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With Women's World Cup on horizon, sexism remains part of FIFA culture

Chances are, if you’re a woman and you’ve had much contact with the leadership of FIFA, you have a story to tell about sexism and soccer’s world governing body.

U.S. forward Abby Wambach tells one from the time she and her now-wife, Sarah Huffman, were backstage in a VIP room in January 2013 before the World Player of the Year awards gala in Zurich, Switzerland. “[FIFA president] SeppBlatter came into our little area, and he walked straight up to Sarah and thought she was [Brazilian star] Marta,” says Wambach.

“Marta!” Blatter said, hugging a bewildered Huffman, who doesn't look much like Marta. “You are the best! The very best!”

“He had no idea who Marta was, and she’s won the award five times,” says Wambach. “For me, that’s just a slap in the face because it shows he doesn’t really care about the women’s game.”


Former U.S. World Cup winner Julie Foudy tells a story about the time she was part of the globally televised draw for the men’s 1998 World Cup in Marseille, France. Blatter said something about her onstage in French. “I don’t speak French,” says Foudy, “but when I got off the stage two women who worked for FIFA were kind of angry.”

“Why are you angry?” Foudy asked them.

“We don’t like what he just said about you,” said one.

“What did he say?”

“That they brought you here because you looked good—and nothing about your football.”

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Alexandra Wrage, the president of TRACE International, an anti-bribery non-profit, tells a story from her time on the FIFA Independent Governance Committee. At the 2012 FIFA Congress in Budapest, Wrage says, two senior FIFA executives came over to her as she was eating lunch at the event’s large dining hall.

“One said: Can you stop putting forward female candidates for these governance positions?” Wrage recalls. “He named them: the adjudicatory and investigative [committees]. He said you need to stop putting forward female candidates, because a female candidate will never be acceptable in one of these slots. I’m paraphrasing, but I’m very close. I was looking down at my meal and across at the people sitting next to me. I actually looked up to him and said: ‘Did you really just say that to me?’

“I was really taken aback. It took a second to settle in, and then he repeated it.”

Wrage, whose story was first reported by the Financial Times, did not reveal the identities of the two FIFA executives, but she says they did not include Blatter or members of the FIFA executive committee. She later resigned from her committee post over what she felt was a lack of appropriate reform by FIFA.

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Any day now, a group of the world’s top women’s soccer players, representing several different countries, may go ahead with their threat to file a gender-discrimination lawsuit against FIFA and the Canadian organizers of the 2015 Women’s World Cup over the decision to use artificial turf fields in the sport’s showpiece event. It would be the first time a senior World Cup, men’s or women’s, has ever used artificial turf surfaces, and the players’ main argument is pretty simple: FIFA would never use artificial turf for the men’s World Cup.

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​But there’s a larger context to the story: Sexism has long been part of the fundamental culture at the top of FIFA. At a time when female political leaders are commonplace around the world—three of the four semifinalists at this year’s men’s World Cup had female heads of government—FIFA has had almost no female representation on any part of its executive level. Of the nearly 200 people who have been elected to FIFA’s executive committee over the last century, all of them were men until Burundi’s Lydia Nsekera became the first (and still only) elected woman in 2013 (There are also two unelected female ExCo reps, Australia's Moya Dodd and Turks and Caicos' Sonia Bien Aime, who are "co-opted members for special tasks.")​.

Blatter has taken credit for introducing a rule that requires one female member of the 25-member executive committee, but the FIFA statutes literally refer to “the female member,” as if the other 24 elected executive committee members are expected to be male. But, notes Foudy, “why not just say we’ll get to X percentage of women on our executive committee as companies do [with their boards]?”

The International Olympic Committee, for its part, has 24 women in its 105-member body.

However slowly, FIFA has introduced some advances for women in recent years, making a few gains from an embarrassingly low baseline. The Women’s World Cup will expand from 16 to 24 teams next year. And on Friday, FIFA announced it was doubling funding for women’s soccer development programs from 2015-18.

Yet real change has to come from the top, and Blatter, 78 and almost certain to be re-elected as FIFA president next year, has a maddening habit of sounding like a fossil from the Mad Men generation. Over the years he has suggested that women’s players wear “tighter shorts”; has introduced female FIFA executive candidates with “say something, ladies, you’re always speaking at home”; and responded to a legitimate question about FIFA corruption at the World Cup by saying, ‘Listen, lady….”

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“The fundamental premise of good governance is that the leadership sets a tone,” says Wrage. “And when the leadership is making the kinds of comments that Mr. Blatter does, it’s a bit of a trainwreck for gender issues in an organization. Because everyone takes their cues from him. He could change the culture with respect to gender issues at FIFA very quickly if he took a strong and committed position. It’s true of any leader at any organization. But he is so much a part of the problem that it isn’t going to happen on his watch.”

In the most recent issue of FIFA’s official magazine, the organization saw fit to include this sentence from the writer of an article about Blatter: “Football is a simple game that only becomes complicated once you attempt to explain the active and passive offside rules to your wife.”

“You see a change in the way people view FIFA: I think it’s at an all-time low,” says Foudy. “They’re considered almost a caricature. I think that has long-term consequences so that maybe we see them make $2 billion on the [2014 men’s] World Cup, but eventually I think that’s going to catch up with them. They have to be conscious with that image and what they’re portraying.”

Foudy says she wants to see more national federations be mandated by FIFA to provide real support for their women’s programs. For someone who once served as the president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, Foudy sounds like someone who could shake things up inside the leadership of FIFA if she could hold her nose long enough to do it.

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​​“I’ve always been very involved in activism with the U.S. Soccer Federation and what we did and had to achieve,” says Foudy, who does full-time television work these days. “And maybe my next area of focus will be FIFA and going global. But I haven’t tackled it yet, and I honestly haven’t had any long talks with Sunil [Gulati, the U.S. Soccer president and a FIFA executive committee member]. He knows my frustrations. But I think with being in television and being consumed with that and kids, it’s a hard thing to tackle.”

In the meantime, Wambach and Wrage marvel at the way women are treated at major FIFA events right now in the present day, whether it’s the women dressed up as Emirates Airlines flight attendants who stand like ornaments at FIFA tournament awards ceremonies or the way Wrage saw women presented at the FIFA Congress. At the gala dinner, she says there were numerous women dressed in “plunging long dresses” who were standing still on pedestals like statues.

“There were these tall, stunning women, and they sort of lined the walkway as you got to the palace,” Wrage says. “There was just something a little cringe-making about it. This is an organization that’s a steward for women’s football as well as men’s, and it just didn’t seem tasteful.”

As for Wambach, she still can’t believe what transpired with Blatter and her wife at the World Player of the Year event.

“It’s a shame that at one of the biggest events I’ve ever been invited to, the president of this organization that I’m a part of didn’t know who the best women were,” she says. “It’s a slap in the face to not only what I’ve done but what my predecessors have done to try to grow the game.”