Today’s guest columnist is Sarai Bareman, FIFA’s head of women’s football.
This Saturday, Angel City will visit the San Diego Wave in a National Women’s Soccer League match that has sold out a new 32,000-seat stadium. It’s a testament to the continued efforts of the NWSL and its franchises to grow the game.
But it’s so much more than that. It’s a story of where the sport has been, and where it is headed.
My time in soccer, like the women’s game itself, is a story of challenges and gender bias. When I took over as head of the Samoan Football Federation a decade ago—en route to my current role with FIFA—I was regularly told I had no idea what I was talking about. My ideas and suggestions were routinely ignored, and I was often laughed at simply because I was a woman.
The women’s game has also faced many obstacles, from a lack of infrastructure and having to fight for access to the right facilities to a negative perception in many countries of women and girls even playing soccer. It was, after all, “a man’s game,” in which players should avoid “playing like a girl.” Whether it be lack of public and private investment, lack of media coverage or outright bans, women’s soccer has faced it all.
But look at us now.
The United States has for so long been a trailblazer in women’s soccer. Yet it is still so pleasing to see the continued growth of the NWSL—in terms of franchises and commercial appeal, as well as attendance figures. The league is a wonderful inspiration to soccer across the world. The San Diego-Angel City match, a record-breaking event for teams in their debut seasons, is the latest example of the pioneering role of the U.S.
At FIFA, we want to make sure that this appeal is replicated around the world. This summer, we started to see a real breakthrough.
In July, England’s Lionesses won the Women’s UEFA EURO at Wembley in front of more than 87,000 fans and a TV audience in Britain alone of more than 17 million—all this in a country where women’s football was banned from Football Association-affiliated grounds until the 1970s.
Days earlier, Morocco’s women took on Nigeria in the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations final, watched by more than 46,000 spectators, the biggest-ever attendance for a women’s game in Africa. The interest is there like never before. It is our job to make sure it continues.
Soccer is the world’s most popular sport but remains male-dominated. In many ways, this reflects wider society. What excites us, however, is that sport can be a catalyst for change. The strategies FIFA is implementing to empower women and girls around the world aim to be transformational, not only for women’s soccer, but for female empowerment across all industries, cultures and geographies.
Now, more than ever, we must build on the momentum we see across the world, starting with the FIFA Women’s World Cup next year in Australia and New Zealand. Last month marked the “One Year to Go” milestone, and the draw—where the USA will go in as the No. 1-ranked team—will be held next month. With 32 teams, this will be the biggest FIFA Women’s World Cup in history, and offers a unique chance to take the women’s game to the next level by inspiring women and girls across the world. As a proud Kiwi, I simply cannot wait for the tournament to begin.
The FIFA Women’s Football Strategy guides the work of FIFA in growing the women’s game. But we also recognize that we cannot do it alone. We need to work with public bodies, media organizations and private companies to create new opportunities and strengthen the product and its commercial appeal.
If we can get this right, we believe that the impact will go far beyond soccer. Sport creates a platform for women to become leaders and recognize their true potential. Too often there has been an expectation that women will automatically fail; through sport we can challenge and change these perceptions.
In partnership with FIFA’s 211-member associations, we are seeing important social barriers to women being broken down: 181 teams now qualify for the FIFA Women’s World Rankings, more than ever before. These countries will develop a sense of pride in their women’s national teams, inspiring both boys and girls along the way. This cannot help but have wider societal impacts.
There are so many inspirational women in soccer, on and off the pitch. Each has their own story, but almost all have had to overcome unnecessary challenges because of gender bias. What keeps me going is seeing the smile on a young girl’s face when she scores her first goal, or watching her jump up and down with her teammates, or hearing her mom and dad screaming with pride on the sideline. Across the world, we are now starting to see these scenes more and more.
Next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup promises to put women’s soccer on the map for good. Whichever team is crowned world champions, whether the USA or others, we must make sure that we are, in some ways, all winners.
Bareman is the chief women’s football officer for FIFA and led the development of FIFA’s first ever global strategy for women’s football, which was launched in October 2018. She is a New Zealand-born former footballer of Samoan and Dutch descent who represented Samoa.