‘An unbeatable moment to leverage’: 2023 Women’s World Cup must win hearts to change minds | Women’s World Cup 2023

Sarai Bareman is in her third week back from maternity leave. Straight on a plane from Zurich to Auckland, then Sydney, and soon back to Auckland. Not so much wrenching herself away from her new normal, more just adding full-time work to the full-time-mother equation. “It’s been an absolute baptism of fire,” she says. “It’s a whole different struggle.”

Of course, her six-month-old boy doesn’t know that. Matthijs was a lovely surprise for Bareman and her husband but, now that she is juggling both him and Fifa’s teams for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, her respect for footballers returning to the field after giving birth has reached the realms of the almost unthinkable.

She is talking about those like Katrina Gorry, who had her daughter last year and has played her way back into the Matildas’ starting XI. Ditto some of the women who contested July’s Oceania World Cup qualifiers. Papua New Guinea, for instance, had seven mums help their country to the upcoming intercontinental playoffs.

“There were three or four mums in the Samoan team,” she says. “I can’t even get out of bed some days, and these mums are playing for the national team. And what’s cool is that we have some really high-profile mums, like Alex Morgan, who take their babies with them. They’re visible, and that, for me, is so important.”

In 2020, Fifa rewrote the regulations around maternity leave, announcing measures that will enforce fines and transfer bans on clubs who discriminate against players during pregnancy. It also fell in line with the International Labour Organisation’s minimum 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, with at least eight weeks after birth, at two-thirds of their contracted salary. The news was positive, but also met with concern that these minimum standards have been set too low.

Bareman, as Fifa’s first chief women’s football officer, realises they are the “basics, a first step”. She is also aware, from her decade of working in a male-dominated industry so often averse to progressive change, that to make it happen requires tact and patience.

“There’s a very broad range of things that need to be done across women’s sport to grow it en masse,” she says. “And sometimes the quick-fix solutions are not always there. For me, you get far more back, in the end, from a strategic, long-term approach, than a lot of quick fixes.”

The World Cup, Bareman says, underlines the incongruity of the global women’s football landscape. Between a larger-than-ever tournament (quite literally – it has expanded from 24 to 32 teams) featuring top nations booming off a flood of investment and the raging success of France 2019 and this year’s Euros, and the rest still floundering at the other end of a yawning economic chasm.

“That’s one of the biggest challenges in Fifa and in women’s football,” she says. “Because when we have these incredible moments like the Woman’s World Cup, when everybody’s watching and we’re on the front page of all the major newspapers, that comes with big expectations.

“But I’m in this position in Fifa where I also see what the reality is for the vast majority of the rest of our member countries and, unfortunately for them, it’s not near that level yet.

“Expectation is in the nature of our stakeholders, the fans, the players and the people involved in the game. I think that’s good. It pushes us, our member associations and the clubs to deliver more. But there’s not always, shall we say, the appetite or patience for the longer-term fix.”

The message is that the World Cup is not just about the high-profile games played at big stadiums, but also a means of expediting development. An example is Morocco. The country failed to qualify for the 2019 tournament, but the president of the Royal Moroccan Football Federation was one of 60,000 in attendance at the final in Lyon, and was moved to upscale the country’s development structures. That November, the first domestic women’s league was launched and this year, under the tutelage for former Olympique Lyonnais manager, Reynald Pedros, they hosted and made the final of the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations, and have now qualified for their first World Cup.

For 2023 co-hosts, Australia and New Zealand, there are different challenges. The popularity of football in both countries is high in terms of grassroots participation but, barring widespread support the national teams, top domestic leagues struggle to breach the public consciousness of fans amid the cross-code crowd of men’s and women’s rugby, league and AFL. There is also a lesson to be heeded from the men’s 2015 Asian Cup, which Ange Postecoglou’s Australia won on home soil in a headline-making moment administrators failed to sufficiently seize.

“That is exactly why next year’s World Cup has got to be leveraged by all the stakeholders in the game,” Bareman says. “My message to everyone involved in the game at every level is that they should be looking at it as an opportunity to boost it. This is an unbeatable moment to leverage.”

We have to talk about ticket sales, because that is why we are here. Organisers say that, in the first day of presale, they sold more than France did in the entire first week of sales. For them it is a big indicator one week out from next Saturday’s draw in Auckland.

We also have to talk about women’s rights in Qatar, an issue which – alongside LGBT rights – is receiving less international attention amid concerns over the exploitation of migrant workers by the 2022 men’s World Cup host nation. On this she will not be drawn, but does have some things to say about the independent report released this month which found sexual misconduct and emotional abuse is “systemic” in the US National Women’s Soccer League?

“We wouldn’t normally say a lot before those sort of things come out,” she says. “But I have to say as a person, but also as a representative of Fifa, that type of abuse, harassment and discrimination absolutely has no place in football, full stop. And in the women’s game it’s something becoming more and more prevalent. We have a zero-tolerance policy around this type of stuff.

“It’s a shame when you see the game on the trajectory it’s on – the incredible momentum we have – and then stories come out like what we’ve seen in the States. For me it’s quite heartbreaking. If it takes these high-profile cases like what we see happening in the NWSL to empower other women in those situations to speak up, then let it happen. Let it come out because that’s the only way we’ll be able to get rid of it.”

Bareman grew up on rugby as a New Zealander with a Dutch father and Samoan mother, and it wasn’t until she sought a connection with her mother’s homeland that she jumped from playing club football in Auckland to representing the national team in Samoa. As a banking and finance expert, she was hired as Football Federation Samoa’s finance manager and then its chief executive between 2011 and 2014, rehabilitating the association after its suspension by Fifa for the previous administration’s misuse of funds.

“It was the first position where I really experienced a level of discrimination because of my gender,” she says. “Samoa is an incredible place. I love it. It’s my home. I plan to retire there one day. But the football environment there is also very male-dominated, society in general is quite, what’s the right word? Patriarchal.

“That was more than 10 years ago. Now there’s a female prime minister there, so things are definitely changing. But also culturally, although I have Samoan blood I couldn’t speak the language when I arrived, so a lot of people wrote me off before they even knew me and before I’d even done any work. You’re an outsider, and there were moments where I had to close my office door and take a breath, and maybe sometimes shed a few tears, to overcome certain things.”

In 2014, when she returned to Auckland to take up a new role as deputy secretary general of the Oceania Football Confederation, she stepped straight into the fallout of corruption allegations that rocked world football. “Back in 2015 there was some very high-profile arrests and things in Zurich,” she says, in reference to the infamous police raid on a string of Fifa officials on corruption charges over the awarding of the men’s 2018 and 2022 World Cups. “The organisation went through a really dark time. What’s unique with me is that I was actually part of the reform journey.”

Bareman was appointed as the only woman on the Fifa reforms committee, “which would become an ongoing theme”. She advocated for more women in decision-making roles within the governing body. “I remember specifically saying, ‘if there were more women in high positions within Fifa I don’t think we would be in the position where we are today, sitting here having to make a reform package’.”

By early 2016 she was one of those women in a high position, sitting behind a desk and overseeing 211 member associations – albeit at the aforementioned gradual pace. And when she recounts the trying experiences it took to get there, she speaks with a fresh authenticity which feels very un-Fifa-like.

“Maybe some of the men wrote me off before they even knew me,” she says, “but I made 100% sure that, in every single meeting I went into on every single project I rolled out, that I had my research and I knew everything from A to Z. So maybe you think [because] I’m a woman I don’t belong here, but this speaks for itself.”

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