more than 87,000 fans and a TV audience in Great Britain of more than 17 million people. This in a country where women’s football was banned until the 1970s.
Just days earlier, Morocco’s women took on Nigeria, watched by more than 45,000 spectators, the biggest ever attendance for a women’s game in Africa.
And then there’s the Nation’s Cup in Suva, Fiji, which recently ended with Papua New Guinea winning a spot in the inter-confederation playoffs for next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.
As a former Samoan international I was always going to take close interest in the competition. But to see the passion and emotion, the pride of players when the National Anthems rang out, reminded me of why I and many others have tried for so long to grow the women’s game – and establish it as a standalone sport, out from under the shadows of the hugely successful men’s game.
It’s why we must build on the momentum we see across the world right now – starting with the FIFA Women’s World Cup next year in Australia and New Zealand.
I was in Sydney last month as Aussie and Kiwi cities teamed up to mark the ‘One Year to Go’ milestone and I simply cannot wait for the tournament to begin.
For me it’s a great chance for the rest of the world to see the huge interest in women’s football in Australia and New Zealand. There’s been a massive uptake in recent times in female sports in both countries and Football Australia recently committed to a goal of gender equal participation in football by 2027.
But beyond this, the FIFA Women’s World Cup next year – the biggest yet with 32 teams from all corners of the world – is a chance to take the women’s game to the next level by empowering more women and girls and encouraging them to take part.
Already, some of the leading women’s players are household names in their own right.
Commercially, Visa recently became the first Global FIFA Women’s Football Partner, with an agreement that sees critical funding put into the development of the game.
We need more companies with the vision of Visa to commit to similar partnerships and I’m confident we can get them.
Sport creates a platform for women to become leaders and recognise their true potential. Too often there’s been an expectation that women will automatically fail – yet through sport we can challenge and change these perceptions.
When I made that speech in New Caledonia over a decade ago I talked about what kept me going. I said that seeing the smile on a young girl’s face when she scores her first goal, watching her jump up and down with her team, hearing her mum and dad screaming with pride on the sideline, made it all worth it.
There’s exactly the same sensation I have now when I think of the young girls who will be watching next year- and have the chance to see Sam Kerr score for the Aussie ‘Matildas’ or witness a moment of sublime skill from the NZ Football Ferns’ Ali Riley.
We’ve come a long way – and next year’s World Cup will put women’s football on the map for good.