By Andrew Warshaw in Paris
June 7 – Hours before the women’s World Cup was due to kick off in the French capital, Gianni Infantino insisted the tournament would change perceptions about the women’s game for ever. But more importantly the FIFA president missed a vital – some might say essential – opportunity to address the scourge of sexual harassment pervading the game.
Giving the keynote address on the second day of FIFA’s much-trumpeted women’s football convention, Infantino had the chance to tell the world what FIFA was going to do about multiple allegations that have gained momentum in recent months.
He proudly announced that FIFA would be investing $500 million in the women’s game over the next four years but said nothing about how it would be tackling discrimination.
Afghanistan Football Federation president Keramuudin Karim is still banned over allegations of sexual abuse. The former head of women’s football in Afghanistan, one of those who lifted the lid on Karim’s alleged conduct, urged FIFA back in the spring to maintain pressure on those responsible saying Karim’s case was just one example of a systematic problem that has gone largely untackled.
Yet the two-day Paris symposium, featuring a raft of high-profile speakers, only occasionally touched upon the topic which was rekindled again following the sensational arrest on Monday of African football chief Ahmad Ahmad.
Although his detention is understood to be linked to a contract brokered with Puma in December 2017 and placed with French company Tactical Steel, the Confederation of African Football president has also been engulfed by multiple sexual harassment allegations, all of which he denies.
But Infantino stuck very much to the script when addressing delegates two days after being re-elected FIFA president, promoting the fact that under his watch FIFA had introduced a dedicated women’s football division and heavily increased the number of women in the FIFA administration – not least his number two, FIFA general-secretary Fatma Samoura – and that he wanted to introduce a women’s world league. He also re-iterated that FIFA had significantly beefed up prize money for female players.
The fact that Samoura is understood to have first been introduced to Infantino by Ahmad was of course withheld from public consumption in the circumstances.
“I am a man of action rather than words,” Infantino told his audience. “When I arrived at FIFA we had many priorities and women’s football was part of the plan from the beginning.”
“It’s not easy. Football is a very macho, male-dominated sport especially in some countries. But who says that only men can lead?”
Turning to the upcoming tournament, he added: “The stadia will be full, there will be a festive atmosphere and what is presented on the pitch is real football. This will change once and for all the way the world is looking at women’s football.”
Meanwhile, as the fate of Ahmad remained in the balance following reports of his release and being placed under house arrest, Infantino said the case made him “sad”.
“We have to wait for the outcome,” Infantino told reporters Thursday evening whilst attending an exhibition football match.
“Of course, I said yesterday (in his re-election presidential address) very clearly that we have cleaned up FIFA. This was the first step. We need to lead by example. If other steps are needed, we will know it when we have more information, which we don’t have yet. And we hope, of course, that everything will be fine.”
Yet as well as Ahmad, under Infantino’s regime another FIFA vice-president, David Chung of Papua New Guinea has been banned for 6½ years while a number of other senior figures have either resigned or been sanctioned.
“Where there are human beings – there are the strengths of human beings, but also the weaknesses of human beings,” Infantino explained, not altogether convincingly. “So we need to look into our structures and we need to see how we can act.
“But, in any case, whatever the statutory legal situation is, we will be there. We will intervene.”
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