Fifa plans to use the event to “unlock the commercial value” of women’s football. But there is a delicate balance to be struck between aims of economic growth, and the use of sports diplomacy to further gender equality, which is very important to a tournament such as the Women’s World Cup.
The cancellation of a sponsorship deal between Visit Saudi – the tourism arm of the Saudi Arabian government – and the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup, for example, shows that Fifa have some way to go in finding this balance. And research backs this up.
Fifa president Gianni Infantino in 2021 described sports diplomacy as: “Harnessing the power of football to benefit society, through the teamwork of our partnerships, is sports diplomacy in action.
Research shows that sports diplomacy is particularly important when hosting an international women’s sporting event. This is because international sports organisations have traditionally been seen as an “old boys’ club” with powerful sporting administrations drawn from elite and affluent male networks. And so careful sports diplomacy is needed to navigate this environment in order to try to equalise the position of women’s events.
He claimed there was a double standard, as many nations – including Australia – have longstanding trade deals with Saudi Arabia. He said: “For us, [nations] are all the same.”
A balancing act
But there’s an argument that Fifa does need to be held to a different standard when brokering economic deals, especially when it needs to expand global sponsorship to fund the growth of the Women’s World Cup.
For Infantino and Fifa, the Saudi deal represented economic growth and support for the women’s game. But research has highlighted the need for international sports organisations to better hear and listen to female voices.
Not considering this when exploring Saudi Arabia as a sponsor, or managing different expectations through sports diplomacy, meant the deal led not to growth for women’s football but rather a public backlash.
That’s why effective sports diplomacy amid a delicate balance of economic growth, claims of equality and global affairs needs to be a focus for Fifa if it is to smoothly navigate this historic journey for women’s football – and for equality.