Women United FC (Women United Football Community) was honored to be among the women’s media covering the 2nd annual FIFA Women’s Football and Leadership Conference in Zurich Switzerland on March 7, 2016.
New FIFA President Gianni Infantino opened the conference with a delicate balance of seriousness and humor, noting that they are hosting it “the day before International Women’s Day because in FIFA as of now we want always be to be ahead of the times.” He quipped that he’s feeling a certain level of pressure having four daughters at home who need opportunities for their future. It also marked Infantino’s first official conference as President and he approached it with dignity, joy and deep significance.
While treating the issue of women’s football with respect, factoring in the work that remains to make it more popular in commercial terms, in terms of opportunity and at the grassroots level so “all over the world girls can play” Infantino stressed the importance of women within the football leadership domain.
“Women in football is not just women’s football… We have to work for women in football. This is the key. We are of course doing something with the reform process in FIFA. The reforms in FIFA have been done not to treat gender equality. The crisis of FIFA had to do with governance, with compliance, with transparency… [Within that framework] it was important to also speak about women. We brought in some principles. We have to now bring them to life. The fact that we organized this conference today [signifies that] it’s crucial because it marks the first step into the implementation of what we put as the principles of [those] statues, of the philosophy of [that reform].” – Gianni Infantino
The call for parity and gender equality in football leadership was the common thread and theme. This conference marked what FIFA pledges as their commitment to promote, develop and invest in women’s football. The day-long meeting brought together women who play football, women who coach football, women who promote football, women in football media, media coverage of the women’s game and women in other leadership positions within football. Speakers and panelists included Billie Jean King, Kristin Hetle, Lydia Nsekera, Sonia Bien-Aime, Moya Dodd, Abby Wambach, Samar Nassar, Barbara Slater, Sunil Gulati and Amanda Davies.
Infantino opened and closed the day’s proceedings stressing a message of unity. “We have to embrace equality. Alone we cannot do anything. I will need all of you. It will not be easy. But if you fight for it as I will do, I’m sure we can achieve some important success.”
“Not only are these reforms the right moral path but they make smart business sense. The business of women’s football has a tremendous upside, and it’s FIFA’s obligation to invest in the assets needed.”
– Billie Jean King
During the lengthy administration of Sepp Blatter, not a single top management or commercial position was held by a woman. The executive committee inducted its first female to office in 2012. In a passionate and carefully crafted speech tennis legend and founder of Women’s Sports Foundation Billie Jean King pleaded for taking steps to change the situation: making women one-third of management, developing a commercial strategy for women’s football, and hiring a secretary general with a gender equality background.
The reforms that Infantino referred to in his opening speech include focusing on the women’s game and mandating that the executive committee include at least six women, or one from each regional confederation.
The executive committee reform allocates to women a 16.7 percent representation. Vice President of the FIFA Executive Committee and U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati reflecting on the unintended consequence of the reform proceedings honestly admitted, “did it go far enough to get 6 people on? No. But this was a huge step forward. It’s going to take a lot of effort.”
Moya Dodd, chairwoman of FIFA’s Women’s Football Task Force and vice-president of the Asian Football Confederation offers that FIFA (and football in general) accept women as part of the solution not as one of the many problems needing to be addressed. Women can help on multiple levels with the current FIFA situation: 1) Commercially, by diversifying revenue streams, the World Cup need not be the only revenue generator, nor should the women’s game have simply one tournament, it could include club world cups. 2) Women’s football can assist with the brand problem that FIFA current suffers. 3) Rallying the troops is easy. “There’s an army of foot soldiers who will be your advocates, your assistants and your champions to make the game better.”
Not only are those shifts in perspective needed, but also the perception that participation in the women’s game is somehow limited to just a few nations, or that the U.S. is somehow light years ahead of the rest of the world needs to be addressed. For Sunil Gulati investing in the U.S. Women’s National Team and program was common sense. “The rate of return on women’s football on women’s sports for 175 members out of 209 members that so far exceeds that of men’s football.” He adds, “for a couple hundred thousand dollars you can play in the Women’s World Cup. If there’s fertile ground, [plant the seeds.]” It does not take a lot of money to create a program for women and girls to play the game. It does however take intelligent planning and only then will it generate the product you are looking to achieve. Basically it’s simply easier, at this point, to invest money in the women’s game and see it multiply than into the men’s game, where it may not make a dent. Simple economics. Moreover, Title IX did catapult the process in the United States, not by putting money or parity into sports though, as many assert. As Gulati emphasizes, the real difference was the promise of an equal education which then results in a higher probability of economic parity (at least in theory).
U.S. Women’s National Team legend Abby Wambach, who has taken up the mantle for speaking on behalf of the women’s game from a player perspective, shed light on the role that media and coverage of the sport plays in supporting the growth and reform within the game while also realistically calling for more football. “Getting these women to become household names comes down to more media coverage. Create more opportunities for them to be seen.” – Abby Wambach.
Reform brings about equality and equality will bring about reform. But those both only happen if everyone works together, if men and women champion the same causes and not work towards individualistic goals. Reform will only result if we are all willing to see that the best for all in the long-run might mean a short-term loss in money or power, otherwise known as investing in the future.
“You can find another voice to join yours. Your voice can change the conversation. If you can change a room, you can change a club. If you can change a club, you can change a federation. If you can change a federation, you can change FIFA. If you can change FIFA, you can change the world.” – Moya Dodd