As the drumbeat for gender equity in soccer grows louder with the approach of the Olympics in Rio, there are signs that women's issues are being taken seriously by FIFA.
Critics say it's a positive and long overdue step to shattering the governing body's reputation as an old boys' club.
New President Gianni Infantino appointed a woman, Senegalese United Nations official Fatma Samoura as secretary general last month, and announced the creation of a women's soccer division at the recent FIFA Congress in Mexico City.
FIFA also recently wrapped up its second Female Leadership Development Program, which seeks to support women in soccer while advocating for women in leadership positions within the game.
There is hope for genuine reform behind those feel-good moves.
"It's a great step forward, but it's been decades of a certain mindset," US goalkeeper Hope Solo said. "To change an actual culture it will take more than just one woman. It will take men who believe in equality and see the benefits of investing in the women's game, as FIFA did for the men before the game was at where it is today."
Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, now banned from soccer until December 2021, once famously suggested that female players could draw more attention to their sport if they wore tighter shorts. But over the past two years, players have taken advantage of the rising popularity of their sport to shine a light on that bias, and the inequity on various levels that comes from it.
"In any business, you look for where there is the most potential for growth — and for sure it's with the women's game right now. I'm excited to see what FIFA ends up doing," said Abby Wambach, the recently retired U.S. forward and 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year. "But the most important thing at this point is not just talking about it, but seeing action and dollars go to the women's game so that the growth actually happens."
Wambach led a group of players who protested the artificial turf surface at last year's Women's World Cup in Canada. The group filed a complaint in Canadian court in the months before the event, claiming that staging the event on artificial turf — which many players consider inferior and an injury risk — amounted to discrimination because the men's World Cup is always played on natural grass.
While the World Cup went on as planned on turf, the legal action started a conversation that Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks and basketball star Kobe Bryant joined on social media. The issue came up again late last year when the United States called off a match in Hawaii because of artificial turf conditions and concerns from players about the possibility of injuries.
The boldest action on the part of the US team came at the end of March, when a group of players filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing U.S. Soccer of wage discrimination. The claim came as the two sides seek a new collective bargaining agreement.
Moya Dodd, a member of FIFA's executive committee, has been leading the charge for change within the organization for the past several years.
In light of the scandal that plagued FIFA, there was consensus that the organization needed widespread reform. But it troubled Dodd that she wasn't hearing much talk about reforms within FIFA that dealt with gender equality. She was of the belief that with a "better gender balance, it would be a better organization."
She helped craft reform proposals, many of which were adopted in February, and took her crusade public, writing an editorial for The New York Times.
"I'm an optimist in all this. I think the new president has made a number of statements since his election that indicate he's going to take this seriously and take us in the right direction," Dodd said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Transparency International, a nonprofit based in Germany that highlights corruption and the crimes that result from it, has been monitoring FIFA's response to the scandal that broke in May 2015 when a group of the organization's executives were indicted by the US Department of Justice.
The advocacy group has made a number of recommendations for FIFA reform. One of those called for more women in leadership positions, and another called for appointments from outside of the organization and the sport. Samoura fulfills both recommendations, Global Advocacy Manager Gareth Sweeney said.
But whether real change will result remains to be seen, he said.
"Our current stance on the reform process is that we would be giving FIFA and Infantino the benefit of the doubt and watching the next stages very closely," Sweeney said.
There is a sense that the time is now for women to make their case with FIFA. The Women's World Cup, coming shortly after the scandal broke, was a tremendous success, drawing the biggest crowds of any FIFA tournament outside of a men's World Cup. It also broke television rating records in Canada and the United States: The US women's final against Japan on FOX drew record ratings for a soccer match — men's or women's — in the United States.
But the US women's team collected only $2 million for soccer's biggest prize. In contrast, the German team won $35 million for the men's World Cup title.
The momentum for women likely will carry over to the Olympic Games this summer. In addition to the World Cup, the senior US women's national team also competes at the Olympic level. The premier event for top-level men is the World Cup every four years; the under-23 team plays on the men's side in the Olympics. The US men didn't qualify for Rio.
There's no doubt that the men's World Cup every four years is FIFA's financial juggernaut. But the women are the second biggest commercial asset.
"Audience size, the commercial, the commercial success and the quality of the (World Cup) tournament are all factors that mean that every football association around the world now has to acknowledge that the women's game's time has come," Dodd said. (**)
Your premium period will expire in 0 day(s)close x