The Laws of the Game and women’s football

While the creation of the Women’s World Cup in 1991 was universally welcomed in the women’s game, there was one aspect that many were not happy with…

It is now regarded as a curiosity that the matches at the first Women’s World Cup in China PR were played over 80 minutes instead of the usual 90. The majority of the players and coaching staff at the tournament, however, were far from happy about it. They believed that the Laws of the Game should be applied universally. It was a decision made “in order to protect the players” but players like American forward Michelle Akers were outspoken in their criticism, especially as the tournament schedule saw a game every two days. “Goodness gracious, the girls can’t last 90 minutes… and yet we played every other day,” Akers recalls. “It was harder than any tournament a man would ever play.”

Michelle Akers celebrates with the World Cup Trophy after the Final 1991. © Imago
Michelle Akers celebrates with the World Cup Trophy after the Final 1991. © Imago

There was also controversy over the choice of ball, with officials recommending the smaller Size 4 ball, instead of the usual Size 5 model. Eventually, the standard ball used in men’s football was chosen. Teething problems, maybe, but there was also a reluctance at FIFA to refer to the tournament as a World Cup, with the rather long-winded FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football used instead. It wasn’t until the third tournament, in 1999, that the tournament was rebranded as a World Cup and a new trophy was made to reflect this status.

For the 1995 World Cup (yes, that’s what everyone called it despite it being technically incorrect!), matches were 90 minutes and followed the Laws of the Game. FIFA had also been stirred into action to help develop the officials implementing those Laws on the pitch – the referees and lineswomen. The first steps taken were at a referee’s course in 1989 in Norway and although only half the officials in 1995 in Sweden were women, at the 1999 tournament in the USA they all were and have been ever since. In a sign of changing attitudes, the terms “lineswoman” and “linesman” were changed to the gender-neutral “assistant referee”.

The simplicity of the Laws of the Game and their universal application are features that have contributed to the widespread popularity of football and, despite the issues at the early Women’s World Cups, this is something that applies to this day.


» Discover the fascinating story of the historic milestone for women's football: China 1991 - The first FIFA Women's World Cup


» Get to know the members of the famous "Tripple-Edged-Sword" and find out how they got their nickname.


» Take a look at the objects in and illustration above the showcase at the FIFA Museum dedicated to the historic tournament.