LYON, France — The 2019 Women’s World Cup has proven that women’s soccer has truly gone global.
Now it’s time for the International Olympic Committee, which stages essentially the sport’s only other major international tournament, to step up and honor that.
The Olympics need to expand their miniscule 12-team field so they can provide additional opportunity and competition for some of the best athletes in the world, not to mention additional entertainment for the fans.
For a long time, maybe 12 was enough. Those days are done now, however.
The current Women’s World Cup field is 24 teams strong (as recently as 2011, it was just 16).
The men’s Olympic tournament has 16 teams, even though it’s not honored as a major tournament. Rules dictate countries must send squads composed entirely of Under-23 players except for three designated players allowed over the age limit.
Yet the men get more teams than women, who actually send the best of the best and are begging for 16 teams or more. That’s ridiculous.
The small field is a drag on the sport. Europe is allocated just three spots, despite having seven of the eight quarterfinal-teams here. As a result (and the way qualifying works), global powers France and Germany won’t be in Japan for the 2020 Games. That strips the event of significant prestige, star power and high-end play.
It’s a shame, and an unnecessary shame.
“There are more good teams now,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “That really speaks where the game is headed and where we are at.”
In competitive terms, this World Cup has proven that. The quality of play in women’s soccer has never been better. And there are more teams across the globe playing to that standard.
The degree of difficulty for the United States and the Netherlands to reach Sunday’s final (11 a.m. ET) is unprecedented.
“I think this is the hardest route to a final that any team has taken,” Ellis said.
By the next World Cup, it will probably be harder still. The trend line is obvious as television ratings surge from France to Brazil and major European clubs and countries continue to ramp up investment in the sport. Whether it is the Italian national team or Real Madrid, the game is being taken seriously now in countries where soccer is considered serious business.
The IOC needs to recognize that.
One of the unfortunate realities that women’s soccer finds itself in is a lack of high-profile, high-quality international stages to showcase the game and its athletes.
The men’s World Cup is the biggest thing in the sport, but professional leagues in multiple countries, not to mention the Champion’s League, also offer ample opportunity. On top of that, continental championships fill additional gaps, especially in Europe and South America. Soccer is an endless parade of top-line events.
It’s why the men can essentially sit out the Olympics. They don’t need it.
Maybe the women will get there one day, but that day isn’t now. Outside of the Women’s World Cup, the Olympics are pretty much all there is.
Women’s professional leagues remain fledgling, even in the United States. Perhaps there is now enough depth of competition for a European women’s championship to matter, but that’s still just one continent.
Women’s soccer is all in on the Olympics, which means the Olympics should return the favor and expand the field. While the IOC is always fearful of adding too many athletes to the Olympics – staging the games is a massive logistical challenge – soccer is an easy one.
Games are played all over the host country, so the group stage and early knockout rounds where the added teams would factor in would not strain the infrastructure of the main city. It would just provide more events for fans to watch.
More importantly, it would help continue to grow a sport that has plenty of growth potential all over the globe.
The Olympics have done their part to help this sport. It’s one reason the game has gotten to the level it has. There’s more to go now, and both the proper and easy thing for the IOC to do is to acknowledge that and increase the field to 16, 20, 24 teams even.
The more the better, because this sport just keeps getting better and better still.
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