FIFA's reported deal with Saudi tourist bureau is latest insult to women's game | Opinion

What, the Taliban wasn't available?

FIFA might be lacking a moral compass and any sense of shame, but its partnership with Visit Saudi for the women's World Cup this summer, reported earlier this week by The Athletic, shows it still has plenty of spite.

You want an expanded tournament and more funding so the women's game can grow and develop? Fine. But we'll do it using a fat check from a country that still considers women second-class citizens, at best, and abuses those who have the audacity to ask for equality.

Criminalizes homosexuality and turns a blind eye to violence against gays, lesbians and transgender people, too.

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"My questions wouldn't be directed at Saudi Arabia. My questions would be directed at the highly questionable judgment and scruples of (FIFA)," Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, told USA TODAY Sports. "This is an ethical choice people in every walk of life make every day: `Who do you sell yourself to and how much do you sell yourself for?' "

With FIFA, it's clear those answers are to anyone interested and for as much as it can get. It cares nothing about cheapening what's left of its reputation so long as the price is right.

But in doing this deal, FIFA is also showing how little it thinks of the women's game and those who play it, and how badly it continues to underestimate its appeal.

"The real question is not, 'Why is Saudi Arabia seeking this prestigious, warm-and-fuzzy sounding tenure with the women's World Cup?' " Whitson said. "The real question is why (FIFA) is selling (the World Cup's) reputation, is selling its standing as a women-positive entity, an entity that exists to promote positive images for women, equal rights for women, in the global community."

For years, FIFA has treated the women's game as an afterthought. It hasn't provided adequate funding for it, nor insisted federations devote the time and resources necessary to ensure they had legitimate, competitive women's programs. The excuse was the women's game didn't generate the interest - never mind FIFA had no data to support that because it had always lumped TV rights and marketing deals for the women's World Cup in with deals for the men's tournament.

The United States women
The United States women's soccer team celebrates after winning the 2019 women's World Cup in France.  

But as TV ratings continued to rise, women's matches in Europe, South America and the United States drew record crowds and national federations had sponsors expressing interest solely in the women's game, FIFA could no longer ignore the obvious.

In late 2021, it announced that in addition to official FIFA partners like Coca-Cola and Adidas, it would offer sponsorship opportunities solely for this summer's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

"We're excited about the opportunities for brands who want to support women's sport, help accelerate women's equality, and wish to align themselves with the unparalleled momentum around women's football," Sarai Bareman, FIFA's head of women's soccer, said at the time.

Ah, yes. Because nothing says helping accelerate women's equality like allowing a country that murders dissidents and represses the rights of women and the LGBTQ community to use the World Cup as a promotional tool. A country so passionate about the growth of the women's game its national team is all of a year old, I might add.

So much for the power and possibility of women, huh?

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This isn't a matter of not wanting to be associated with Saudi Arabia because of a generic concern for human rights. Many of the rights being trampled on in Saudi Arabia are those of the very people involved in this tournament, women and the LGBTQ community.

President Joe Biden awards the nation
President Joe Biden awards the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to U.  

Can FIFA not see how infuriating it is for the Saudis to capitalize on the strength of female athletes when those athletes wouldn't be allowed to determine their own futures in the kingdom? Does FIFA not appreciate how offensive it is for the Saudis to benefit from the popularity of, say, Megan Rapinoe or Sam Kerr when they and their partners would be subject to criminal charges there?

The deal might be slightly palatable had FIFA exacted some concessions in return. A complete repeal of the guardianship system, Whitson suggested, along with the release of the women who've been jailed for criticizing the Saudi government and lobbying for expanded rights.

But FIFA only sees dollar signs, not the women harmed by that blood money.

"We cannot express strongly enough the potential repercussions and fallout that could (be a) result of this decision," soccer officials from the World Cup co-hosts said in a letter to FIFA protesting the deal, according to The Associated Press.

"Australia and New Zealand, both as sovereign nations and as football associations, have for decades placed the utmost importance on gender equality, and have sought to promote these ideals around the world."

FIFA will no doubt say Visit Saudi was the only group interested in the deal or was offering the most money, the suggestion being the women should be grateful for what they're getting. But no one should accept that excuse knowing FIFA's long track record of underselling the women's game.

Just this week, in fact, World Cup organizers announced they were moving Australia's opener to the 83,500-seat Stadium Australia, which has almost double the capacity of the original site of Allianz Stadium, because demand for tickets was so high. Imagine that!

Interest in the women's game is robust and so, too, the possible financial return. If only FIFA put as much effort into that as it does courting regimes that want to use the World Cup as cover for how reprehensible they really are.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: FIFA considering Visit Saudi as women's World Cup sponsor demeans game


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