Football is for everyone, at least, that’s what the footballing world wants us to believe. The question of who is included in the word ‘everyone’ seems to be the battleground between human rights and financial incentives.
FIFA’s consideration to include Visit Saudi as a sponsor for the 2023 Women’s World Cup alarmed media outlets, journalists, and players alike. Alex Morgan and Vivianne Miedema spoke out against FIFA’s consideration, calling it “antisocial” and “bizarre.”
This article will explore whether FIFA’s consideration is as ill-thought-out as it seems, or whether there is any method to the madness.
At the time of the previous World Cup in 2019, women’s football was almost a blank canvas by way of marketing. A predetermined fanbase of families, social advocates, and existing football fans allowed the women’s game to experience a boom in popularity.
The 2022 Women’s European Championship smashed previous records and league attendances have soared. With the introduction of VAR in the Champions League, games being hosted in historic stadiums, and teams being backed by their male counterparts, the women’s game has begun to find a marketable identity.
Unsurprisingly, this identity has been claimed by the biggest clubs in the world, with historic women’s club leaders suffering under the financial burden.
Discussions have turned from “how do we grow the women’s game while maintaining authenticity?” to “how do we achieve equality?” This change in question is not a result of women’s football feeding into the materialistic, mainstream game.
Women’s football is greatly affected by social change. As the world has reckoned with polarized politics, racism, and a global pandemic, equality becomes a standard that needs to be met. Yet, paradoxically, women’s football may have lost the ability to exist as a space for everyone.Embed from Getty Images
FIFA wants money. This is never something to be glossed over when discussing a possible sponsor for a World Cup, hence the 2023 Visit Saudi proposal.
Brazil 2014, Russia 2018, and Qatar 2022 have been the most expensive World Cups in the history of football.
Qatar spent a staggering $220 million this past winter, close to 20 times more than Russia’s tournament in 2018. According to The Guardian, Saudi Arabia had spent close to $1.5 billion on sports by 2021.
Sports, in theory, are a great way to diversify an industry almost entirely reliant on oil. As are massive, modern mega-projects, as many have seen through NEOM, the Saudi government’s new initiative to “become a community powered by talent and diversity.”
Saudi Arabian Women’s National Team
What many do not realize is that this initiative to diversify their economy includes investment, however small, into women’s sports.
Monika Staab, a former German international and WICC Best XI Honoree, currently heads up women’s football in Saudi Arabia. As Alex Morgan rightfully points out in her interview with ESPN, Saudi Arabia women did not have a ranking within FIFA prior to 2023.
Staab has been tasked with “revolutionizing” women’s football for a nation currently out of alignment with established definitions of sustainability and equality.Embed from Getty Images
Recently, the Saudi Women’s National Team hosted, and won, the Four-Nations Cup. Staab shared her excitement with FIFA, stating “Women’s football in Saudi Arabia is undergoing a unique transformation. In just three years, there are now four regional training centers for six to 17-year-old girls, 25 clubs, 520 registered players, two national teams, over 1,000 coaches with different licenses, and almost 50,000 girls in the schools league.”
Saudi Arabia is investing in their women’s team. Women’s football is starting to provide a market to incentivize the continuation of this investment.
In a post-match interview last month, Lina Magull told DW that “it’s clear that when women’s football grows so much, the interest of other countries like Saudi Arabia will come… When there’s a lot of money and there’s a market that shows high growth, I think those two things simply come together.”
She followed up by stating: “I don’t know if you can really stop that. So perhaps you have to find a way somehow where you try to see it in a positive way and just try and have a good cooperation with Saudi Arabia.”
Football needs to be an option for everyone. As the line between cultural respect and standing up against discrimination becomes more and more blurry, the values of women’s football are once again up for consideration.
Football, particularly women’s football, should and will be used as a tool for social change and global development. However, the question of how to develop nations and implement women’s football needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Religion, cultural practices, and the policies of a state can oppress women.
Oppression appears in a wide variety of countries and communities across the world. This does not mean that culture should have to adhere to the values of the current women’s football community. If women’s football is truly going to be radically accepting, it can change the world. It can give people a space to find community and express themselves through a more equitable quality of life.
The nature of accepting everyone does not mean that homophobia, misogyny, or racism should be tolerated within sports. This should never be the case. Football should be used as a tool to enact social change and understand other cultures. However, football should not become a tool only accessible to those who inhabit a place with a specific set of values and customs.Embed from Getty Images
Some believe the trajectory of women’s football should parallel that of the men’s game. These beliefs purpose that achieving true equality will only happen when both sides of the sport are viewed, funded, and marketed without any distinction.
Others, such as Bianca Rech, former German international and current Sporting Director of Bayern Munich women, highlights a need to stay true to the unique values of women’s football. In her recent podcast interview with Their Pitch, she stated:
“When it comes to women’s football, I think we need to be careful as well. We shouldn’t stop the development and improvement because it’s nice to be part of and it’s great to see all the good things. But we always have to keep in mind where we come from. We have to keep the heart and what made us so different to all of the men’s football out there and the craziness.
“We have to be authentic. And even the closeness to the fans. Because I am a bit scared that we are going to lose this.”
If football is to become a space for everyone, women’s football will be at the forefront. The beliefs and values of the mainstream women’s football media need questioning. Leaders of the sport have the impossible task of maintaining authenticity in the sport while continuing to strive for equality.