In the 1980s, this was the place to be. The Hilton Brisbane, nestled amongst the skyscrapers, was a magnet for the city’s socialites.

Media tycoon Kerry Packer threw an infamous champagne-fuelled jamboree for his daughter’s 21st birthday. Mel Gibson and Dame Joan Sutherland were regular visitors. People came here to be seen.

Harry Seidler, the country’s most famous modernist architect, designed the largest atrium in Australia; 80 metres of air looming above the breakfast buffet. A rooftop pool looks over the Brisbane River. A nightclub hosted fashion parades downstairs. Wild parties raged.

Things have changed in recent years. The nightlife has moved to the suburbs of Fortitude Valley and Caxton Street, and the hotel becoming more quiet, more family-oriented, or catering to business travellers.

This week, England have made it their base ahead of their opening game of the Women’s World Cup against Haiti. They will return for the round of 16 if they win their group — but, unlike its previous guests, they are not there to be seen.

England’s squad enjoy relative anonymity in Brisbane and are able to mingle freely in the atrium. They have permission to explore the city around training, the majority heading out regularly for walks and coffee.

Right now, it is a place for planning, focus, and recuperation. But also other, unexpected developments.

On Tuesday evening, it was here that members of the squad crowded around captain Millie Bright’s phone as she posted a message on Twitter which would shatter the serenity of England’s low-key build-up.

From your Lionesses x

— Millie Bright (@Mdawg1bright) July 18, 2023

She made the squad’s anger with the Football Association (FA) public, revealing they had failed to reach any pre-tournament resolution in a long-running dispute over bonus and commercial structures.

The key line came four paragraphs in: “With the opening game on the horizon, we Lionesses have decided to pause the discussions, with full intentions of revisiting them following the tournament.”

Frustration drips through the statement, which ends with the signatures of all of the squad members.

“The players are feeling very empowered,” said right-back Lucy Bronze, a key member of the senior group leading negotiations, on Wednesday. “I think it’s the first time as a player group we’ve ever sent the message out ourselves, that we’ve collectively done together.”

Before this, no England team — men’s or women’s — have made such a statement so close to the eve of a tournament.

The FA, English football’s national governing body, was completely blindsided. They had no knowledge of the players’ plan to make this public until Bright’s message hit social media.

Forty years on, some chaos has finally returned to the Hilton. But it shouldn’t have come to this. England had an opportunity to enter this tournament harmoniously…

These issues have been swirling for years, not months. Take the situation which unfolded in 2012, when the England team refused to sign their £16,000-a-year ($20,000 in today’s currency) central contracts after failing to agree terms. They went unpaid that December on the advice of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), the players’ union, which is also assisting in these ongoing negotiations.

England’s squad wanted to resolve the commercial elements of their current complaint behind closed doors before last summer’s European Championship, winning their home tournament as negotiations continued to drag.

While there was a significant uplift across all aspects of the game — each Lioness received a maximum £50,000 bonus for winning the tournament — some conversations were kicked down the road.

One year on, the players were hearing the same message from the FA: “We’ll talk about it after the tournament”. But the players did not want to make the same mistake as 12 months ago.

Aware of their value, they knew they were never going to be in a better negotiating position — entering a World Cup as European champions — but as the tournament approached, no significant concessions on bonuses were agreed by either party.

Talks were continuing as the squad boarded the plane to Australia, with further back and forth after they arrived down under.

Though discussions were amicable, there were still outstanding issues. It was getting so close to their World Cup opener against Haiti on Saturday that a satisfactory outcome was never going to be agreed. It was too late.

So, for the first time at a World Cup, the FA will not be paying the England squad performance bonuses.

Normally, players earn £2,000 per match — the same as the men’s team — though this is not paid at tournaments. Instead, there they would receive a performance-related payment after their exit, which has been paid by the federation.

This all changed last month, when football’s world governing body FIFA announced a new distribution model for all participating teams — beginning at $30,000 per player for a group-stage exit, going right up to $270,000 for the winner. That money will still be paid to the FA — but is effectively ring-fenced for players, rather than being distributed at the federation’s discretion.

That agreement itself was forced through by players, with two representatives from national teams around the world putting their names to a letter addressed to FIFA. The total prize pot is a 300 per cent increase on the money available at the 2019 World Cup in France.


England train in Brisbane on July 21 (Photo: Matt Roberts – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

There was one issue: with the details only decided in June, each side had limited time to argue their case, let alone find a compromise.

The FA’s position is that the only difference is that FIFA is deciding the sums rather than them — effectively understanding themselves as a middle-man under the new arrangements. The England squad could also unlock a bonus from a commercial partner depending on their progress in the competition.

