Will FIFA’s World Cup Sexism Ever Die?

I suppose there’s a time and place for a $15 Budweiser. The ones that come to mind are when your plane has gone down in the Gobi and you have drunk all the jet fuel. Happily, when I encountered my first $15 Bud, it was merely at a sweltering game of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, which I attended in Vancouver. More happily still, I had brought a bottle of water and did not have to resort to the specious King of Beers.

As followers of World Cups will know, FIFA has long given Budweiser the exclusive right to sell beer at Cup games. For just as long, the monopoly has been held up as a symbol of FIFA’s greed and contempt for fans. (And worse: On learning that only Budweiser, not German beers, would be served at the 2006 World Cup in his country, Bavarian politician Franz Maget declared, “We have a duty to public welfare and must not poison visitors to World Cup venues.”)

But for fans in Vancouver, the overpriced Clydesdale urine was also a symbol of FIFA’s consummate scorn for the women’s game. This was because FIFA had so under-invested in the women’s Cup that it scattered only a handful of beer stands around the concourses of BC Place Stadium, which meant that even at lightly attended games you had to stand in a line 50 or 60 deep to get a brew. FIFA was chintzier yet with souvenir stands. At one, I counted 127 people queued up to buy
a_kidnapping_in_milan_cover_medcheap cotton t-shirts featuring the Women’s World Cup logo (attractively priced at $50). They were doing so because Cup t-shirts were available nowhere else in town—not even at FIFA’s nearby Fan Zone, whose attractions were so few and pathetic they would have embarrassed the organizers of a middle school carnival. At every sports store in Vancouver where I stopped in, the staff said FIFA had made available only a few t-shirts and almost no other merchandise, all of which had sold out in the first days of the tournament. I’m not usually one to complain when rapacious corporations don’t peddle their wares, but the lack of marketing in this case was a disturbing testament to FIFA’s unwavering refusal to promote women’s soccer.

The most prominent manifestation of that under-promotion was the many empty seats at Cup games across Canada (games that were prominently and sexistly played on artificial turf). Even in soccer-enthused Vancouver, most games were only modestly attended, and in Montreal, which is less of a soccer town than Vancouver but still has enough aficionados to host a Major League Soccer team, attendances were as low as 1,000. The Cup opener in Edmonton, featuring the Canadian team, didn’t sell out, and on the morning of Tuesday’s semifinal between the United States and Germany—one of the biggest matchups in the history of the women’s Cup—friends of mine were able to buy tickets for $37 because 10,000 seats were unfilled. FIFA has touted the near-record attendance at this year’s Cup, but it can do so only because the bar is so low, so poorly has it marketed past women’s Cups. (To be fair to FIFA, the players didn’t take Sepp Blatter’s helpful suggestion to make the women’s game more appealing by wearing skin-tight shorts. Also to Blatter’s credit, FIFA has now and then tried to counter the players’ obstinacy, as when, hours before the USA–Germany game, its website featured an article complimenting USA forward Alex Morgan for her easy-on-the-eye style and body to match.)

If you ask FIFA why attendance is mediocre and marketing dollars few, its officers will say they actually promote women’s soccer plenty but there’s just not much interest from the public. This is a canard. In the United States, women’s soccer games have attracted up to 18 million TV viewers, which is a bigger audience than most games of the NBA Finals or World Series attract. And women’s soccer isn’t just big in the States. The German women’s team has occasionally drawn more TV viewers for its Cup games than has the German men’s team for Cup games. If FIFA can’t turn these sorts of figures into butts in stadium seats for women’s Cups, they’re just not trying.

The examples go on and on, but let me give you just one more. Per one report, over the next four years FIFA will spend just $22 million to develop women’s and girls’ soccer—and $900 million to develop men’s and boys’ soccer. In the eyes of FIFA, ladies, you are worth just 1/38th of your male counterparts. Even a slave in early America was worth 3/5th of a freeman.

Despite all of the above, FIFA’s reformers almost never put ending the appalling bigotry among their demands. And yet the bigotry is FIFA’s greatest crime. FIFA’s corruption, the target of most reformers, has plagued FIFA for only a few decades and usually affects only the uppermost echelons of the men’s game. The sexism, meanwhile, has been with FIFA since its founding in 1904, and it has hurt girls and women around the world every day in cruel, often soul-crushing ways. If reformers and commentators don’t find this sexism urgent, perhaps it’s because most of them don’t belong to the half of the world’s population that struggles daily against such oppression.

