This is the story of the world’s most popular sport – football – that spans more than 100 years. It is treasured and unites generations of fans. However, over the years, its governing body – the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) – which is responsible for the regulation and promotion of the sport worldwide has struggled to maintain the integrity of the beautiful game.
A 2015 indictment of former FIFA officials by the United States Justice Department alleges racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering, among other offenses rocked the football world.
U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch described the situation as deep-rooted, rampant and systematic corruption that spans two generations (1991-2015) of soccer officials abusing their positions of trust for personal gain.
FIFA’s brand and its reputation have taken a major hit.
In a recent Victim Statement and Request for Restitution filed with United States District Court Eastern District of New York, FIFA is attempting to reclaim tens of millions of dollars in damages that it alleges was caused by its former officials; FIFA notes: “The damage done by the Defendants’ greed cannot be overstated. Their actions have deeply tarnished the FIFA brand and impaired FIFA’s ability to use its resources for positive actions throughout the world…”
Further, the court filing continues, “Yet today, FIFA has become notable for the Defendants’ bribery and corruption, not its many good works the Defendants are responsible for harming FIFA’s brand and bringing FIFA and the game itself into disrepute.”
FIFA’s brand recovery will not happen overnight. However, its recent institutional reforms point in the direction of FIFA embracing a once marginalized voice – women.
“There were three of us on the FIFA Executive Committee, and we looked at each other and said, ‘Of course it is time for reform, but why isn’t anyone talking about gender equality?’ The fact that we were there and we had the opportunity to be heard. It is called the power of the pulpit,” said Executive Committee member, Moya Dodd, regarding the role of gender equality in FIFA’s reform movement during her address at FIFA’s 2016 Women’s Football and Leadership Conference.
“Having a position means that I can stand here and talk, and some people will listen. That gave us the opportunity to step into the game when things opened up when the football world was reeling from the shocks that occurred in May and September.”
For Dodd and her colleagues, Lydia Nsekera, who was the first women elected to the executive committee and Sonia Bien-Aime who was the first female non-dedicated seat executive committee member, those shocks to the game provided their opening to move the ball – gender equality – forward.
“When the game opens up, your first instinct is to accelerate into the space and to find a teammate who is running into that space. That is really what the reform movement on gender equality [is about] – that is how it began. A few of us looked at each other and said, well you know if we can make a difference here, we can make ten years of progress in six months.”
Women all over the world joined the conversation.
#WomenInFIFA was active on social media with 47 million Twitter timelines spreading the message of gender equality. Football advocates, including the lone female voice on the 13-member reform committee, Sarai Bareman, deputy secretary general of the Oceanic Football Confederation, and Tatjana Haenni, deputy director and head of women’s competitions at FIFA, said that one way to improve the game is to let women in the door.
On February 26, 2016, the world and FIFA’s Extraordinary Congress were ready to hear that message.
Notably, gender equality was an election issue during the highly publicized FIFA presidential election to replace the former president, Sepp Blatter, who is serving an eight-year suspension from all football-related activities.
Candidates including the newly elected president, Gianni Infantino, were asked by the UK-based organization, Women in Football, what they would do on gender equality.
“If I am elected the next FIFA president, women’s football will be a priority and this will be reflected in how FIFA distributes its development funding,” Infantino replied. “We will increase FIFA dedicated staff to oversee an appropriately monitor the development programs delivered specifically for women’s football projects.”
Infantino continued his comments: “Furthermore, we will strengthen cooperation with the confederations to create synergies for greater support. Lastly, specific initiatives will be put in place to support the member associations to develop their club and league strategies, to further drive that growth and improve the grassroots and elite player pathway systems.”
Additionally, when asked if FIFA should be a leader and a model of gender equality and if he would commit to identifying and eliminate any gender pay gaps in FIFA, Infantino answered, “Yes.”
While the reforms passed by the FIFA Congress do not incorporate all of the measures that Dodd and her colleagues originally proposed – a 30% representation of women in FIFA leadership and fair resourcing similar to Title IX – they do dedicate at least six voting seats on the new 36-member FIFA Council to women.
“I think we have the momentum on our side – on women’s football and the women in football side,” said Haenni when asked about gender equality next steps.
“So far there was no clear FIFA women’s strategy, and I think that is one of the first things FIFA now needs. And I am very positive that this is something we will get.”
As women continue to advance the conversation of gender equality in football, Dodd offered her own pitch to Infantino regarding commercializing women’s football.
“We do not need you to think about women as a problem that needs to be solved or addressed and ranked in order of all of the other problems you are facing,” said Dodd, while speaking directly to Infantino during a panel discussion at the FIFA Women’s Football and Leadership Conference.
“We are part of the solution commercially because we have one big revenue stream, one big asset called the men’s World Cup. We need more than one. There are a couple of opportunities sitting right there. The women’s World Cup, maybe a club world cup to start diversifying our revenue streams. Any businessperson will tell you that is a good idea.”
Dodd concluded by addressing FIFA’s brand crisis.
“We have a really bad brand problem, and women are part of the solution to fix it. Because of all of the horrible things you hear about FIFA, none of them are about women’s football. I have not heard a bad thing about the Women’s World Cup. I have not heard a bad thing about women in football. Nobody is saying, ‘If only there were less women in FIFA, it would be a better game, right?’ There is part of your branding answer.
For the women’s game, the reality is that it is growing globally, and the product on the field is improving. As competition advances, sponsors and media attention will follow.
Growing the women’s game is not just fair, it is also smart business. By correcting the most profound and systematic injustices in football – the under representation of women in leadership and under-resourcing female participation – FIFA just might bring integrity back to the game and save its brand while doing so.