Alamy

6 April 2022 - 5:49 PM

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Alamy | Lise Klaveness, president of Norway's football association

Football wants strong women. Will it get them and will it be for the right reasons?

  • Norway’s FA president Lise Klaveness electrified last week’s FIFA Congress with an attack on FIFA’s “unacceptable ways” saying the organisation ignored questions of “Human rights, equality and democracy”.
  • Chair of Women in Football Australia and former Australian FA executive says athletes in general are starting to find their collective voice, but there is a long way to go before they are heard.
  • Why it matters: Female footballers are more outspoken on social and political issues than their male counterparts, and this “authenticity” has helped grow the women’s game. But can it also be utilised to better govern the sport?
  • The perspective: Klaveness was just one of five female FA presidents among a congress of 211 federations, while FIFA’s secretary general Fatma Samoura didn’t partake in proceedings.

The late, great investigative journalist, Andrew Jennings, used to call it “football’s omerta” - a code of silence against wrongdoing, malfeasance and sometimes criminal wrongdoing. No place was it more prevalent than at FIFA’s congress, where heads from 211 federations come face to face each year. 

In the past 12 years alone, football has witnessed a deeply corrupt and flawed dual bid process for the 2018/22 World Cups; revelations that FIFA executives took at least €100 million of bribes in the ISL bribery case; a “disloyal payment” scandal that claimed the presidents of FIFA and UEFA; dawn police raids on FIFA hotels; revelations that bribes were paid for the 1998, 2006 and 2010 World Cups; and close ties between its presidents and Vladimir Putin and Mohammed Bin Salman.

Wideranging governance reforms were voted through in 2016 as the organisation faced legal judgement on many of these scandals, but through all these crises FIFA Congress stood mostly silent.

That was until late last month, when the FIFA family gathered in Qatar for its first face to face gathering in three years, and Lise Klaveness, Norwegian FA president and former player took to the podium.

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Alamy | Former Norwegian national team player, Lise Klaveness is now the Norwegian FA president

“Our game can inspire dreams and break down barriers but as leaders we must do it right and to the highest standards,” said Klaveness. “We cannot ignore the calls for change and how FIFA runs the game has so much to say for how the game is perceived. FIFA must act as a role model.

“In 2010 World Cups were awarded by FIFA in unacceptable ways with unacceptable consequences. Human rights, equality and democracy – the core interests of football – were not in the starting XI. These basic rights were pressured on to the field as substitutes, mainly by outside voices. FIFA has addressed these issues but there is still a long way to go.”

It was enthralling and, for the staid congress, enraging. She was denounced immediately by a Honduran official and criticised by the head of November’s World Cup, Hassan al Thawadi.

But the watching world was enchanted by her performance, which also carried heavy symbolic qualities: a gay woman speaking out in a country where women have few rights and homosexuality is outlawed, to an audience that was made up mostly of male football executives.

The question is, does it change anything?

Duty bound

Andreas Selliaas, a Norwegian journalist and commentator on national and international sports politics, who has gotten to know Klaveness and saw her in action in Doha, said that it was part of her mandate as NFF president to take to the podium at FIFA Congress.

“She did it because it was her job,” he says.

“The NFF Congress gave its president 26 measures to fulfil on FIFA, Qatar and domestically last June.

“When she was elected last month, and stood up in Doha a few weeks later it was to fulfil her mandate as Norwegian president.”

He also says that there was a strong personal motivation and had even taken police advice in Norway as to whether she would be safe in Qatar on account of her sexual orientation.

“She really wants things to be better because as a gay person she has lived through prejudice herself. She wants the world to be a better place.

“She knew that this would not be popular at FIFA, but she was supported by the other Scandinavian federations – she was “educated” on the issues – and had a lot of help on the wording. She didn’t want to go for Qatar, she wanted to go for FIFA.

“They know they can’t change Qatar, but they want to change FIFA – and that’s the right approach.”

Open culture

Culturally – both within Norway and women’s football – Klaveness comes from a place where speaking out on big social and political issues in sport is considered more culturally acceptable than in the largely conservative men’s game.

Scandinavia has dominated the debate on the probity of the Qatar World Cup, and there and elsewhere women footballers have had prominent opinions in terms of gender equality, sexuality and social justice in ways that would be inconceivable in the men’s game.

Megan Rapinoe, arguably the world’s most famous women’s footballer, is as well known for her strong views on equal pay, gay rights and public spats with Donald Trump, as she is her achievements on the pitch. She is far from alone in the women’s game. It would be impossible to imagine Lionel Messi ever speaking out on similar issues.

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Alamy | United States national team captain, Megan Rapinoe

The reality, however, is that football remains a largely conservative game.

