For very good reasons, the lead-up to a misbegotten football World Cup in Qatar has recently dominated headlines. But at the weekend we were offered a reminder of how inspirational global sporting tournaments can be when things are done the right way.
For English fans in particular, the final stages of three other World Cups offered a thrilling sequence of contests in which – to employ Sir Alex Ferguson’s phrase – “squeaky-bum time” was never far away. In New Zealand, a record crowd saw the host nation defeat England by a cruelly narrow margin in the Women’s Rugby World Cup final. At the Emirates stadium, rugby league lovers witnessed a pulsating men’s semi-final between England and Samoa. Having been trounced 60-6 in a group game between the two sides, the Samoans sparked all-night celebrations back home after reaching the final through a drop-goal in extra time. And in Australia, the leadership of Ben Stokes saw England crowned T20 world champions, becoming the first team to hold both the International Cricket Council’s men’s World Cups at the same time.
Each of these tournaments has lifted the spirits in its own way. England’s journey towards hegemony in white-ball limited-overs cricket followed traumatic humiliation and early exit in the 2015 World Cup. A swashbuckling reinvention followed, driven by an emphasis on aggressive batting. Despite high-profile losses along the way, that courageous approach has been richly vindicated. The 16th Men’s Rugby League World Cup has achieved record viewing figures, and organisers have striven to promote the accompanying women’s tournament and wheelchair competition. All players have been paid the same participation fees and will receive the same prize money.
Most impressive of all, perhaps, has been the success of the Women’s Rugby World Cup. This looks to have been a breakthrough moment to match the football Euros during the summer. An intense, free-flowing and high-quality final was witnessed by an exuberant sell-out crowd and millions on television. As with the Euros, new audiences have been introduced to the sport and a template for the future established. Both of the teams in the final have turned professional, and other nations are likely to properly invest in the game ahead of the 2025 World Cup in England. Organisers are confident that during it Twickenham will be filled to its 82,000 capacity. The step-change in the status, exposure and popularity of women’s sport continues.
Qatar 2022 may be an unwelcome presence on the football calendar. But a weekend of glorious action has broken new ground elsewhere, giving cause for optimism that sport more generally is heading in the right direction. It is now for sports’ governing bodies, both international and domestic, to continue that trajectory at both elite and grassroots level.