The Women’s World Cup kicks off this weekend, without a few “honored” guests — currently preoccupied with matters at FIFA headquarters in Zurich, if not languishing in Swiss prison cells.
It’s doubtful that many of the world’s top female players will feel diminished by their absence, however. Sepp Blatter in particular has been an emblematic figure for an entrenched ignorance within FIFA that has veered between crass commentary and a more profoundly damaging structural sexism that has at least limited, if not actively damaged the growth of the women’s game.
Not that Blatter sees it that way, of course. The outgoing FIFA President last month described himself as “a little bit as a godfather to the organization of women’s football in FIFA.”
Whether Blatter was referring to his 2004 suggestion that women consider playing in tighter shorts, as some players were “quite pretty,” or his 2013 remarks to the newly elected women on the FIFA executive committee (“Are there ladies in the room? Say something! You are always speaking at home, now you can speak here.”) is not clear.
Female athletes in the game have become used to the out of touch paternalism of Blatter’s public persona, and the tone it has set for their place within FIFA. Sometimes that has manifested itself as personal slights. In the same year as his remarks to the women on FIFA’s executive committee USA forward Alex Morgan claimed that she was “shocked” the President did not recognize her at the World Player of the Year awards, where she finished in the top three, while her teammate Abby Wambach claimed that Blatter mistook her own girlfriend (former professional soccer player Sarah Huffman) for five-time World Player of the Year Marta Vieira da Silva of Brazil.
Toxic as the culture those attitudes come from, though, it is the way that logic extends into the administration of the game itself that many female athletes have issues with — and the forthcoming tournament had already threatened to be a lightning rod for the game’s administration, owing to it being played entirely on artificial surfaces.
The participating athletes argue that such a turf decision would never be made in the men’s game, and that therefore the decision by the Canadian Soccer Association and ratified by FIFA, was a clear case of sex discrimination. A legal motion was filed with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, but despite popular support, and being signed by virtually all the world’s top female players, an indifferent FIFA ran down the clock on entering negotiations or considering any of the players’ proposals.
The players abandoned their suit earlier this year, amid grumbling of bad faith on the part of FIFA General Secretary Jérôme Valcke, who had made public statements about negotiating with them, yet declined all direct offers to meet. With Valcke now dealing with the fallout from a leaked letter linking him to the $10 million payment that is at the center of the current U.S. federal inquiry, his likely absence from the tournament in Canada will not be greeted with any more sorrow than Blatter’s.
If it’s disheartening for players to have to be activists against their own administrators, the players at least seem to relish their activism, which has not just taken place at the macro level of the recent legal case. During CONCACAF World Cup qualifying last year, Trinidad and Tobago, home of the former CONCACAF chief Jack Warner and the $10 million “diaspora legacy program” detailed in the Valcke letter, sent a women’s team to the USA with $500 in funds for food, transport and equipment.
A hasty Twitter campaign organized by their U.S. coach led to an outpouring of support from fans and peers — the Haiti team alone donated $1,300 from their own limited campaign funds. It’s since been repeated as a feel good story, but after the immediate triage activity, there was anger that a game awash in money could not provide the basic central support for women to compete without fear of the kind of contingencies their male counterparts would never have to deal with.
But at least one element of the structural support for the forthcoming tournament is intact — the TV coverage of the tournament will be unprecedented in its scale. The players hope media attention will soon restore the public's focus to where it belongs: on the field. Despite the impediments working against them, the players are hoping this year’s tournament represents a chance for the women’s game to make a leap forward in popularity.
Julie Foudy, the former U.S. World Cup winner turned TV announcer, spoke of her happiness at Blatter being gone this week, while also describing the Women’s World Cup as “a wonderful respite… You’re giving soccer again back to the people, which I think FIFA has really taken away.”