The steps to reverse FIFA’s sexism are simple in principle: Allocate far more of FIFA’s budget to promoting women’s events like the World Cup. Direct the lion’s share of FIFA’s development money to girls’ soccer. (Sorry, boys, FIFA has a lot of history to make up for.) Reward countries that make strides toward equality with more FIFA money and other perks, like priority in hosting tournaments. Punish countries that don’t make those strides; believe me, nothing will get the attention of sexist football associations quite like cutting off their share of FIFA’s staggering profits.

As any observer of FIFA will know, alas, these reforms stand no chance with the current FIFA. The reason is the same that hinders other reforms: FIFA’s members—its 209 constituent national football associations—each get the same vote. The Cook Islands, population 11,000, gets the same vote as China, population 1.4 billion. Anguilla and India, which could give a fig about soccer, have the same say over the game as enthusiasts France and Brazil. But the indifferent countries are happy to get FIFA’s money, and the football associations in small countries depend on it desperately. Knowing this well, Blatter has lavished cash on the minnows of world soccer, who have voted him in again and again, no matter how rank the stench around him grew. He will soon depart, and small improvements will be made, but the basic incentives will remain the same. The little and indifferent countries won’t vote to cut their own power.

The same structural problems ensure the entrenchment of FIFA’s sexism. Saudi Arabia, mired in its fundamentalist Dark Age, bans women not just from fielding a national team but even from attending soccer matches—and yet it has the same say over the women’s game as the United States, whose landmark Title IX law (which requires gender parity in collegiate sports) has long made us a beacon for women’s soccer. But the problem isn’t limited to countries ruled by benighted mullahs. After Japan’s women’s team won the World Cup in 2011, their soccer federation flew them to the 2012 Olympics in coach. Japan’s men, having tumbled out of the 2010 World Cup in the Round of 16, flew in the same plane in business class. The sad truth is that the vast majority of countries are woefully biased against women generally and women in sport particularly. Under FIFA’s voting structure, that won’t soon change.

Nonetheless, there is a bit of hope. Some anti-corruption reformers have called on UEFA, Europe’s soccer federation, to leave FIFA and start a new world body for soccer or, failing that, to threaten FIFA with withdrawal in order to leverage reforms. Such options aren’t far-fetched. UEFA has already threatened to boycott the next World Cup if some reforms aren’t made, and since Europe has 14 of the top 20 men’s teams (and 13 of the top 20 women’s teams), without them FIFA would have no World Cup worthy of the name. If South America joined the exodus, 19 of the top 20 men’s teams would be gone. Even if UEFA refuses to take strong action, the most important European countries could do so on their own. They have incentive aplenty. For one thing, they don’t need FIFA’s largesse the way smaller countries do. For another, they fear their lucrative soccer empires will take a hit if FIFA’s degeneracy turns fans away from the game.

The pros and cons of a UEFA exit are too many and complex to discuss here, but one thing is certain: The threat of a European exit is the best hope for ending soccer’s sexism because nowhere else on the globe but Europe have so many women in so many countries achieved something like true equality—and the political and economic clout that comes with it. In the United Nation’s Gender Inequality Index, 18 UEFA countries rank among the world’s top 20 in gender equality. I don’t often hail Europe (or, for the record, its cousin America) as a force for good in the wider world. Indeed, the gender bias of many non-Western countries owes much to the dismal policies of European colonizers. But in this case Europe is our best shot for forcing FIFA to change its ways or for building a new body that will.

So, my European friends, the world needs you. Go on and continue your attacks on FIFA’s corruption and greed, but attack FIFA’s sexism with even more fervor. If helping girls and women in the world’s most oppressive countries doesn’t motivate you, then do it for us Americans. We practically gave you the modern women’s game, and our egalitarian colleges have trained a great many of your finest women players. Besides, we took down Sepp Blatter for you. You owe us.

Steve Hendricks is the author, most recently, of  A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial. His website is SteveHendricks.org.


Steve Hendricks is the author, most recently, of  A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial. His website is SteveHendricks.org.