Following on from Part 1 of Rich Laverty’s interview with Sarai Bareman, the FIFA’s Chief Women’s Football Officer, the pair discuss changes to women’s football in England, the logistics and process of organising an international tournament and more.
SB – One of the biggest issues we’ve identified is the lack of organised, competitive competitions at national level in many regions.
We’ve collected a lot of data and statistics to understand what the environment is like. UEFA, for instance, are very well advanced, the teams are very active and the number of matches they play in a qualifying pathway. In comparison for example to Africa, you can see why there’s such a massive difference in results.
We have to work with our confederations – the likes of CAF, OFC, AFC – to make sure there are more frequent and well-organised competitions. Unfortunately, in some regions the qualifying for the Women’s World Cup is the only organised competition and it happens once every four years. You can imagine in a country where a team comes together for that and they don’t make it, the team is disbanded, and nothing happens for another four years, that is something we really need to address.
Q – What are the challenges like for countries in Africa, South America and parts of Asia in making sure they have more resources and better infrastructure?
SB – It really depends on the country and the region. This is something we’re also focusing on at FIFA level. I strongly believe, having come from a member association myself, that if we are going to offer support we have to understand what the environment is in that specific country.
We must understand the cultural barriers, what is the economic environment and the travel implications? There are some countries in the Pacific region made up of different islands and you can’t get from one to another without a boat. When you’re trying to organise a national competition, it adds a whole other level of cost and logistics.
Whatever we do, it can’t be a one-size-fits-all programme. What’s good for England might not be good for Tonga or Fiji, we have to be able to go in intimately and understand what the challenges and the solutions are.Embed from Getty Images
Q – Do you look at the introduction of the UEFA Nations League which gives countries more games against the teams similar to them? Is that something you’d look at in the women’s game?
SB – Absolutely. I think it’s important when you’re playing that matches are competitive. Nobody wants to see a game where the result is so skewed in one team’s favour, it’s something we have to consider at FIFA level when we structure our competitions to make sure the games are competitive.
It has to be beneficial to the fans and the consumers of the game, but to the teams themselves too. If you’re representing your country but go out on the field and get whipped 10-0, it does nothing at all for those players, for the environment back home and the development of the game.
When we look at introducing new competitions or new formats that these are the things that we consider.
Q – In England, the biggest talking point on the pitch has been the changes to the FA Women’s Super League for next season. It’s going to affect many teams and will benefit those with more resources, what are your opinions on the changes?
SB – To be honest, even I am quite torn about it. I saw it generated a lot of interest and it’s something I’ll be following very closely.
I think it’s great they’re being pro-active and they see these possibilities exist and what can be done. It’s very bold and it’s very important they’re doing that, it’s sending a strong message they believe in women’s football and what is possible.
Whether it is a success and how it impacts others in the women’s game is something I’ll be watching very closely. One thing I think is so important is to look around the world and see what is happening in different regions and different countries.
On a personal level, I’ve been fascinated in the last ten months at looking at different case studies in terms of what associations are doing with their leagues and this is one I’ll be looking at closely.
I hope it’s a success, I really do, and I hope it doesn’t have a detrimental impact on the others. I would like to have an ongoing conversation with the FA to find out what the challenges they face are and how it’s progressing.
Q – There are obviously good stories in women’s football at the moment. The Netherlands had a great summer, as did Austria, and Iceland continue to amaze people. Are they the moments that make the job worthwhile?
SB – I’m quite an emotional creature and when I see things like that happening it does make it all worthwhile. It’s undoubtedly a challenging environment in women’s football, and in FIFA, so combining the two does have its challenges.
The last time I was in London they had the final of the Women’s Cricket World Cup and on the same weekend the Lionesses had an amazing match. The next day was incredible, every newspaper had women’s sports on the front page, the back page and being talked about on the morning news.
That for me was an incredible moment, I was so happy to be here in London when it was going on. It’s important you have reminders like that to keep you going and that’s why we’re here and why we’re doing it.Embed from Getty Images
Q – Is the frustration now sustaining that media interest? A lot of media show interest in the big games and the big stories, but in between that the media interest can be very sparse, especially in England…
SB – The media have a big role to play, a huge role to play. It’s a big responsibility and it’s something I’ve talked about quite a bit with different people in the media.
What you guys do, people who understand it and are passionate do an amazing job, but I think it’s the nature of how people consume news. We as governing bodies and as organisations need to work together and have close relationships with the media, to work together on how we can change because I think the media has a really important role to play.