Bonita Mersiades is someone worth listening to on this issue. In the noughties she was one of the most senior executives at the Australian FA. When she raised concerns internally about the nature of the country’s 2022 World Cup bid she was dismissed.

Later she shared those concerns with law enforcement agencies and was traduced for being a whistleblower. Now she serves as chair of Women in Football Australia.

Mersiades says it was encouraging to hear from someone who is both an elite player and a woman in such a prominent position “speak about such issues that concern ordinary fans.”

“The playing group has been slow to do this,” she says, and in the past – “long before the FBI arrests [of FIFA executives] in May 2015” – “it was impossible to get players or former players engaged in the issues around governance, transparency and accountability, and human rights.  There was a reluctance to ‘rock the boat’.”

She says this has started to change, and points to people like the former Socceroo Craig Foster, who has spoken out about big social and political issues in their native Australia. “We are now seeing more players take a stand as well as players turned administrators, such as Lise Klaveness,” Mersiades believes. 

“Gender imbalance may be one factor that has contributed to ‘omerta', but I do not believe it is as significant as some might suggest. In the past, when some at FIFA Congress have raised issues outside the tightly scripted and choreographed waste of time that Congress is - for example, 2011 - FIFA has used its power to ridicule dissent,” she says.

“More to the point, society is changing. Athletes are finding their voice after being silent for too long, and that’s a good thing; women are finding their voice and wanting to right the wrongs of the past. This isn’t just in football, but society in general.” 

Commercialising principles

Such authentic views, says Arianna Criscione of N3XTSports, are helping drive the commercial growth of women’s football, with supporters finding greater engagement with what they consider a more authentic product.

“Culturally and socially, you also have female athletes that are willing to speak up about certain subjects,” she told a panel at September’s World Football Summit.

“There's definitely players that are influencers and they have a big market and they have lots of sponsors. But there's a lot of brands coming in and want to authentically align with a player and their values [like] sustainability or other social issues that they speak up on. I think the brands want to get with those players because the audience that follows those players will listen to what that player truly believes in and when they say, “OK, I wear these shoes,” it's because I believe in this product, not because they gave me enough money to say it”.

“Leaning into those aspects of the women's game that are different, unique and special, afford us the opportunity to do more with it,” Amanda Vandevort, President of the United Soccer League Super league –the second tier of women’s football in the US –  told the same panel.  The panel agreed that a recent commercial tie up between Hyundai’s electric Ioniq vehicle and Chelsea’s Women’s team – representing sustainability and green energy – was “a very typical partnership that we’re going to see more of.”

Driving change

But using the social positioning of women’s football to drive the game’s growth, or sell electric vehicles is one thing. Adopting those principles for the better governance of the wider sport is quite another.

At FIFA Congress, Klaveness was in a group of just four female presidents (England’s Debbie Hewitt, New Zealand’s Johanna Wood, Sonia Fulford of Turks and Caicos and Iceland’s Vanda Sigurgeirsdóttir are the others) among 211 FAs represented. FIFA’s female general secretary, Fatma Samoura, was conspicuously absent. There is still, manifestly, a long way to go before there is a broad female consensus on the running of football.

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Alamy | FIFA female general secretary, Fatma Samoura

And to suggest that existing female FA presidents are strong-minded or deeply principled on account of their gender would also be fatuous. For example, Hewitt, who took over the FA in January, is still to make a single media appearance and literally nothing is known about her or her views on the running of the game.

“FIFA’s history suggests that little will change while the current power structures are in place,” says Mersiades.

“This is something I have been saying for a long time. You can change processes - as FIFA has done with the introduction, for example, of a human rights policy and some greater transparency on major decisions - but nothing changes unless culture changes. This requires more than one, two, or even six people around a table to do so.”

Deeper significance

Is there a deeper significance in Klaveness’s stance? Selliaas says that she’s at once a unique individual, but that her ascent was fed via grassroots football and is now assuming wider resonance.

“She has high ethical standards and lives up to them,” he says. As a player she quit the national team “because she didn’t like the way she was treated” – much in the same way that Ada Hegerberg did (Hegerberg has returned since Klavness became NFF president). This wasn’t a decision taken lightly:  Klaveness played in two World Cups for her country, helping them reach the semi-finals in 2007. 

At the same time she was elevated to the NFF presidency on the back of grassroots support for her strong moral stances. Her leadership is thus organic

Can she spread that ethical leadership beyond Norway? Selliaas says that there is a long way to go, but that the opportunity exists.

“She has good people around her,” he says. “The big thing the federation needs to do is engage with other federations and create a momentum and a platform to build on, to engage with other federations and build on what she says.”

“Women can help change the game, but it will not change with some window-dressing at the top of the game by way of quotas,” adds Mersiades. “This is why Lise Klaveness's role as the democratically elected president of the Norway FA is encouraging. It would be terrific to see more of it.”