Sunday, June 23, 2024

Spain’s glory, Renard’s stand, Earps vs Nike – the moments that defined the year in women’s football

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It’s been a wild, wonderful and empowering year for women’s football.

From fighting federations to moments of World Cup magic, we’ve seen it all.

It’s hard to pinpoint just one standout moment of the year, but we asked our women’s football experts to do just that…

The Athletic’s Charlotte Harpur, Michael Cox and Chloe Morgan spoke to Sophie Penney about their personal highlights of the year on our dedicated women’s football podcast Full Time Europe. Steph Yang, Laia Cervello Herrero, Meg Linehan, Katie Whyatt and Melanie Anzidei also provide their thoughts.

Listen in full to the episode below, on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the edited conversation below…

Sophie Penney: What was your moment of 2023?

Charlotte Harpur: When France captain Wendie Renard announced in February that she would no longer be available for national-team selection. This indirectly led to manager at the time Corinne Diacre’s departure.

The French Football Federation said the fracture between the players and the hierarchy seemed irreversible and it was detrimental to the interests of the national team. 



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Via her lawyer, Diacre claimed she had been the subject of a smear campaign ‘which is astonishing in its violence and dishonesty’. This wasn’t necessarily a celebratory moment but it was a key turning point for women’s football in France.

Penney: Why that moment specifically?

Harpur: Because Renard stood up for the professional standards the team needed. She added that she would not play at the summer’s World Cup to preserve her mental health. There were long-standing issues between Diacre and the players, but this time the emphasis was on sporting, not personal, issues.

Renard put her career on the line by taking a stance for the improvement of the standards for her team.

Renard, left, with Diacre’s replacement Herve Renard during the World Cup (Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

Penney: Did you notice any improvement in France, going from Diacre to Renard?

Michael Cox: It wasn’t as pronounced as we might have expected. They could have gone further (at the World Cup) than they did — they lost that epic penalty shootout against Australia in the quarter-final. I had them as strong contenders, but they gave themselves a greater possibility of getting to the latter stages with the change in manager.

Penney: The change was quick. Renard stood up and, two weeks later, Diacre was sacked. Five weeks later, they had a new coach (Herve Renard). How much does it mean when players speak out?

Chloe Morgan: If the World Cup showed us anything, it’s that a lot of players are using their platforms now for the greater good.

In the lead-up to the tournament, we saw England players speak out on the negotiations they were having with the Football Association on bonuses. The Jamaica national team players spoke up against their federation relating to lack of payments, accommodation and facilities. After the World Cup, Spain spoke up against what had happened between Jenni Hermoso and Luis Rubiales.


The pre-tournament chaos Jamaica survived to reach World Cup knockouts

The World Cup shone a light on the women’s football community and it was an opportunity for the players to feel empowered because the attention was finally on them. 

Organisations like FIFPRO have been helpful. They’ve produced a few reports this year bringing attention to issues such as mental health, player health checks and payments made to players. It’s felt like an empowering year.

Morgan: Does anyone even need to ask for my moment of the year? It had to be something goalkeeper-related — and who else but Mary Earps?

To be in the room when Earps dropped the bombshell that she’d been negotiating with Nike to get her Lionesses goalkeeper shirt sold was huge.

Earps was successful this year in campaigning for Nike to sell replicas of her England shirt (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

It became a massive movement and the timing was bold — just a few days before the tournament started and Earps was entering one of the most pressurised situations she’d ever faced.

During the tournament, understandably, Earps went quiet — focusing on the football. But just a month ago, the shirt sale went live and they sold out within five minutes.


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I still have a criticism of Nike — they didn’t put men’s (versions of the women’s team) shirts on sale.

Penney: Has Earps raised the profile of goalkeepers?

Morgan: Goalkeepers really only get attention when it’s something ridiculous we’ve done; an obvious error. We saw so many incredible goalkeeping performances at the World Cup, putting them on the map. The Netherlands’ Daphne van Domselaar, Nigeria’s Chiamaka Nnadozie, Sweden’s Zecira Musovic.

Penney: How does Earps balance her on- and off-field commitments?

Morgan: The World Cup and discussions with Nike have propelled her into notoriety in the women’s football community and mainstream media. She’s been on various game shows, but I remember thinking it’s quite an unusual thing to do mid-season. It would only have to take an injury (or poor performance) for people to perhaps question where her priorities lay.


Mary Earps: Goalkeeper, brand, icon

But it’s hard when she’ll naturally want to raise her profile off the back of a great season with Manchester United and England.

Cox:  I’m going to go for South Africa’s 3-2 win over Italy at the Women’s World Cup in Wellington. It was an incredibly dramatic game and a must-win for South Africa, it being their last game of the group stage. They had to win to qualify ahead of Italy and they did so with a 92nd-minute goal, which was completely deserved. It was exactly what you want from a final group game. 

There were barely any Italian journalists at the tournament, which is extraordinary considering they send about a dozen to any men’s Champions League game, even if Italian sides aren’t involved. 

The players were so approachable in the mixed zone afterwards. Desiree Ellis was one of the most charismatic, eloquent managers I’ve encountered. 