The FA will incur a loss from sending the Lionesses to Australia and New Zealand, a notably expensive World Cup. Of the money paid to the FA for participating in the tournament, 60 per cent will go to players as prize money — a higher percentage than the men’s team. The FA has also spent around £10,000 per player on flying out friends and family.

So far, these overtures have not worked. England’s players still feel undervalued.

They see the FIFA payment as a bonus — meaning there is no reason for the FA to halt their own payments. In their minds, this is a missed opportunity to bring their federation in line with other leading teams in the world, such as the United States and Australia — and avoid the dysfunction of other rivals who have been in chaos, such as Spain, Canada and France.

Read more:Inside Spain’s turbulent Women’s World Cup build-up: Protest, peace talks and now an uneasy truce

The USWNT will receive significant payments under their collective bargaining agreement, while hosts Australia will see their prize money topped up to a minimum percentage of their total prize pot, which was agreed in advance of FIFA’s announcement. It is understood the players are not necessarily wanting a deal which mirrors either of these — but there are aspects of each they would like to discuss.

While a major increase on four years ago, FIFA prize money is still only one-third of what male players receive at a World Cup. By topping up their bonuses, the FA would bring the Lionesses closer in line with that sum.

However, by having no separate bonuses plan, the FA is in line with every other European federation.

It was not all about performance-related bonuses, though. That specific issue was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Another area under discussion is the players’ commercial rights — such as restricting the window for personal sponsors. Ahead of this tournament, the FA said players could not interact on social media to promote their sponsors from midnight on Tuesday, July 4, two weeks before the tournament started.



Women’s World Cup: FA commercial blackout leaves England at risk of breaching contracts

Technically these were guidelines — the FA could have been open to legal action if they were firm rules — put in place to ensure players rested over the weekends and on their days off.

Players were cramming in separate partnership announcements on their Instagram stories on the same day, frustrating their sponsors — only to find out when they were driving to join up with England that the FA had emailed to issue new, looser guidance.

One player agent — speaking anonymously like others in this article to protect their position — says players lost out on thousands in commercial revenue because of the last-minute change.

It is understood the FA recognises the issues associated with this, and it is one area in which negotiations have progressed in recent weeks. The players’ frustrations, however, lie in the piecemeal approach of negotiating one issue at a time.

The FA declined to comment on the negotiations, saying they were confidential between the FA and the players. An FA spokeswoman told The Athletic : “We fully support the Lionesses in the World Cup and, as they have said, will continue negotiations after the tournament.”

There are historic reasons why these discussions are so fraught. For elite female footballers, international duty simply makes up a far higher percentage of their income than their male counterparts.

For example, Alessia Russo’s new contract at Arsenal makes her one of the highest-paid players in the Women’s Super League (WSL) — but her six-figure annual salary is still less than some of the Premier League’s top players earn per week.



Arsenal’s Alessia Russo: The first WSL player to earn £1million in a year?

International prize money provides a significant portion of England internationals’ yearly earnings — in contrast, male players typically donate their £2,000 fee for a standard match to charity. There is also an element of principle. The Lionesses also want to agree on a long-term deal that establishes set rules so players know where they stand in the future, setting out their wishes in bullet-point format.

“We’re all empowering each other to set the standards higher, whether it’s the U.S., the England team, the Aussies, or Jamaica,” added Bronze. “There are teams right across the board who are all empowering each other to push the game — not just our own teams, but the entire game.”

Lucy Bronze

Lucy Bronze speaks to the media in Australia (Photo: Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images)

At least nine World Cup teams have made public protests around their working conditions. The tournament is a stage for sides to express themselves with eloquence — and an audience.



Women’s World Cup players are speaking out: Will the disputes be solved or grow?

There has been widespread solidarity. England’s internationals regularly speak with their foreign counterparts in the WSL — while Bronze revealed she had met Spain’s Alexia Putellas and USWNT’s Alex Morgan in recent months to discuss future progress. Putellas is negotiating with the Spanish FA for their own new agreement. The Lionesses have also been in dialogue with their men’s team counterparts — though senior male players are not expected to be vocal on the issue publicly.

A video released by the Australia team on Monday called for FIFA president Gianni Infantino to guarantee equal pay by 2027 — though FIFA’s ability to hit this target depends on several broadcasting deals — as well as identifying that several nations do not yet have collective bargaining rights.

With the @FIFAWWC kicking off this Thursday, our @TheMatildas have a message for those who paved the way. For those who broke down barriers and fought for progress. For the past. For the future.

For those within our football community, our fans, our sponsors, our politicians,…

— Professional Footballers Australia (@thepfa) July 16, 2023

This tournament was meant to be about the football, as well as the long-term future of the women’s game. So far, the latter has dominated.

