In part one of our interview, FIFA’s chief women’s football officer Sarai Bareman tells Rich Laverty about her previous role developing football in Samoa, the Women’s World Cup and her plans for further projects to promote the women’s game.
Q – First things first, what is your day-to-day role within FIFA now you’re their chief women’s football officer?
SB – The women’s football division is a relatively new division within FIFA. It was actually created as part of the reorganisation of FIFA after a difficult period at the end of 2015.
Basically, because of this whole process, women’s football and women in football was recognised from within FIFA as a huge opportunity moving forward. It’s a super varied job, a lot of it so far for me has been learning about the global landscape of the game.
I had the privilege of developing football in Samoa as a general secretary and I learned quite a lot. The European landscape, that’s something that’s quite new to me. We have a lot of experts within FIFA who have been filling me in, but living in Europe now I’m learning a lot more.
It’s about trying to understand what we can do from FIFA’s level to foster the growth and development and to support women’s football and all our members.
Q – So with what’s going on now in Denmark and Brazil, what support can FIFA offer in all this in terms of advice?
SB – For me, it’s disappointing to see things like this. We want to promote women’s football to something that is talked about, but because of the game itself.
From our level as an organisation, what we need to do as a women’s football division is look at how within our strategy we can try to avoid these cases in the future.
Q – Would you encourage more nations to speak out if they were having similar issues with their federations?
SB – Every case is very unique, there is no one size fits all solution. In general, if we’re talking about a situation where you’re doing a job and it’s something you’re giving your life to, then you or I or anyone would say it’s important you feel valued in that.
In any industry, sport or not, if you’re dedicating your time in the way so many of our players do, you need to feel valued – it’s a very complex situation.
Q – So looking ahead to the next World Cup, what are FIFA’s targets for 2019?
SB – Growing the fan base is certainly a part of it. One of the things we’re looking to do internally is to create a separate commercial programme for women’s football. One of the biggest issues I’ve seen around the world, particularly in developing regions, is a lack of resource that’s available for women’s football.
I believe that at the highest level we can commercialise the women’s game in a big way, that will help to remove a lot of the barriers in terms of resources. I would like to use the Women’s World Cup in France as a platform for that, you and I know very well there are many possibilities that just don’t exist yet.
For example, one of the projects we’re looking at is how we can use digital technology linked to the Women’s World Cup. There are some really exciting things you can do now with virtual reality; social media platforms and we’re working on a special project. I would like to see France used as a platform to launch some new initiatives for the future of women’s football.
It’s about growth, getting more fans and increasing popularity. I’d like to see us create more role models off the back of the tournament too, this is something I think is really important for growth. In the men’s game, everyone knows the names of the top players and I’d like to see France be a platform to make these top players household names.
Q – Is it important then in terms of getting former players like Alex Scott involved in your projects?
SB – Absolutely. They’ve lived it, and there’s no better person to tell people about the power of football than someone who has lived it and breathed it. You can see the difference, if I’m trying to sell football to someone and I’ve got an Alex Scott or a Carli Lloyd next to me then it will be so much more effective.
It’s important we harness the experience these players have and the cool thing about women’s players is that there is such a will to give something back to the game. They’re really passionate about it and we’d be silly if we didn’t want to take advantage of that.
Q – For you, coming over from Samoa, a country that doesn’t have the resources of the top countries, has that helped in terms of dealing with less developed nations?
SB – It has, absolutely, because I understand exactly where they’re coming from and I understand the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis.
For me, it’s a real advantage because when you talk to someone from a member country that’s from a developing region and they’re trying to explain the barriers they face, if you’ve been there and experienced it yourself, it’s so much easier to relate to them and help find a solution.
The experience I had in Samoa, whilst it’s more a rugby country than anything else, it was a hands-on involvement in the development of the game and that’s helped me a lot in understanding what’s needed from FIFA in order to support those countries.
Q – Looking ahead to 2023, many countries have shown an interest in hosting the Women’s World Cup, is Asia a market you’re particularly looking at given the strength of the women’s teams there?
SB – In terms of the bidding, that process hasn’t formally opened but we’re looking to formalise that process early next year leading into the France World Cup. We would like to announce the host before the 2019 tournament in order to give the host an opportunity to observe the tournament.
There are many, many factors that link to the awarding of a FIFA tournament, from a women’s football perspective I’d say it’s important that it’s in a place that is showing a strong commitment towards the development of the game. I would think that anywhere that would host the Women’s World Cup will create a massive boost domestically, but also in terms of the region itself.
Obviously, I’m aware a few people have expressed interest, the bidding for tournaments is something we have to be very careful about and because the official bidding process hasn’t opened yet, I have been quite careful about what I say.
But, I can tell you I’m very excited there has been a lot of interest and I think that speaks to the popularity of the women’s game and how much it’s growing.
Q – In the men’s game there was a lot of anger about where the next few World Cups are being held. In the women’s game, youth tournaments have been taken to less developed countries, what kind of feedback have you had from Jordan and Papua New Guinea?
SB – From my point of view, I can only speak about the last Under-20 Women’s World Cup in Papua New Guinea. Leading into that tournament I know a lot of people were quite apprehensive because it’s obviously a very difficult climate there, there are a lot of negative things said about Papua New Guinea as a country in terms of the socio-economic environment.