Ellis delighted after her side beat Italy to advance to the round of 16 (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

It was a victory for taking the women’s game and preparations seriously. South Africa and the African Confederation invested heavily in their use of data. They did more analysis than ever before and had analysis tools that were beyond what was available to the men’s side. On the other hand, Italy, a side who, when you go back to the early 1990s, were the leaders in Europe in terms of women’s team performance, have just stagnated. 

Penney: How did you find being in Australia for the tournament?

Cox: When I landed there, I said to people (taxi drivers or in bars), “I’m here for the Women’s World Cup”, and they would say, “Is that soccer or netball?”.

By the end of the tournament, this changed. I chatted to a pub landlord who was talking about when he’d shown Australia’s quarter-final against France and he said there’s never been such clamour to watch a sporting game. They had people queuing outside, desperate to get into the pub.

I said to him, “That must’ve been great for business?”, and he said, “No, during the penalty shootout, no one bought a drink for about 20 minutes!”.

Steph Yang: My moment was the changing of the guard at the World Cup.

This summer, we saw the last World Cup for multiple legends of the game — Brazil’s Marta, Canada’s Christine Sinclair, the USA’s Megan Rapinoe — but none of them had a particularly great tournament and none of their teams advanced very far. 

Rapinoe missed her team’s fourth penalty in a last-16 shootout loss to Sweden (Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

It was cause for humbling reflection on the nature of superstardom and the wisdom in those veteran players who are always saying (stuff like), ‘Be in this moment, let the World Cup sink in, don’t be so focused on the result that you lose sight of how cool it is to be where you are.’ 

And we saw that joy in the new generation: Colombia’s Linda Caicedo and Spain’s Salma Paralluelo. They were definitely that reminder for me to not get so caught up in who was leaving the game and to focus on who’s making the game now.

Melanie Anzidei: My moment was Gotham FC winning their first NWSL championship, giving Ali Krieger a poetic send-off into a well-deserved retirement. The win was indicative of what can happen when a team is given the proper tools to succeed. 


Gotham FC went from ‘turbulence’ to triumph, showing value of ongoing investment

In recent years, the club has attracted investment from Miami and some unlikely sources — WNBA legend Sue Bird, the NBA’s Kevin Durant, and former NFL star Eli Manning. 

All the minority owners who bought into what this club in New Jersey was selling. The team’s front office spearheaded by general manager and former player Yael Averbuch West have been meticulous in who they brought into this club, such as Coach of the Year Juan Carlos Amoros and blockbuster signings including Krieger, Lynn Williams and Esther Gonzalez. 

Gotham FC raising the NWSL Championship trophy after defeating OL Reign in November (Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Last year, Gotham finished in last place. Four years before that, the team was knee-deep in scandal with several reports of poor player conditions that sparked much-needed reform at the franchise. 

It also proves that accountability and investment are important for a team to succeed.

Meg Linehan: One of the major moments for me is one of the results from the USWNT’s World Cup — the hiring of Chelsea manager Emma Hayes as this team’s next head coach. 


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It’s going to be one of the biggest moments of 2023. When we look back in a couple of years, it’s the failure (at the tournament) which made this happen. Having been in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Frisco, Texas, at the end of the year with the team — even though Hayes hasn’t formally started the position yet — you can already see her impact. 

Defender Naomi Girma said she felt like the USWNT had been given direction and something to build towards. Captain Lindsey Horan was excited to have Hayes review the World Cup mistakes with a view to creating a short- and long-term plan and returning the team to its powerhouse status.

Katie Whyatt: One of the standout moments was Nigeria’s and Jamaica’s performances at the World Cup. The World Cup was very much defined by all of the off-field problems that a lot of teams were encountering, and that was definitely the case for those two. 

They produced some moments on the field that made the world sit up and take notice. Yet not the problems that they were dealing with, the issues that have persisted today, even after the World Cup, such as being paid their wages and bonuses. 

Nigeria progressed to the round of 16 in the World Cup (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

It was a real reminder of not only what women can do when they’re not supported but just how far the game has got to go.

The experiences that those teams endured are something that was symbolic of the World Cup and that we definitely have to take notice of and learn from going into future tournaments.

Laia Cervello Herrero: My moment of the year 2023 is Spain winning the World Cup. Few people expected it; not because the national team didn’t have a good squad, but because there had been a lot of internal crises in the last year. 

We have to remember Spain had never gone beyond the round of 16 in the competition, had never won a match in the knockout stages. Fifteen of their best players resigned from the national team, complaining about big internal issues 10 months before the tournament. 


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Until the last moment, there were doubts about which players would go or not.

This World Cup has been split into a before and after period. The Rubiales incident with Hermoso prompted a revolution and some of the players have shown resilience and changed women’s football in Spain for good.

Hermoso helped Spain to their first Women’s World Cup win this summer (Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Harpur: I’m quite glad that (the Rubiales incident) was done on the biggest stage so everybody could see it and it wasn’t brushed under the carpet.

Spain raised those concerns before, and not everybody was listened to. You have to think about the players who stayed behind and didn’t go to the World Cup and what they sacrificed. But you cannot think of 2023 and forget that moment. 

(Top photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

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