By Andrew Warshaw
March 17 – FIFA has admitted defeat over plans to allow Saudi Arabia to be a major sponsor of this year’s Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand even though Gianni Infantino described objections to the idea as “a storm in a teacup”.
The Saudi Arabia tourism board, Visit Saudi, had been touted as a potential sponsor of the expanded 32-team tournament but the proposal drew widespread criticism, not least from the organisers themselves and a number of players, especially given Saudi Arabia’s record on women’s rights.
In what will surely be claimed as a victory for people power following the backlash, Infantino admitted that talks had been held with the Saudis but told reporters no deal has been signed.
“At the end this discussion didn’t lead into a contract,” Infantino revealed at Thursday’s the post-Congress press conference.
Clearly irritated at having to back down, a rarity during his presidency, Infantino attempted to downplay the whole situation by adding: “How do you say it? A storm in a teacup.”
Really? Tell that to Football Australia, who had previously said there was an “overwhelming consensus that this partnership does not align with our collective vision for the tournament and falls short of our expectations”.
Leading figures in the women’s game who also criticised the plan included veteran U.S. forward Alex Morgan who said it “morally” did not make sense.
Infantino did not rule out further events being commercially backed by Saudi Arabia in the future, saying the country had just as much right as any other FIFA member to be a major sponsor.
Seemingly ignoring Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, Infantino declared: “FIFA is an organisation made up of 211 countries. For us they are all the same. There is nothing wrong with taking sponsorships from Saudi Arabia, China, United States of America, Brazil or India.”
He also accused the Australians of double standards.
“When it comes to Australia, they have trade with Saudi Arabia [worth] $1.5-billion per year. This doesn’t seem to be a problem. But between a global organisation like FIFA and Visit Saudi this would have been an issue. There is a double standard which I really do not understand.”
“This year we will have the Women’s World Cup. This should be a celebration of women, it has to be. And yet there’s this negativity which always comes out. Why is that? Why can we not try a little bit to focus on the positive?”
The development was welcomed by Football Australia chief executive James Johnson whose organisation felt it had previously been blind-sided.
“We welcome clarification from FIFA regarding Visit Saudi,” he said. “Equality, diversity and inclusion are really deep commitments for Football Australia and we’ll continue to work hard with FIFA to ensure the Women’s World Cup is shaped in this light.
“It is a historic event for our nation, showcasing the world’s greatest female players and advancing the game globally.”
The New Zealand joint hosts made similar comments.
“New Zealand Football welcome the confirmation from FIFA that Visit Saudi will not be sponsoring the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023,” read an NZF statement. “We believe it is critical for all commercial partnerships to align with the vision and values of the tournaments they are involved in.”
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