Women's World Cup: Influential leaders in women's soccer look back at France 2019 and ahead to the future of the game

PARIS -- The 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup came to an emphatic conclusion on Sunday in Lyon when the United States defeated the Netherlands 2-0 to earn its fourth star above its crest. Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle found the back of the net in the second half to secure the win in front of a sold-out crowd of 57,900 fans at the Stade de Lyon. Fans were chanting for equal pay when FIFA president Gianni Infantino and French president Emmanuel Macron were on stage handing out gold medals to the American players. 

Members of the championship team traveled from France to New York City where they will prepare for a ticker tape parade on home soil on Wednesday. The last sports team to receive such an honor in New York was -- you guessed it -- the USWNT in 2015. The 2-0 win over the Dutch capped off one of the most entertaining women's soccer tournaments in recent memory as the rest of the world tries to catch up to the USA -- an unapologetic team that pushed the boundaries and demanded more from its bosses (including a lawsuit filed in March demanding U.S. Soccer for equal pay). They made a major impact on and off the field. 

The USWNT will hold a victory tour -- possibly 6-10 friendlies all over the country -- starting in August at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. The popularity of the women's game continues to rise. The ratings in the United States were 20 percent higher than the 2018 World Cup final in Russia for the men. Keep in mind, this past Sunday featured the Copa America final between Brazil and Peru and the Gold Cup final between the United States men's national team and Mexico as well.

So, what happens now? Will the federation give the players equal pay? What about the women's game? The National Women's Soccer League season is in full gear and is picking up sponsors thanks to World Cup fever. The Olympics in Tokyo is right around the corner -- just over 12 months away. Will we feel the momentum snowballing as we get closer to the Tokyo Games?

Nike, which launched a powerful ad moments after the U.S. claimed back-to-back titles, held a women's soccer panel in Le 4 Showroom in Paris prior to the big game. Five powerful women in the soccer industry joined us for a discussion on the state of the game: 

  • Laure Boulleau, former French national team defender and current ambassador for Paris Saint-Germain
  • Karina LeBlanc, former Canada goalkepeer and current head of CONCACAF women's soccer
  • Nadia Nadim, Afghan-Danish striker currently on PSG
  • Rocky Hehakaija, former Netherlands player and director of the Favela Street Foundation
  • Anna Kessel, women's sports editor for the Telegraph in England, author of "Eat, sweat, play: how sport can change our lives"

Nadim speaks fondly about her journey to professional soccer that was shared recently in "Spit Fire, Dream Higher," a Gurls Talk documentary that premiered in London on Monday about young women in soccer breaking barriers and building relationships within their communities. She was born in Afghanistan, where her father was killed by the Taliban when she was 10 years old. Her family decided to leave the country where she says women didn't have any rights, or a voice to speak out on issues such as women in sports. "It was impossible for us to be there, so we left the country -- or actually escaped, smuggled out of the country. We had to buy fake passports and all that. Faith brought me to a refugee camp where football was there, and football saved my life," Nadim said.

LeBlanc told us she started playing soccer because it helped overcome some shyness issues. "Nobody ever believes that I was the shyest kid in the room," said LeBlanc, who was one of the hosts for Fox in the Women's World Cup. She was bullied while living in the Caribbean and eventually moved to Canada where she discovered the sport thanks to a friend that invited her to play. "I think the statistic is that 76 percent of girls play football because they want to be connected to friends," LeBlanc said. 

Hehakaija was an aspiring soccer player for Netherlands before her pro career was cut short due to a knee injury. That opened the path for her to become a street soccer legend and start the Favela Street Foundation where she works with underprivileged kids in neighborhoods all over the globe, including Brazil and Haiti. She also works as a motivational speaker and serves as a scout for Nike, searching for the new wave of talent in women's soccer. 

I was fortunate enough to speak to a few of them to get their take on how this will impact the future generation of women's soccer and their most memorable moment of the tournament:

What will be the lasting impact of the Women's World Cup?

Karina LeBlanc: I wore this shirt [that reads 'game-changer'] intentionally. I think everyone will leave this World Cup feeling that much differently about the women's game. I think if you're a player, you got to play in the biggest and deepest and strongest World Cup, but even if you're a fan, I think everybody has had a moment where they were wowed.

From everyone I have spoken to, whether it has been people who's watched the game for the first time or never watched a game or have been fans for many years, this has been a World Cup that has created moments for people that will make it memorable forever.

Nadia Nadim: This World Cup brought the sport to a wider audience, and seeing these amazing athletes become role models -- hearing their stories, hearing their struggles -- that young girls can relate to ... was the biggest thing for me. That's going to have a huge impact in the coming generations. You have to see [the female athletes on television] before you can believe it. Growing up, I didn't have any female football role models. I had [Cristiano] Ronaldo and Zlatan [Ibrahimovic], people that I love, but now you have the choice of who your role model is.

Rocky Hehakaija: I think years from now, we'll look back at this tournament and say, 'yo, this was a turning point.' And that's why I keep on saying that this is such a special momentum because after this World Cup, I think that more sponsors and more federations will step up to the plate to do more to elevate the game.

Talking from the Dutch perspective, this is the second time we have qualified for the World Cup and we made it to the final. That's just something that has to elevate the game in the country. I know that they are already taking steps to do that. The wheels have to start turning more, but it's starting.

