Women's World Cup: Why FIFA are wrong to pick Visit Saudi as 2023 sponsor | OneFootball

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·1 February 2023

Women's World Cup: Why FIFA are wrong to pick Visit Saudi as 2023 sponsor

Article image:Women's World Cup: Why FIFA are wrong to pick Visit Saudi as 2023 sponsor

Women’s football fans were left delighted after it was announced that the World Cup opening match between Ireland and hosts Australia had been moved to a 82,500-capacity venue.

The decision was made after tickets for the encounter, originally set to be held at the 42,000-seater Allianz Stadium, quickly sold out.

With joint-hosts New Zealand also playing against Norway at Eden Park on the opening day, FIFA are hoping for an incredible 100,000 fans through the turnstiles on July 20th.




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This will be fitting for what should be a magnificent Women’s World Cup. With 32 teams contesting the tournament for the first time, record attendances and global viewing figures are expected. It will be a brilliant celebration of women’s sport.

But excitement was dampened somewhat after reports suggested that Visit Saudi was set to become a World Cup sponsor.

According to The Guardian, the deal was agreed under FIFA’s new “commercial partnership structure”, which develops revenue specifically for the women’s game.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 22: FIFA President, Gianni Infantino arrives for the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023 Final Tournament Draw at Aotea Centre on October 22, 2022 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Visit Saudi will subsequently join international brands such as Adidas, Coca-Cola and Visa on the World Cup’s advertising boards.

The report has sparked criticism from several quarters, including host organisations Football Australia and New Zealand Football, who claimed they had not been consulted on the matter.

Human rights organisations have also been vocally opposed to the partnership.

Why has Visit Saudi’s sponsorship of the Women's World Cup caused backlash?

AL RAYYAN, QATAR - NOVEMBER 26: Saudi Arabia fans arrive at the stadium prior to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group C match between Poland and Saudi Arabia at Education City Stadium on November 26, 2022 in Al Rayyan, Qatar. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

While there has recently been a relaxation of the rules restricting women’s freedom in Saudi Arabia, they still face limitations on their day-to-day lives.

They still have to obtain male guardian permission to get married and obtain some forms of healthcare, for example. Their male guardians can also bring legal action against women for “disobedience” and being absent from home.

There are still a number of women’s rights activists and human rights defenders languishing in Saudi prisons, too.

Women in the country were only allowed to attend football matches as spectators in 2018, and the first women’s football league was established just three years ago.

There has been some progress made, with Saudi Arabia’s women’s national side now featuring on the FIFA world rankings after a four-team tournament this month, but the country’s involvement with the Women’s World Cup has resulted in claims of sportswashing.

LUSAIL CITY, QATAR - NOVEMBER 30: Saudi Arabia fans are seen prior to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group C match between Saudi Arabia and Mexico at Lusail Stadium on November 30, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

“It would be quite the irony for Saudi’s tourism body to sponsor the largest celebration of women’s sport in the world when you consider that, as a woman in Saudi Arabia, you can’t even have a job without the permission of your male guardian,” said Nikita White, a campaigner for Amnesty International Australia.

“The Saudi authorities have a horrendous record of human rights abuses – including cracking down on women’s rights defenders.

“The campaign of so-called reform leader Mohammed bin Salman is nothing more than a publicity stunt to try to diversify the economy. The Saudi authorities sponsoring the Women’s World Cup would be a textbook case of sportwashing.”

Australian Human Rights Institute director, Professor Justine Nolan, was also critical of the situation.

“It is evident that FIFA seems to have adopted a flexible approach to applying its human rights policy and that it is not taking a rigorous and holistic approach to respecting rights,” she said.

“Its policy to respect universal human rights does not apparently extend to its sponsorship arrangements.

“The acceptance of Saudi Arabia as a sponsor of the Women’s World Cup – a country where women’s rights are expressly inhibited – ensures rights take a backseat to money and sponsorship.”

Will players oppose Visit Saudi’s sponsorship of the Women’s World Cup?

KASHIMA, JAPAN - AUGUST 05: Kristie Mewis #6 of Team United States hugs Sam Kerr #2 of Team Australia following the Women's Bronze Medal match between United States and Australia on day thirteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Kashima Stadium on August 05, 2021 in Kashima, Japan. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Women’s football prides itself on being an inclusive place, and its players are often more outspoken on social issues than their male counterparts.

Many of England’s stars, including Beth Mead and Lotte Wubben-Moy, were vocal about the staging of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which faced questions over its treatment of migrant workers and the LGBTQ+ community.

Saudi Arabia also has a dubious record when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights, with acts of homosexuality punishable by life imprisonment or flogging, and in extreme cases, the death penalty.

As a large percentage of women’s football players are also proud members of the LGBTQ+ community, would they be happy with a tournament sponsor that opposes fundamental parts of their identity?

It’s unlikely they will be, and human rights activist and former Australian football star Craig Foster has called on the players to speak up on the issue.

“All players at the forthcoming Women's World Cup should call out these issues and publicly state their opposition to the male guardianship system and abuse of women's rights in Saudi Arabia generally,” he told Sydney Morning Herald.

“By doing so, they can stand with other women both inside and outside of football and use their platform in front of the world to advance the lives of women everywhere.”

Should Visit Saudi sponsor the Women’s World Cup?

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 25: (EDITORS NOTE: Multiple exposures were combined in camera to produce this image.) Lights are projected on the Sydney Opera House on June 25, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. Australia along with New Zealand are predicted to be announced as the hosts of the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup, announced early on Friday Sydney local time. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

FIFA, who have been contacted for comment, appear to have little qualms about choosing a controversial sponsor or host country for its tournaments.

But the women’s football community is more sensitive to these issues, a result of the large percentage of female and LGBTQ+ supporters among its number.

So while it may seem positive that sponsors are willing to pull out their wallets for the women’s game, fans will be wanting to ensure that brands and companies align with the ethos and values of the community.

Supporters could well feel alienated by attending a tournament bearing the Visit Saudi branding, with many appalled at the women’s and LGBTQ+ rights abuses taking place in the country. They will not want to take part in an obvious sportswashing exercise.

So while we want women’s football to grow substantially, attracting sponsors and investment in the process, it could be detrimental if these brands are fundamentally at odds with the path many fans want the women’s game to take.

As such, FIFA would do well to avoid a storm and look elsewhere for Women’s World Cup sponsorship. For once, it may be better to not fully focus on the money, and consider the values of women’s football too.

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