Fifa’s treat­ment of Women’s World Cup fi­nal keeps ‘virus’ con­tained

The Guardian Australia - - Sport - Ma­rina Hyde

Like any­one else wak­ing up af­ter be­ing cryo­geni­cally frozen since the 19th cen­tury, I re­flex­ively be­lieve all the things Fifa says about it­self. Nowhere is world foot­ball’s gov­ern­ing body more con­vinc­ing than in its stated de­sire to grow the women’s game in the buildup to next year’s Women’s World Cup in France.

Back in the sum­mer, 19-year-old Venezue­lan in­ter­na­tional Deyna Castel­lanos was per­mit­ted to in­ter­view Gianni In­fantino, with the re­sult posted on the Women’s World Cup so­cial me­dia chan­nels. “Next year in France, we will see the great­est, great­est, great­est Women’s World Cup ever,” promised the Fifa pres­i­dent. “We will have a coun­try that cel­e­brates women’s foot­ball – and this virus of women’s foot­ball will spread from France, over the whole world.”

Oh. Well, put like that, per­haps it is un­der­stand­able that Fifa should be do­ing ev­ery­thing in its power to con­tain the out­break of the virus. What else can ex­plain the de­ci­sion to sched­ule the Women’s World Cup fi­nal on the same day as not just the fi­nal of the Copa América, held in Brazil, but also the Con­ca­caf Gold Cup, hosted in the United States?

In fact, were the mes­sage not suf­fi­ciently rammed home by that timetabling, it has emerged that the Women’s World Cup fi­nal will be a morn­ing game in the US, and an af­ter­noon game in Europe. The later and evening games will go to the two men’s re­gional cup fi­nals.

Be­cause re­ally, noth­ing says “we are fully com­mit­ted to grow­ing the women’s game” like mak­ing the big­gest match in its four-year cy­cle the un­der­card to some other stuff. When your sched­ul­ing sug­gests the Women’s World Cup fi­nal is not even the first or sec­ond most im­por­tant match of the day, it is per­haps in­evitable that peo­ple will draw con­clu­sions about the level of your stated com­mit­ment.

Nat­u­rally, Fifa re­sents any such im­pli­ca­tion. Last week, a spokesper­son told Sports Il­lus­trated’s Grant Wahl that “the sched­ul­ing of the dif­fer­ent events has gone through a com­pre­hen­sive con­sul­tancy process, which in­volved all key stake­hold­ers” – a piece of what might be called mis­man­age­ment speak which fails to re­motely con­vince that any­one in the women’s game would re­gard this as re­motely de­sir­able. If all the stake­hold­ers were so in­volved, why are so many in the women’s game try­ing to drive their stakes through the idea? Alas, Fifa de­clined to be drawn any fur­ther.

In the ab­sence of fur­ther light-shed­ding, then, per­haps In­fantino’s sum­mer in­ter­view is worth a re­visit. Castel­lanos’s first ques­tion to the Fifa pres­i­dent was: “Why do you think it is im­por­tant for girls to play foot­ball?” The Fifa pres­i­dent made an ex­pan­sive ges­ture. “I have four daugh­ters my­self,” he ex­plained. And if the past year has taught us any­thing, it’s that guys who care about things be­cause they have daugh­ters are ab­so­lutely not so­cio­pathic creeps who are ef­fec­tively say­ing that if they didn’t, they would be to­tal sex­ists/un­print­a­bles. No skin in the game, you see. And yet, any chap who be­gins a state­ment with “As a fa­ther of daugh­ters” or “Well, I have a daugh­ter now” has what I like to think of as the most un­for­tu­nate tell since Le Chiffre, the Bond vil­lain who literally cries blood dur­ing poker games.

Any­way, In­fantino went on to ex­plain the point of foot­ball to Castel­lanos in a loftily ge­nial, fin­ger-wag­ging way that I hope an in­ter­na­tional striker was able to dimly cot­ton on to. He chiefly seems to think that foot­ball teaches girls “val­ues”, like a fam­ily does – a re­minder that for girls, foot­ball is a sport­ing con­test sec­ond, and an off­shoot of do­mes­tic sci­ence lessons first.

Still, never let it be said that Fifa lim­its his hand-wav­ing or lip-ser­vice to one for­mat. It was much in ev­i­dence in the rather more for­mal set­ting of Fifa’s 2016 blue­print for the fu­ture, called Fifa 2.0. This re­port de­voted a full three out of 69 pages to how it planned to ad­vance the women’s game. It pledged that by 2017, it would be “pro­vid­ing women with greater op­por­tu­ni­ties to show­case their tal­ents at in­ter­na­tional and club lev­els” – and if pop­ping the World Cup fi­nal on early doors be­fore the re­gional fi­nals doesn’t do that, then what do these peo­ple even want?

As far as the rest of the pledges made in Fifa 2.0 go, on Tues­day Fifa fi­nally snuck out its long-promised women’s foot­ball strat­egy. Or rather, its “strat­egy”. De­spite the de­lay, this doc­u­ment con­tains barely any more de­tail than Fifa 2.0, and an aw­ful lot of pic­tures and waf­fle about “vi­sion”. The pledge to “raise the pro­file of the Fifa Women’s World Cup” seems self-satiris­ing, in the cir­cum­stances. The clear­est at­tempt to put their money where their mouths are would surely have been hon­our­ing the prom­ise to cre­ate “a women’s foot­ball-spe­cific com­mer­cial pro­gramme” by 2017 – the lat­est re­port kicks the rib­bon-cut­ting date on to 2026.

In some ways, the ab­sence of this bit is the most telling. In­deed, given that we know from ex­pe­ri­ence that all Fifa truly cares about is money, the fail­ure to do ev­ery­thing to mon­e­tise the un­der-ex­ploited po­ten­tial mar­ket that women’s foot­ball of­fers them is baf­fling. It is al­most as if there is some … ide­o­log­i­cal ob­jec­tion to build­ing it up in or­der that more cash can be si­phoned off it.

And so with the sched­ul­ing of the World Cup fi­nal. The puz­zle is that it re­ally doesn’t have to be this way. In­deed, it hasn’t al­ways been this way at all. The 2015 Copa América fi­nal wasn’t sched­uled on the same day as the Women’s World Cup fi­nal that year. The 2015 Gold Cup hadn’t even kicked off when the WWC fi­nal was played – it be­gan two days later. And as far as num­bers go, mean­while, a global au­di­ence of 750 mil­lion watched the last Women’s World Cup, with far more US view­ers tun­ing in for its fi­nal than did for the men’s equiv­a­lent the year be­fore.

Yet here we are. Nat­u­rally, no one ex­pects Fifa to do the things it says it is go­ing to do in the time­frame it says it is go­ing to do them. And no one ex­pects it to see the po­ten­tial of what it is no­tion­ally only the cus­to­dian of. But to ac­tively re­duce the fo­cus on the women’s game by your ac­tions is an achieve­ment even by Fifa stan­dards, and we must con­grat­u­late them yet again on con­found­ing even the low­est ex­pec­ta­tions.

Pho­to­graph: Ron­ald Mar­tinez/Getty Im­ages

A global au­di­ence of 750 mil­lion watched the 2015 Women’s World Cup but Fifa ap­pear to have given the 2019 fi­nal un­der­card sta­tus to two men’s com­pe­ti­tions.

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