top of page

Goal! Soft power at the Women’s World Cup for Soccer ANZ 2023

The first time it entered my mind that it might be fun to take up running was after watching a Women’s World Cup soccer match at RFK stadium in Washington, D.C. It was 1999. The impulse was fleeting, I soon returned to the libraries that are my natural habitat.

Few windows on to the world are as entertaining as these mega international sports tournaments. Soon, Australia and New Zealand are set to co-host the Women’s World Cup for football. In the run up to the recent Men’s World Cup in 2021, a lot of commentary focused soft power benefits – and risks – to the Qatari hosts. What are the soft power implications for Australia and New Zealand, then?

While I agree hosts are important, I think the focus is too narrow. The global exposure benefits national teams as well. Beyond the teams, the fans themselves are also not to be underestimated; they can also gain fame for their national character. Who cannot be impressed by Japanese fans who leave stadiums clean?[i] Hosts, teams, and fans, can influence their countries’ image – and, thereby, their soft power – in the world.

Who are the nations of the Women’s World Cup? There have been nine tournaments from 1991 to 2023. Europe, Americas, and Asia have each hosted three tournaments. Seven countries have played host; China and the US each hosted twice. This diagram illustrates all hosts, marked with their dates across the top two rows from 1991 to 2023.

The Women’s World Cup’s underdog struggles give the host, teams, and fans a special cache. Saudi Arabia’s offer to sponsor the 2023 tournament was rejected by FIFA by popular demand in light of the Saudi women’s limited freedoms in their own country.[ii] There are countless stories of teams fighting for fairness, whether parity with men’s facilities, equality of pay, or just for the freedom to play. The fans can be underdogs, too. In Iran, a ban on women in the stands from 1979 was lifted only in 2019 for a men’s FIFA qualifying match.[iii] For women fans of sport, just walking through front gate of the arena can be a victory. For those of us who have similar fights in our lives, we see ourselves in these teams. They are like us, and we root for them. Liberté, égalité, sororité.

Measuring by the Soft Power Rubric, Australia ranks 12th in the world and New Zealand ranks 33rd, with the most recent data from 2019. The Soft Power Rubric measured a country’s soft power influence by considering how many foreigners act on their attraction to a country. For example, how many people travel to that country, enroll in university there, or immigrate there?[iv] For both countries, it is the large number of foreign students that raises their rank compared to other countries. In 2019 Australia ranked 33rd in largest number of foreign visitors, 8th in immigrant population, and 2nd in the world in number of foreign students, New Zealand ranked 50th in largest number of foreign visitors, 29th in immigrants, and 18th in foreign students.

Soft power resides in the minds of the foreigners a country is trying to influence. Offering a life that people in other countries aspire to; an education they think will prepare them for the future; or just a holiday that will produce memories for a lifetime – these are the things that attract foreigners to a country. It is international relations at a personal level. Also, decisions made for immigration, education, and tourism policy, often with domestic goals in mind, have long term foreign policy implications.

The Women’s World Cup, like other mega international tournaments shows nations in direct comparison to one another. Soon, we will add one more layer to our perspective on other countries, our experience of the 2023 Women’s World Cup – the hosts, the teams, and the fans.

Published as a Lighthouse Commentary for Soft Power Analysis and Resource Center (SPARC), Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. June 1, 2023

[i] Bengel, Chris. November 23, 2022. “World Cup 2022: Japanese fans help clean up trash at stadium following Japan’s upset win over Germany.” CBS Sports. (accessed April 4, 2023). [ii] Ingle, Sean. March 16, 2023. “FIFA admits defeat over Saudi sponsorship of Women’s World Cup.” The Guardian. (accessed April 4, 2023). [iii] Wamsley, Laurel. October 9, 2019. “Thousands of women will at last be allowed to attend a soccer match in Iran.” National Public Radio. (accessed April 4, 2023). Young, Deborah. February 16, 2006. “Review of Offside.” Variety. (accessed April 4, 2023). [iv]“Soft power and its effects: a review of the quantitative empirical literature.” Forthcoming in Routledge Handbook of Soft Power, Second Edition. Naren Chitty, Lilian Ji, Gary D. Rawnsley. Routledge: New York, 2023.


Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page