Women soccer leaders target breakthroughs in World Cup year
Lausanne, Switzerland — In a World Cup year set to drive faster progress in women's soccer, elections in Europe next month will have a global audience for a potential breakthrough in gender equity.
Women soccer executives taking part in an annual joint FIFA-UEFA leadership course for them in Switzerland this month are keenly awaiting the result of votes on April 5 for seats on the ruling committees at both soccer bodies.
The past decade has seen women receive a single protected quota place to sit at decision-making tables at each of FIFA and the six continental authorities such as UEFA.
However, women have yet to win international soccer politics elections in direct contests against men. Quota seats have been treated as a closed limit rather than a door opening.
That could change when the 55 member federations of UEFA meet soon in Lisbon with two options to make women the winners.
Norwegian federation president Lise Klaveness is one of 11 candidates — the other 10 are men — for seven available seats on the UEFA executive committee.
The president of England's Football Association, Debbie Hewitt, is challenging incumbent David Martin of Northern Ireland for the FIFA vice presidency reserved for only the four British soccer nations.
Klaveness' campaign and progressive views — typically rare in soccer circles — have been seen as a cause célèbre for the advancement of women executives.
"It's very brave of Lise to step into the election process," Australia's delegate at the women's leadership course, Amy Duggan, told the Associated Press. "I wish her the best of luck. I would hope that everybody who is voting understands that diversity and inclusion is needed to make our game bigger and better."
Klaveness and Hewitt are in a select group of a few female presidents among FIFA's 211 members, and most federations which have a women leader also will play at the Women's World Cup: Norway, England, co-host New Zealand, the defending champion United States and Canada.
Still, the backdrop to Cindy Parlow Cone being elected to lead the U.S. Soccer Federation and Canada Soccer appointing Charmaine Crooks as interim president this month includes women players challenging previous leadership on issues like equal pay and lack of respect.
France and Spain have also been in turmoil with key players speaking out. Norway's Ballon d'Or-winning forward Ada Hegerberg exiled herself from the national team for years until returning last year at the time Klaveness, a former national team player, was elected president.
"In the World Cup year it's always disappointing to think some of our best players across the globe might not be on the world stage," Duggan said. "I do hope that all sorts itself out."
Promoting more women into executive positions during the rapid professionalization of women's soccer was a shared goal during the week-long course at a business management school in Lausanne. The FIFA-UEFA course has taught more than 100 students in the past four years.
In Nigeria, federation board member Aisha Falode noted the shocked reaction of the men's national team failing to reach the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
"Heaven was going to fall," she told the AP. "We, the women, have qualified for every single World Cup since it started (in 1991) and it's like nothing. The awareness is almost non-existent."
Falode, a former journalist who went on to run the Nigerian women's league, said she could one day seek the federation presidency.
"Is it equal? No, the numbers are still not adding up," she said. "Is it much more difficult for the women? Yes, it is, let's not pretend about it. Let us have fairness in football leadership."
Helping to teach the next generation of women in soccer is also a goal of the course.
"We need to be able to mentor our young girls coming up and say, 'Hey, you can do this,'" Andrea Johnson of Guyana said.
Whatever the results of UEFA's elections, women will take center stage in soccer's main tournament in July-August in host countries eager to promote it well.
"In Australia we are doing well," Duggan said, "we are progressive."