But it was a resounding success, it was amazing. The best thing for me was it changed people’s perceptions about the country. I remember being at the airport for some of the team arrivals and the schools and the kids got behind it in such a way that they were dressed up and chanting. I remember the players coming out and being greeted by a village of people with their faces painted, some of them were crying because they’d never experienced that.
The beauty of taking a World Cup to a developing country like that is that it can have such an incredible impact on the local people, and it’s a chance to change perceptions about an entire country. From that experience, I think it’s super positive. There were challenges in terms of things like infrastructure and we have to consider that, but it doesn’t mean we should exclude them.
Q – In England, there’s a lot of question marks about women’s football at youth level and grassroots level. What kind of plans do FIFA have for the next generation coming through so that they have a solid pathway?
SB – It’s absolutely what you’ve just said – it’s about creating pathways. One of our big targets is doubling the participation of female players, we have a big target of 60 million by the kick off of the 2026 World Cup.
We’re working on some projects around participation growth, what I’ve seen in some of the less developed countries is the lack of a structured pathway for players. It’s one thing to bring the players in and increase the numbers, but it’s another to have a clear pathway for those players to progress through the game.
We’re piloting some projects in the next few months where we’re addressing exactly that. One of the biggest issues in women’s football is you get one or two people from a member association or club who are super passionate about it and have a heart for it, but they’re not well supported by the administration there.
For some reason or another, if that person moves on then everything around the game collapses. So, it’s important for us to make sure the structure is strong and that everybody is on board and supporting.
Q – Do you think maybe a lot of associations are ignorant towards women’s football? The men’s game brings in more money, is the biggest challenge to get people to realise the game is growing?
SB – I think having recognition from the top makes a massive difference. There are some countries in the world where women can’t even enter into a stadium, let alone play a match.
From experience, if you have someone at the top of a governing body who is passionate and understands the opportunities are there, it makes a huge difference.
Q – You’ve been in this job a year now, what were the first things you wanted to change when you first took the job with FIFA last year?
SB – I guess for me, before I arrived one of the biggest things I had in mind was in respect to resourcing in the women’s game.
I experienced it first-hand having come over from a developing region. As a girl growing up in a club system, any female footballer will tell you about the experience of wearing used kit from the men’s team or hand me down equipment.
I feel that one of the more important areas we need to tackle is fairer resourcing for the women’s game and it’s something we’re building into our strategy. We also want to increase the level of popularity, there are pockets of the world where the game is super popular, but in order to get rid of a lot of the barriers that exist is to raise the popularity of the game.
We have to put it on more TV screens, create more ambassadors and generate more commercial interest. There are many ways we can do this, so many people have approached me with different ideas and we have an obligation to do it. What we do at FIFA level, using the resources we have, it will have a huge trickle-down effect on the entire structure of the game.
Q – Have you had a lot of interest from sponsors and commercial companies ahead of the 2019 Women’s World Cup?
SB – I’ve had a lot of discussions with different people, the way that commercial contracts are set up within FIFA means it’s quite restrictive in what we can do.
As an example, the Women’s World Cup is sold as a bundle with the men’s tournament, so we’re quite restricted in what we can do for the next tournament, but what we can do is work with the current partners to get more interest and more investment from them.
If you go to a men’s World Cup and you see everything that’s going on around the tournament and around the stadiums from the different partners that are involved, you compare that to the Women’s World Cup, where the same partners are involved, there’s a huge difference.
Whilst we’re restricted in bringing new partners in, we can work with our current partners and get them to show the same level of interest in the Women’s World Cup.
Q – So in terms of getting more fans involved, is there a way of promoting to supporters of the men’s game and adults, rather than just young girls and children? The parade the Netherlands held after the Euro’s showed there can and is a huge level of interest in certain countries…
SB – I think so – football is football. It’s interesting because I read a lot of articles and social media and one thing I’ve learned not to do now is to look at the comments, because that’s where you really see what the public opinion is.
There still exists this terrible view out there that the women’s game doesn’t deserve the same level of respect as the men. If we can convert some of those fans and see for themselves how beautiful the game can be and how great it is to watch, that will go a long way towards changing that negative perception that exists.
Q – Is that the biggest motivator for you? It seems to be a big issue in England but in many other countries too where you see so many negative comments on social media and comments on tweets and articles…
SB – There’s no overnight answer for it, it’s something that will take time and it needs to be addressed for many different angles. There are so many negative things that are said and I’ve learned to try and ignore it.
It’s going to be there, there’s always going to be that one guy or one girl that no matter what you show them or what you say, they’re always going to have that perception.
You have to use that as motivation to fuel you to do even more and to do even better in what you’re trying to achieve.
Q – On a slightly different topic, one thing many fans ask about is a women’s Club World Cup. Can it happen and is it on the agenda?
SB – It’s funny actually because the topic of a Club World Cup is something that’s been talked about for years, even when I was a general secretary in Samoa it was a topic of discussion.
I certainly think it’s something we have to look at and look at very seriously. What is important is that we have to be very careful about how we introduce it, when we introduce it and it has to include all regions.
As you well know, not all regions are at the same development level but there’s an amazing opportunity that exists, but we have to be very strategic and careful about how we do it.