Like anyone else waking up after being cryogenically frozen since the 19th century, I reflexively believe all the things Fifa says about itself. Nowhere is world football’s governing body more convincing than in its stated desire to grow the women’s game in the buildup to next year’s Women’s World Cup in France.
Back in the summer, 19-year-old Venezuelan international Deyna Castellanos was permitted to interview Gianni Infantino, with the result posted on the Women’s World Cup social media channels. “Next year in France, we will see the greatest, greatest, greatest Women’s World Cup ever,” promised the Fifa president. “We will have a country that celebrates women’s football – and this virus of women’s football will spread from France, over the whole world.” Oh. Well, put like that, perhaps it is understandable that Fifa should be doing everything in its power to contain the outbreak of the virus. What else can explain the decision to schedule the Women’s World Cup final on the same day as not just the final of the Copa América, held in Brazil, but also the Concacaf Gold Cup, hosted in the United States?
In fact, were the message not sufficiently rammed home by that timetabling, it has emerged that the Women’s World Cup final will be a morning game in the US, and an afternoon game in Europe. The later and evening games will go to the two men’s regional cup finals.
Because really, nothing says “we are fully committed to growing the women’s game” like making the biggest match in its four-year cycle the undercard to some other stuff. When your scheduling suggests the Women’s World Cup final is not even the first or second most important match of the day, it is perhaps inevitable that people will draw conclusions about the level of your stated commitment.
Naturally, Fifa resents any such implication. Last week, a spokesperson told Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl that “the scheduling of the different events has gone through a comprehensive consultancy process, which involved all key stakeholders” – a piece of what might be called mismanagement speak which fails to remotely convince that anyone in the women’s game would regard this as remotely desirable. If all the stakeholders were so involved, why are so many in the women’s game trying to drive their stakes through the idea? Alas, Fifa declined to be drawn any further.
In the absence of further light-shedding, then, perhaps Infantino’s summer interview is worth a revisit. Castellanos’s first question to the Fifa president was: “Why do you think it is important for girls to play football?” The Fifa president made an expansive gesture. “I have four daughters myself,” he explained. And if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that guys who care about things because they have daughters are absolutely not sociopathic creeps who are effectively saying that if they didn’t, they would be total sexists/unprintables. No skin in the game, you see. And yet, any chap who begins a statement with “As a father of daughters” or “Well, I have a daughter now” has what I like to think of as the most unfortunate tell since Le Chiffre, the Bond villain who literally cries blood during poker games.
Anyway, Infantino went on to explain the point of football to Castellanos in a loftily genial, finger-wagging way that I hope an international striker was able to dimly cotton on to. He chiefly seems to think that football teaches girls “values”, like a family does – a reminder that for girls, football is a sporting contest second, and an offshoot of domestic science lessons first.
Still, never let it be said that Fifa limits his hand-waving or lip-service to one format. It was much in evidence in the rather more formal setting of Fifa’s 2016 blueprint for the future, called Fifa 2.0. This report devoted a full three out of 69 pages to how it planned to advance the women’s game. It pledged that by 2017, it would be “providing women with greater opportunities to showcase their talents at international and club levels” – and if popping the World Cup final on early doors before the regional finals doesn’t do that, then what do these people even want? As far as the rest of the pledges made in Fifa 2.0 go, on Tuesday Fifa finally snuck out its long-promised women’s football strategy. Or rather, its “strategy”. Despite the delay, this document contains barely any more detail than Fifa 2.0, and an awful lot of pictures and waffle about “vision”. The pledge to “raise the profile of the Fifa Women’s World Cup” seems self-satirising, in the circumstances. The clearest attempt to put their money where their mouths are would surely have been honouring the promise to create “a women’s football-specific commercial programme” by 2017 – the latest report kicks the ribbon-cutting date on to 2026.
In some ways, the absence of this bit is the most telling. Indeed, given that we know from experience that all Fifa truly cares about is money, the failure to do everything to monetise the under-exploited potential market that women’s football offers them is baffling. It is almost as if there is some … ideological objection to building it up in order that more cash can be siphoned off it.
And so with the scheduling of the World Cup final. The puzzle is that it really doesn’t have to be this way. Indeed, it hasn’t always been this way at all. The 2015 Copa América final wasn’t scheduled on the same day as the Women’s World Cup final that year. The 2015 Gold Cup hadn’t even kicked off when the WWC final was played – it began two days later. And as far as numbers go, meanwhile, a global audience of 750 million watched the last Women’s World Cup, with far more US viewers tuning in for its final than did for the men’s equivalent the year before.
Yet here we are. Naturally, no one expects Fifa to do the things it says it is going to do in the timeframe it says it is going to do them. And no one expects it to see the potential of what it is notionally only the custodian of. But to actively reduce the focus on the women’s game by your actions is an achievement even by Fifa standards, and we must congratulate them yet again on confounding even the lowest expectations.
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