Osasu Obayiuwana: Breaking down the doors of the old boy’s club

Getting a substantial number of women into the corridors of administrative power remains a major challenge for football, which is still seen – not without justifiable cause, I might add – as being a stuffy old boy’s club.

If there is one thing in which Africa is certainly pointing the right way to Europe and the rest of the world, it is in giving women a chance at the top of the administrative ladder.

Of the 209 national associations/federations in FIFA, only three countries have had women in charge.

And all three – Liberia, Burundi and now Sierra Leone, with the election of Isha Johansen as its president on August 3, have been on the continent.

Izetta Wesley blazed the trail when she took interim charge of the Liberia FA in 2004, following the resignation of her predecessor.

Many thought Wesley would fail to get a full four-year term in 2006, when she sought to be elected in her own right.

Against the odds, she managed to earn the trust of her male colleagues, even though it was a keenly contested election, with just two votes separating Wesley and her closest challenger, Siaka Sherrif, who was male.

But it is Burundi’s Lydia Nsekera, now spending her ninth year in charge of her country’s federation, who has captured the attention of the global fraternity, being the person to shatter FIFA’s 108 year old glass ceiling, by becoming the first female member of its executive committee.

Considering her historic ascension, as a co-opted member in 2012, before getting a full four-year term in June, Nsekera did not exactly jump at the opportunity to take charge of her country’s federation in 2004, which kick started her meteoric rise in the corridors of power.

“When I was approached, in 2003, to be a candidate for the presidency of my country’s football federation, I initially said no,” she told me.

“In fact, I asked for three days to think about it, as I thought they were crazy. But when they came back, I saw that they were really serious. And I set certain conditions, in order to protect myself,” said the woman who also became an IOC member in 2009.

Nsekera’s effort in giving purpose and direction to football in her home country, regarded as one of the minnows in the African game, is gradually beginning to bear fruit.

Having never qualified for any of Africa’s top competitions since 1972, when it joined CAF and FIFA, the national team recently earned a place at the 2014 Championship of African Nations (CHAN) in South Africa – a tournament for national teams made up entirely of players plying their club trade in their countries of origin.

As the only female, for several years, to be at a FIFA congress as a federation president, amongst 208 colleagues, you might assume that she has a hard time coping in an overwhelmingly male environment.

But Nsekera disabused my mind of that impression, during a chat we had at the London 2012 Olympics.

“I don’t feel lonely, because my male colleagues and I speak the same language – football… I entered football in 2000, because I love the sport,” she said.

“I think I am very much ‘one of the boys’ when I am talking about the game… When you show that you care for the game and you actually understand the game, the fact that one is a woman matters less.”

But there is no question that Nsekera’s climb to the game’s top table has enjoyed the overt patronage of FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

A year before she ascended the executive committee in 2012, initially as a co-opted member, Blatter publicly named her, at a meeting I attended in South Africa, as a person with the “right qualities” for the position.

And when it became clear that there would be opposition, from some members of the executive committee, to Nsekera getting a full four-year term at the last elective congress in Mauritius, Blatter was unequivocal in telling me that he “would fight” for her continued stay.

In an ideal world, any official elected to a position in football should earn it based on nothing but their competence and an ability to command the support of those responsible for electing people into positions of leadership.

But, for the time being, it will be impossible to address the inexcusable gender imbalance in the game’s administrative corridors without a form of ‘positive discrimination’, at least for the forseeable future; this will ensure that women, who have demonstrable skills to improve the quality of governance, are discovered and given a fair chance to advance.

Without the special measures taken to elect Nsekera, as well as co-opt the Turk and Caicos Island’s Sonia Bien Aime and Australia’s Moya Dodd on to the FIFA executive committee in June, several decades – if not another century – might have passed before the glass ceiling would have been smashed.

Whilst FIFA has taken the right ’emergency’ steps, to include women at its top table, mapping out a sustainable long-term policy, to increase the presence of women at the national association level, is crucial. That, to me, means the implementation, for a set-period, of positive discrimination and quotas to achieve this goal.

Expecting football to address the problem without such a ‘push’, which has to be targeted and well thought out, would be pretty naïve, as the prevailing situation clearly indicates.

The ultimate goal is to bring football into a more enlightened era, where gender is no longer a barrier to ascending the game’s commanding heights, or even getting a chance to serve in less high-profile, ‘everyday’ positions.

That will not happen if concrete and transparent measures are not taken to make the presence of women in positions of authority the norm, rather than the exception.

Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at moc.l1634535941labto1634535941ofdlr1634535941owedi1634535941sni@a1634535941nawui1634535941yabo.1634535941usaso1634535941

Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s newly convened anti-racism task force.