The England squad have been in camp for over a month and their daily life is spent among FA staff. That helps explain why the players’ decision to make their dissatisfaction public with such little notice came as such a shock to the FA.

Why take this stance? One source told The Athletic in May that these were “amicable discussions”. Recent events have transformed them into frustrated ones.

Take the dispute surrounding the date on which England players would report to camp last month. The FA’s preferred date — June 19 — was four days earlier than FIFA and the European Club Association’s recommended window. Players were told they would not feature in a key pre-tournament friendly against Portugal if they did not commit to the earlier date, with players asked to confirm their attendance via a thumbs-up emoji in a squad-wide WhatsApp group.

This week, goalkeeper Mary Earps expressed her frustration that Nike (who the FA has named as England’s kit partner until 2030) is not manufacturing replica women’s goalkeeper shirts. This is not strictly an FA issue, but it adds to the sense of unease around the camp.

“Everything is a battle,” said one source with knowledge of the situation.

In recent weeks, FA chief executive Mark Bullingham and head of women’s football Sue Campbell have entered discussions, having not previously led negotiations. Both are spending time in Australia for the World Cup but their intervention failed to produce an agreement. Progress in some areas — especially performance bonuses — has been glacially slow. Both sides have red lines, and it is understood there have been no significant advances since camp began.

Some players feel leaned upon as the World Cup approaches — with progress slowing as the tournament’s horizon grew closer — and reported hearing different things from the FA on different days. For their part, it is understood the FA made the players an offer a couple of weeks ago, offering the squad a six-figure sum collectively to address a perceived shortfall in commercial pay since the end of the last Euros.

That offer has not been accepted by players, though it remains on the table. With prize money having tripled since the last World Cup, some individuals believe the FA thinks the squad should be happy with the progress to date, but that is strenuously denied by others with knowledge of the FA’s position.

Some of the strength of feeling can be captured by Bronze’s answer when asked whether England would consider boycotting the post-World Cup fixture with Scotland in the Nations League in September.

“I wouldn’t like to say,” she replied, not ruling anything out — before adding: “But I’m pretty sure that we’ll find solutions.”

However, as Bronze made clear on Wednesday, players still see this as a working relationship — there has not been a schism — despite the latent frustrations.

“I think we are in a more fortunate position than many other nations because we have a good relationship with our federation,” she said. “We’re able to openly speak to them and challenge them to improve our game — and they also challenge us.”

Bronze is one member of a senior player group, assisted by the PFA. As well as the right-back, it includes Bright, Earps, and long-term captain Leah Williamson, who is missing the tournament with an anterior cruciate ligament injury, though her role has naturally scaled back in recent weeks, with some negotiations focusing on tournament-specific demands.

Despite the fact negotiations are led by select players, decisions are still taken collectively. Not many negotiating tables have seats for a 23-person squad. Asked whether the squad was unanimous in their desire to pause discussions until after the World Cup, midfielder Jordan Nobbs was emphatic: “We’re fully one as a team; we’re a big family in growing the women’s game. Everything we’ve discussed, this has been as one.”

However, The Athletic understands there have been different viewpoints within the squad, with some wondering whether a public statement could have been made after the tournament. While, in general, lower-earning players (who are more likely to be substitutes) are notably quieter than their counterparts.

The England team are insistent that these discussions have not been a distraction. Manager Sarina Wiegman has refused to be part of negotiations, wanting to retain a degree of independence to ensure the training field is separate from the negotiating table.

It is not just important that England retain focus on their footballing legacy but also to protect their future bargaining power. By pausing discussions during the World Cup, the Lionesses are betting on themselves. They will not entertain even informal discussions with the FA until their return.

“Success gives you the platform to make change,” explained Bronze. “We saw that last year at the Euros. Our success gave us the stage to make change with the government — that’s insane.



Did England’s Euro 2022 win leave a lasting legacy for grassroots football in the UK?

“It’s the same with the US (whose collective bargaining agreement is arguably the most progressive in women’s football). Their success in World Cups gives them a stage; that’s what happens in a performance industry.”

The coin has another side. An early exit would cut England’s negotiating position at the knees. The Lionesses had a similar situation going into the Euros last summer, with a form of these discussions ongoing, and emerged victorious.

Twelve months on, the stakes are higher. During the Euros, England did not have to deal with the pressure of their dispute becoming public. Players now are more frustrated with the lack of progress. The issue of performance bonuses — the FA’s main red line — has been sharpened by FIFA’s intervention.

That Euros success gave the Lionesses an opportunity, unparalleled to date in the English women’s game, to further their labour rights. By pausing negotiations with no bonus structure in place, England’s players have laid their bets. This World Cup is double or quits.

(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)