With less than five months to go before the Women’s World Cup, Fifa faced a growing crisis. Three of the teams hoping to enter the tournament as contenders were instead in disarray. France captain Wendie Renard, recognized by Fifa as one of the best players in the world, was out and retired from her national team to ‘preserve her sanity’. Olympic champion Canada was at war with its governing body over equal pay. Spain too were still divided after a rift last September when 15 of their players were banned from the squad.
But Gianni Infantino had an exciting announcement: Fifa was ready to unveil its first-ever global fan ambassador ahead of this summer’s World Cup. “She lives and breathes futebol,” beamed Infantino. “When you meet Adriana, you immediately sense her warmth, friendliness and how approachable and passionate she is about our game.” It was natural Adriana Lima, the Brazilian supermodel, willing to “develop global initiatives,” among other vague but supposedly real responsibilities , to promote and to participate”.
In response, Fifa and Infantino were branded “tondeaf” and “out of touch” with women’s football. The harshest criticism came from former Australia international Maya Dodd, who before becoming one of the first women to join Fifa’s Executive Committee had to campaign for women to have a seat at the table. As Dodd pointed out, Fifa as an organization says it wants to empower girls and women but appeared to be trying to sell the biggest World Cup in history to some sort of male gaze. “Where a supermodel fits is really confusing,” she said.
But when it comes to Fifa, it really wasn’t. Just weeks earlier, Fifa appeared to have gone behind the backs of this year’s World Cup co-hosts Australia and New Zealand as they attempted to work with Saudi Arabia as a key commercial sponsor for the tournament. The look borders on parody: in Saudi Arabia, women are still restricted in their rights by male guardianship laws, while same-sex relationships, for example between Englishwoman Beth Mead and Dutchman Vivianne Miedema, are illegal.
Those plans, however worded, appear to be in tatters, but only because in-game characters like Miedema and Alex Morgan used their voices. Football Australia and New Zealand Football also showed effective leadership in condemning any partnership between the Women’s World Cup and Visit Saudi.
And if you look at international women’s football on International Women’s Day, that still seems to be the message that players still have to swallow: If you want something, if you want to protect football and build a professional future, then don’t just say it wants to be the same, but also acts accordingly, you do it yourself. You do it yourself, even if you risk your own future, which players in Canada, France and Spain have had to think about in recent months.
Canada last month threatened to boycott SheBelieves Cup games after demanding equal support with the men’s team before playing amid protests. It came after the women’s team’s performances in winning Olympic gold and the men’s team, which reached the World Cup for the first time in a generation, were not treated equally, all attributed to the huge difference in prize money between the men’s and women’s World Cups is . While total prize money at the men’s World Cup in Qatar was US$440m (£371m), Fifa has committed around US$60m to this summer’s women’s World Cup. Canada Soccer also prioritized the men’s team, which led to protests, the resignation of its president, Nick Bontis, but eventually a new collective bargaining agreement.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to imagine a situation where France and Spain go into a men’s World Cup with their players in open revolt against their coach and their federation. Tensions in France under coach Corinne Diacre and in Spain under Jorge Vilda have escalated in recent months, with players from both sides citing the impact on their health and emotional well-being. Both federations in France and Spain have backed the coach and the rebel players have been frozen.
Where did Fifa go through all this? The situation was not improved by the resigned sighs and collective eye-rolls as the news was welcomed that former French football president Noel Le Graet would maintain his ties with the Paris Fifa office despite his scandalous resignation from the federation. Le Graet, who was a key supporter of Diacre, resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment and improper conduct. What message does that send apart from the image that men can still rise to the top if they are liked by Fifa?
The situation in Canada, France and Spain has been underpinned by a lack of effective leadership and support for women’s football. The Lionesses’ success is an example of what can be achieved when one has a vision and commitment to progress, but even that is a recent development. That is why England and the United States have publicly supported Canada’s protest over the past month: needless to say they might have been at different times or under different circumstances.
There is also agreement that despite the Lionesses’ success stories since Sarina Wiegman’s appointment, progress made in one place ultimately counts for very little if not achieved elsewhere. Four years ago, Ada Hegerberg, the first Ballon d’Or Feminine winner, refused to play for Norway at the World Cup due to a lack of support and respect from the national association. This summer’s World Cup is heading for a similar situation, but not just with one star player.
Hegerberg’s story was one of personal sacrifice. The striker’s return to the national team last year came only after the appointment of Lise Klaveness as president of the Football Association of Norway, the first woman to do so. Klaveness was also a leading critic of Fifa’s decision to host the men’s World Cup in Qatar and was among the few senior figures to directly criticize the country’s human rights record before the tournament.
It’s a lack of leaders like Klaveness that has led to yet another situation where the Women’s World Cup is likely to go ahead without some of their best players. “We lament the fact that we have to reach this point in relation to women’s sport,” said the 15 players who retired from the Spanish team last September, “as has sadly happened in other teams and other sports in the past Fall was to advance a strong, ambitious professional project for the present and for future generations.”
That should ultimately be the task of Fifa – but maybe Adriana Lima has a few ideas.