For FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samba Diouf Samoura, soccer transcends religious, gender and racial barriers. It was during her 21-year humanitarian career with the United Nations, where she supported peace and fostered gender equality efforts in disaster-prone countries, that she witnessed the sport’s power to unify communities and drive social change.
While addressing FIFA’s 2018 Conference for Equality and Inclusion, Samoura recalled working in Africa during the first Liberian civil war.
“The only moment when people would stop fighting and receiving orders from the warlords was when it was raining or when they were playing football,” she said. “You cannot simply ignore the power of a sport that sparks the passion of so many millions around the globe.”
Samoura — No. 1 on our list of the Most Powerful Women in International Sports — understands that soccer and FIFA cannot begin to solve all of the world’s problems. However, while implementing the decisions of the 36-member FIFA Council, fostering relations among the 211 member associations and overseeing FIFA’s finances, Samoura is determined that, under her watch, the world’s most widely loved sport will be inclusive for all people.
It may take time convincing wary fans that the multibillion-dollar governing body, the subject of a corruption scandal, is in fact committed to its landmark 2016 reforms. Yet Samoura points toward the oversight required under the FIFA Forward program, which provides member associations with financial investments from FIFA, and the increase in the number of women within FIFA’s administration, from 32% in 2016 to 48%, as signs of progress.
Samoura spoke by phone from the Home of FIFA in Zurich, Switzerland, to discuss the role of women in soccer, FIFA’s governance reforms and the 2018 World Cup. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alana Glass: You spent 21 years acting on behalf of the United Nations supporting peace and development in disaster-prone countries. Briefly describe how your humanitarian career prepared you for your role in soccer today.
Fatma Samoura: FIFA is like the UN of football; it brings people together. People coming together from different cultural backgrounds, different religions and origins. Now that I am also in FIFA, I am trying as much as possible to find a common ground between our 211 member associations and also to put football in the center stage.
You have said: “No society can develop and be economically sustainable if they alienate 50% of their population. My appointment as the first African female secretary general for the world governing body just means that the world of football is embracing diversity, and just considering that football can be loved by both men and women.” How do you see your standing changing mindsets about women in the sport and in top leadership positions?
My appointment in 2016 was a very strong signal that FIFA, a male-dominated organization, was opening itself to more diversity. For some good reason, it has not been an isolated case because we now have a much stronger women representation at all levels of FIFA administration. By creating a division that is fully dedicated to the development of women’s football and that is being chaired by one of the few females that participated in the program of reforms that led to the change of statutes in 2016. We also have a woman leading the flagship program of FIFA, which is the Forward program. Our political body is also diversifying and embracing diversity with the presence of one woman for each of the six confederations. And finally, at the level of the committees, before the reforms, there were 24 committees, and some of them didn’t include women. Today, we have 15-16% women represented on the committees.
Upon your appointment, you listed four priorities, one of which was to have the financial investigation concluded in a manner that would not be detrimental to the morale and level of engagement of the staff. Subsequently, there was restructuring to prevent that type of misconduct from happening in the future. What are your thoughts about that period of FIFA’s history? Where does the organization stand today in moving forward in a way where corruption is kept out of the game?
FIFA conducted a thorough investigation, and we put all of the facts forward and also want to hold accountable all of the wrongdoers. One of the key reforms within FIFA was to put in place a compliance division, which is now something that we can be proud of. We wanted to have more control and oversight of the revenues that are allocated each year to the 211 member associations. And as of 2018, we’ll be having a review covering all of the member associations receiving funding from FIFA. We have handed over all of the evidence on this investigation to Swiss and the U.S. legal authorities, and they continue to pursue those who enrich themselves and abuse their powers in football. We are continuing to cooperate with those authorities so that we can return our focus to the game.
Governance reforms were implemented to prompt greater recognition and promotion of women in soccer, as well as integrating human rights. What results are you seeing with the creation of a women’s soccer division and the increased level of female representation on the standing committees and the FIFA Council?
The fact of having women makes our strategies more inclusive. Before, we did not have any benchmarks for women’s football. Today, we have a very precise goal, which is to reach 60 million women registered as players by 2026. The fact that we have a woman leading a division with a full budget totally dedicated to football has helped us to interact and to engage with all of the football stakeholders and try to put more women competitions on the FIFA agenda. Since 2016, we’ve have organized three conferences on women’s leadership. And we have 65 women that came out of the program with better skills to run the administration. And more than 50% of them since that program have either been promoted or on the way to being promoted. These things would not have been possible if we did not have strong women’s leadership.
You’ve been outspoken about soccer being a unifying sport. What is your hope over the next two years as the 2018 and 2019 World Cups approach?
FIFA is convinced that through football, and particularly the FIFA World Cup and its international spotlight, we can achieve positive change. And the FIFA World Cup is also to promote dialogue and unite nations and fans around the world in the spirit of fair play and respect. When it comes to the Women’s World Cup, the growing popularity of the tournament is obviously a strong signal for the development of the women’s game. And what we are looking forward to is now to have a sustainable Women’s World Cup through changing the way we are contracting and we are selling our commercial rights through sponsors, and be able to associate the Women’s World Cup and the men’s World Cup under the new commercial strategy so that we can see how much funding is generated through the game and be able to reinvest it in women’s development in football.
There is a report that FIFA plans to launch a global women’s league that will begin play as early as 2019. What can you say about this development? Are the plans in line with the initiative of increasing the number of female players to 60 million by 2026?
Women’s football has been recognized as the biggest growth opportunity for FIFA and football — both on and off the pitch. But there is still a lack of opportunities. Because as you know, the men’s World Cup is funding all of our activities within FIFA, including the non-football-related events. People want to address the issues of this lack of opportunities and try to find a solution that will drive development for the 211 member associations. We have initiated an extensive consultation process. And hopefully, by the end of this year, at the October FIFA Council meeting, we will come up with a proposal on where we are going to be the next year in terms of women’s development, but also in terms of promoting the highest level of competition for women, including the possibility of having a world league one day.