Q – At FIFA, you look at what the game might be like in five years or ten years, do we need more long-term fixes rather than papering over the cracks? The Norway pay dispute is a good example, because the men subsidising wages for the women is only a short-term solution…
SB – It definitely is, we have to take a long-term approach, we can’t paper over the cracks. It’s unfortunate these issues are happening and are coming to the surface, but it’s important because it puts a spotlight on them.
At FIFA level, we need to take a long-term approach. We need to put measures in place by working with our members to avoid these situations happening at all. We want to create a fix at the top, so it doesn’t happen. It’s hard, because often people don’t have the patience for the long-term solution and women’s football has a lot of demanding people who are passionate and want instant solutions.
That does make it difficult when you’re trying to tackle things with a long-term approach, it’s often not satisfactory to all the stakeholders in the game.
Q – Is that the biggest problem now? It’s an old cliché but money makes the world go around. There’s so much at stake now that people want and need everything now, everyone has a conflict of interest…
SB – It can be tiring but it’s an amazing job. When you think about the influence you can have on generations to come, and understand the positive impact people can have then it’s worthwhile.
It’s not easy, it’s certainly not. The money and what’s at stake in the men’s game is unbelievable and the women’s game is relatively in its infancy in that respect. I think the most important thing we can do at FIFA is to ensure the integrity of the game and what is wholesome about the women’s game remains so.
We want to grow, of course we do. We want to have more commercial interest and professional leagues, but we need to do that in such a way that we maintain the integrity we have.
Q – The recent stories in England probably don’t help that, but do you think long-term it will have a positive effect on the game?
SB – I do. Look at what happened at FIFA, 2015 was an awful year for FIFA as an organisation. It was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons and many people didn’t see a way out of it.
But what came of it, particularly for women’s football, was incredible. It was a very difficult time, but what has happened since then and getting more women involved in the game has been amazing.
You’re probably right, in life in general you have to go through a bit of hardship in order to get to the other side and achieve what is possible.
Q – I guess we should talk about the FIFA awards as that’s what you’re here for! To have these awards alongside the men’s, is that one of the things that show the progress?
SB – It’s really important and you see more and more the big sponsors who typically want the big men’s players, you’re seeing them more often want the top women’s players too.
If we’re not doing it at FIFA level then we can’t expect our members to do it. It’s really good FIFA is giving this platform for female players, it’s amazing. The fact they’re up on stage alongside the men sends a strong message.
Q – There was a lot of disappointment and anger about the final shortlist for the women’s player award, do you take what the fans say on board because there’s a perception that sometimes FIFA aren’t bothered?
SB – We absolutely do. I can concretely tell you that because of the backlash we had, we had some internal meetings on it and we’ll meet and discuss leading into next year’s awards to look at how we do it.
We certainly do pay attention and it’s important for me personally that we’re humble in everything we do. We don’t own football, football is for everyone and if we’re doing something that’s not right or can be improved, we have to acknowledge that, we have to. Our role is to do the best we can for the game and I’m happy to say that we’re going to look at it.Embed from Getty Images
Q – Coming back to what you said about 2023, do you look at the current attention around someone like Sam Kerr and the buzz she’s created in Australia, does that come into consideration when looking at a host country?
SB – It’s certainly a factor because that links into the popularity of the game itself. I can’t say it would be something that would sway a decision, because we have a very transparent and open process, but from a women’s football perspective it would certainly be a factor.
Q – And in terms of France, what criteria do you look at when choosing the host cities?
SB – Infrastructure is a big part of it, obviously. When a host country makes a bid, they propose cities they’d like to host games. We have quite detailed requirements for stadiums, hotels and that kind of thing.
I’m no expert in the operational side of a tournament, but I can tell you it’s very detailed. Infrastructure is a very big factor.
Q – So, how far ahead do you look at things surrounding tournaments?
SB – For example, now we’re looking quite deeply into what we’d like to get out of 2023 and it’s only 2017.
It’s important before the bidding starts, that at FIFA level we’re very clear on what we want the tournament to achieve. We’re thinking quite far in advance in that sense and you have to. You need to have the foresight when you want to grow and develop something.
It’s hard dealing with the day-to-day stuff and having that long-term vision is a difficult juggling act.
Q – Finally, where would you like women’s football to be when you step away from this job?
SB – Maybe it’s a little bit controversial to say this, but I would like to walk away from my job because they don’t need it anymore.
I would like to be able to leave FIFA because there’s no need for me to be here. I would like women’s football to be so much part of the mainstream that we don’t need a special division, that it’s all happening naturally.
Ultimately, that would be it, I don’t know if it will happen in my lifetime, but you have to aim high and dream big.
Read Part One of this interview here
You can follow Sarai on Twitter @SarBareman
You can follow Rich on Twitter @RichJLaverty