FIFA poised to scrap Visit Saudi sponsorship for Women’s World Cup
FIFA could be set to abandon plans for Saudi Arabia’s tourism arm to sponsor the Women’s World Cup after a ferocious response from co-hosts Australia and New Zealand and some of the highest-profile players in the women’s game.
The global governing body is still yet to even publicly acknowledge the mooted deal, more than two months on from initial reports by The Athletic in January which said Visit Saudi would be unveiled as a tournament sponsor.
Sam Kerr and the Matildas have not commented publicly on the mooted Visit Saudi deal – but the backlash from across the women’s game has been ferocious.Credit:Getty
That triggered a wave of immense criticism from both Football Australia and New Zealand Football, who demanded immediate clarification from FIFA and said neither federation had been consulted.
Matildas players have largely avoided public comment on the issue, but USA stars Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe described it as “bizarre”, “totally inappropriate” and “outrageous” considering Saudi Arabia’s heavy restrictions on rights for women and ban on same-sex relationships, while Dutch striker Vivianne Miedema said FIFA should be “deeply ashamed” for even considering it.
The scale of the backlash has shocked FIFA, according to a source familiar with the tournament’s planning who was not authorised to speak publicly. The source also claimed the Gianni Infantino-led organisation was now considering ways to reshape the Visit Saudi agreement and find a solution before next week’s FIFA congress in Rwanda.
It could, according to the source, involve the sponsorship being instead attributed to another Saudi-related entity rather than the kingdom’s tourism body, which would also address separate fears in Australia and New Zealand that the co-hosts’ ambitions to promote their own countries as holiday destinations could be overshadowed by another nation.
Gianni Infantino attended an English Championship match between Millwall and Norwich at the weekend.Credit:Getty
New Zealand Football chief executive Andrew Pragnell said he thought FIFA was having a “rethink” of the mooted Visit Saudi deal based on their response last week to a letter sent almost a month ago by the chairs of the Australian and New Zealand federations.
“I found the response fairly ambiguous. It didn’t confirm nor deny the potential Visit Saudi sponsorship that has been reported in the media,” Pragnell told New Zealand media on Friday.
“It did allude to the importance of treating all member associations equally and the importance of engagement as opposed to isolation. Other than that, it stated that they’d be reaching out through their media and partnerships team for further conversations.
“We’re left in a little bit of uncertainty as to what’s going on here, to be frank, which is a bit disappointing. Anything further I say would be speculation because I don’t know, but clearly our letter, given the delay in the response, and the absence of confirmation or denial, has caused some form of rethink in FIFA about this issue.”
If FIFA persists with the Visit Saudi deal, it runs the risk of having big-name players or even entire teams staging protests during the Women’s World Cup.
“Football Australia has consulted on this matter with key stakeholders, including government and commercial partners, and it was an overwhelming consensus that this partnership does not align with our collective vision for the tournament and falls short of our expectations,” said Football Australia chief executive James Johnson, who together with FA chair Chris Nikou expressed their disappointment to Infantino at the recent Asian Football Confederation congress in Bahrain.
“Whilst the partnership has not been confirmed by FIFA, based on the consultations we have had with our community, key stakeholders and our own position, we would not be comfortable with it. While we await further clarity and information as to the details of the partnership from FIFA, we continue to convey this clear message on behalf of Football Australia, New Zealand Football, and our community.”
Meanwhile, Infantino has admitted FIFA learned lessons from the men’s World Cup in Qatar and flagged the likelihood that captains at the Women’s World Cup will be able to wear the same rainbow armbands that it had banned four months ago.
The ‘OneLove’ armbands, intended to promote inclusivity and featuring a multi-colour design which is distinctly different from the rainbow pride flag, were set to be worn in Qatar by the skippers of eight European teams but were banned at the eleventh hour by FIFA, who warned that any players who flouted the ban would be yellow-carded.
“What I can say on this issue is I think we all went through a learning process there,” Infantino said on the weekend at a meeting of the International Football Association Board, football’s lawmaking body.
“What we will try to do better this time is to search and look for dialogue with everyone involved – the captains, the federations, the players generally, FIFA – from all over the world to capture the different sensitivities, to explain, to exchange, and to see what can be done in order to express a position, a value or a feeling that somebody has without hurting anyone else.
“In a positive way, we are looking for a dialogue and we will have a position in place well before the Women’s World Cup, I hope so.”
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