In July and August, Australia and New Zealand are hosts of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
It could not be a better opportunity for the sport. Soccer in Australia at the professional level lags well behind Australian Rules Football and rugby league when it comes to profile and broadcast attention. And in New Zealand the round-ball game has a permanently uphill challenge to compete with the unofficial state religion, rugby. The tournament is therefore a huge deal for the two host associations — and the culmination of years of planning and hard work.
But it is still FIFA’s tournament, not Australia and New Zealand’s, and FIFA is a law unto itself. If its interests clash with the hosts, that’s not FIFA’s problem as far as it, and its leadership under president Gianni Infantino, are concerned.
That’s the only way to understand the conflict between Fifa on the one side, and Football Australia and Football New Zealand on the other.
Earlier this year, it was reported that FIFA was pursuing a sponsorship deal with the Saudi Arabian government’s tourist promotion arm, Visit Saudi, to use the Women’s World Cup as a vehicle to promote tourism to the fundamentalist Islamic kingdom. It is an arrangement that is “understood” to be happening: it’s actually not as yet been publicly announced.
Announced or not, however, it’s caused great angst among the host associations, players in World Cup teams, and many soccer supporters. It’s raised the tournament’s profile in Australia and New Zealand — but only as a major FIFA-caused headache.
FIFA arranging sponsorship from a tourism authority for a country not even playing in the tournament is tin-eared enough. But what really angers the wider football world, and its community and commercial allies, is promoting Saudi Arabia itself at an international women’s soccer tournament.
Saudi Arabia’s values are hardly compatible with the Women’s World Cup. While it has taken some reforming baby steps in recent years, the kingdom’s intractability on women’s rights is out of step with many Islamic countries, let alone the West. It may have given Saudi women the right to drive, but it does not treat them as fully equal and valued citizens.
Additionally, Saudi law does not accept or tolerate homosexuality or homosexual relationships. That clashes with another reality: many of the players and team staff coming down under are gay and in gay relationships, including same-sex marriages.
As US player Alex Morgan has said, “I think it’s bizarre that FIFA has looked to have a ‘Visit Saudi’ sponsorship for the Women’s World Cup, when I would not even be supported and accepted in that country.” That FIFA is even exploring this sponsorship without anticipating that sort of reaction from marquee players beggars belief.
There’s also Saudi Arabia’s general human rights record. A regime that jails dissidents even for social media comments, and has been implicated by US intelligence agencies in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is not a regime that sits comfortably with FIFA’s official policy that “FIFA is committed to respecting all internationally recognized human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights.”
As for considering views of the Women’s World Cup hosts, Football Australia told The Spectator, “We understand FIFA has entered into a destination partnership agreement with Visit Saudi for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 Australia & New Zealand, although we have not been consulted about the prospect of this apparent partnership.”
“Whilst the partnership has not been confirmed by FIFA, based on the consultations we have had with our community, key stakeholders and our own position, we would not be comfortable with it.”
Indeed, Football Australia was a major partner of the WorldPride extravaganza held last month in Sydney. That partnership highlights how antithetical the Saudi deal would be to the values of the world cup hosts, many of the tournament’s drawcard players, and the audience they want to attract.
Curiously, however, Australia’s stridently left-wing Labor government — having previously said it would use the Women’s World Cup to spotlight its commitment to advancing indigenous Australians’ human rights — has been publicly silent on the Visit Saudi controversy. Even on International Women’s Day this week, nothing was said about the deal. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was happy to be seen in India on Thursday with Narendra Modi, upstaging a cricket Test match in a bizarre joint photo opportunity, but on the Visit Saudi threat to the World Cup at home, he and his key ministers have been missing in action.
When news of the possible sponsorship deal emerged in early February chairs of the Australian and New Zealand wrote to FIFA president Infantino, urging the world body to reconsider partnering with Visit Saudi. After weeks of simmering discontent embroiling the Australian and New Zealand hosts, and angering the international football community, there is now increasing speculation that, at its congress in Rwanda next week, the FIFA leadership will confirm they have quietly dropped the sponsorship deal.
If they don’t, the Women’s World Cup tournament itself risks being dogged by criticism, player discontent and protests, and being a major international news story for all the wrong reasons through no fault of the hard-pressed host organizers. And the FIFA leadership itself will have proven once again that its human rights policy is negotiable if the price is right.
Is that what Gianni Infantino and FIFA headquarters in Zurich really want?
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.