If I compare it to me playing for the national team, I dreamed about playing football in sold-out stadiums, so the fact that we are seeing it and it is actually happening is crazy. 

What was your favorite Women's World Cup moment(s)?

LeBlanc: Because of my job, my favorite moment was the Jamaica team scoring because that moment meant so much to those girls. They wanted to come here and make their country proud and change the conversation in their island, but what they did was change the conversation in all Caribbean islands. You can see the joy that came from scoring that goal. For me, I remember playing in a World Cup and what it's like to be on a team that you score a goal, but imagine scoring the first-ever goal for your country and knowing that a region is watching you. Speaking to the girls before the tournament, I told them "be your own hero." Be the person you always wanted to be, but know that so many people are watching and they want you to be their hero. In that moment when they scored, I got choked up because they were their own hero. That goal was more than winning or losing, it was a goal to celebrate everything they have been through.

As a Canadian, I thought my team unfortunately lost too soon. They were playing their best football ever and I'm proud of them for that. Again, they are heroes in Canada, so I'm proud of them for that.

The France-USA game was the one for me that I haven't missed playing until that moment. You hear the music ... you hear the [American] Outlaws, but then you hear the French fans. Everybody wanted to be there because this game was labeled the epic game. We didn't want this in the quarterfinals, it could've been the final, and it lived up to all of that. No matter who I talked to after, they were like, "wow, that was a moment."

I walked with the American Outlaws, which was weird for me because I'm like, "OK, I'm Canadian." But they were so welcoming. We were supposed to walk up to the stadium and meet the French and walk down the main path together, and the French police were organizing that. That's women's football, because you unite the world. Everyone is here and they're passionate about their country but also passionate about the women's game. And it's a peaceful game.

Nadim: The Argentina-Scotland game was so exciting and so emotional. People were cheering for Argentina and I was wearing the wrong jersey because I had friends on the Scottish team, and then I started cheering for Argentina as well. I've been to a lot of big games at Old Trafford, Anfield, Etihad -- you name it. This was the first time that I was having goosebumps watching a game. I lost my voice because of the penalty retake. That's the one my favorite moments in football, period. 

Also, when Thailand scored their first goal in Nice ... looking at the reaction of the Thai fans going crazy and then their manager crying, it was cool to see how much it meant to all of them.

The England against U.S. match was electric. You could just feel the atmosphere and the intensity. I don't know how to put it, but this World Cup has been just different. I'm going to be sad that it's over, but also on the other hand, I'm a tiny bit happy because I'm going to have some time to rest a bit, because I feel as a fan I've been through so much emotions watching all these games. It's almost as if I have been in camp with the national team for an entire month because of my job on television. 

Hehakaija: The speech from Marta after the game when they got knocked out by France. Marta is my biggest idol ... and the impact of that speech, the emotional rawness of that speech, still touches me to the core and it's one of my main takeaways. And of course the Dutch qualifying for the final, but Marta for sure stands out.

What are the next steps for women's soccer to grow?

Anna Kessel: I think when speaking to governing bodies or people in senior positions in the sport, they felt that there has already been so much progress, as if we made it. That's kind of the attitude. And they forget about what's going on in the ground -- the kind of stories that Nadia shared. That went on when Nadia was small, but it's still going on now. 

I've got two daughters, one is 7 years old, and she goes to school and the boys are still saying "you can't play football." That is the status quo ... and it's not unique to her school, it's really normal. Football is the national game in England, and yet not every single girl has had access to the game. That's just fundamentally wrong.

I think it's really disturbing. We're researching, we're fighting for equality for women and men and there remains this huge area in sport where it is still culturally acceptable to tell girls they can't do a sport, and there's no logical or rational reason why they can't do it. For any person to come into this world and be told they can't do something -- at 4 years old -- because they have a vagina is just crazy. Sport is such an important, powerful arena. It's where money and politics and power all cross. We've seen our politicians use sport ... and to deny women access to that is huge.

Yes, we've seen some progress and girls are starting to play football, and that's great. But you can see the difference already from the boy that started playing at 2 or 3 and was told all along that this was natural and right for him ... and the girl that maybe starts at 6 or 7 and is slower and ... you've got to overcome and confidence issues and barriers and friendship issues and "is this the right thing for me to be doing as a girls or not." How do they ever get to this point?

There's a lot of work to be done ... and I think if we start there, then [we'll continue to see more progress].

LeBlanc: I think it comes down to changing the mindset of the powers of the game and using athletes that have been through stuff as the power, showing their story so that parents understand what football can really do for their daughters. If I say it 50 million times, it's not as valuable as a current player saying "this is how the game changed my life." So we need to change the perception, and we need to build foundations and make sure football is not seen as a cost, but as an opportunity -- a solution for health, obesity issues, for girls that don't feel connected -- beyond the field. That's how we grow participation.

FIFA came up with a strategy, we [CONCACAF] came up with our strategy about a month ago. But for the president to say he's going to invest $1 billion, that's huge ... This can actually be the place where we make our biggest change.

Commercial dollars are going up, attention is going up, the participation numbers are going up -- everything is going up. This is the time for women's football to blow up, and it's not that it hasn't before, but now people are getting behind it.

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