Gianni Infantino, the previous UEFA Secretary, was elected the new president of FIFA several days ago. His election marks him as just the ninth president in FIFA’s 111 year history, a stunning number. In many ways, it’s no wonder that FIFA is so resistant to change with that number; the old guard has been in charge in the same way for years. But that might be about to change dramatically, as one of the big voting measures of the election was to overhaul the way that FIFA runs. In particular, a new executive committee of 36 members will have a lot more oversight and control over FIFA, with the president having far less. Infantino supported this measure, but it remains to be seen how much he will support the other big change: of that 36 member committee, at least 6 will be women.
Infantino has publicly supported the measure saying that ‘It’s a minimum of six. It must be more,’ as he suggested that other committees in FIFA might be a great place to increase women’s roles in the sport. On March 8th, in honor of International Women’s Day, FIFA held a women’s leadership conference to discuss the new measure and how to best improve women’s standing in the sport. Oddly though, the meeting’s keynote speaker wasn’t even a soccer player. Billie Jean King is a tennis star, for sure, but not a soccer one. It’s indicative, though, of the exclusion of women from power in the sport of soccer that the most outspoken female critic of FIFA is a tennis player.
A lot of King’s rhetoric in the meeting was economic; along with Moya Dodd, the head of Fifa’s Womens Taskforce, these women have pointed out that FIFA currently has a ‘brand problem’ and that ‘women are part of the solution’. One argument they’ve made that is somewhat interesting is that of branding; they’ve argued that FIFA has really one big branded item in the World Cup, and promoting the Women’s game and the Women’s World Cup more would be a way to essentially diversify the portfolio.
Sepp Blatter, a noted foot dragger in promoting the Women’s game, is also notorious for saying ‘The future of football is feminine.’ That sentiment is certainly one that makes sense in expanding the audience for soccer. A noted example of this is in Australia, a country dominated by rugby and cricket. Soccer is often not even on the nation’s radar, at least in the men’s game. As a comparison, Australia is a country with 23 million people, and none of the top 10 most watched events in the country’s history involve soccer. Only 4 million of those people tuned in for the most watched sports event in the country’s history, the 2005 Australian Open Final. Compare that to Portugal, a country of only 10 million people, where 26 out of the top 30 most watched TV events in the country have involved soccer; most of those viewings involved way more than the 4 million Australia mustered up. Part of the reason for this disparity is success: the Australian men’s team has simply not performed terribly well for their existence. However, this is where the women’s game becomes important: if the men can’t succeed, why not the women?
The Australian Women’s team, affectionately known as the Matilda’s, have been brought up as the way forward for FIFA in the Land Down Under. The team is in the top 10 of the Women’s rankings, just qualified for the Olympics by beating powerhouse Japan, and has consistently improved year in and year out. Australia is establishing its own women’s professional league, and the women just won a landmark court case in 2015 in order to get paid for their time on the national team. In short, the Matilda’s are on their way up, and so is Australian soccer.
FIFA, then, has an important decision to make. If soccer can make inroads into a new, 24 million person population, then shouldn’t it embrace it any way it can? The Women’s World Cup was watched by over 700 million people; that should be a clear indicator of the economic impact the Women’s game can have for FIFA. Perhaps more importantly, though, with a new president, a new executive committee, and a new dedication to a cleaner image, the Women’s game, like King and Dodd suggested, might be a great place to start. While it might be atypical to suggest that Infantino’s first big move should be towards the Women’s game, it might make the most sense, both from an economical and image-centric perspective.
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