LONDON — Barely four months after it allowed a public fight over rainbow-colored armbands to overshadow the start of the World Cup in Qatar, world soccer’s governing body is facing similar questions about whether players will be allowed to express support for gay rights at this year’s Women’s World Cup.
It is a fight that everyone involved agreed should not have happened again.
Stung by fierce public and internal backlash in November, when soccer’s leaders silenced a plan to wear armbands promoting a social justice campaign by threatening to suspend players who took part, FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, said in March that lessons had been learned from the events in Qatar. Seeking to head off a new fight with some of the world’s top women’s players at their own championship, Infantino promised a solution would be in place before the Women’s World Cup opens in Australia and New Zealand on July 20.
Yet even as he was offering those assurances, FIFA had already found a new way of angering both its players and its partners.
It had, without consulting organizers in either Australia or New Zealand, all but agreed to a sponsorship deal that would have made Saudi Arabia, via its Visit Saudi tourism brand, a marquee sponsor of the women’s tournament. The collaboration would have seen dozens of gay players take the field for matches in stadiums advertising travel to a country that does not recognize same-sex relationships, and where homosexuality remains a criminal offense.
It was only after weeks of silence, behind-the-scenes crisis talks and public rebukes from officials in both host nations that FIFA confirmed the deal was dead. Infantino dismissed the entire controversy over it as “a storm in a teacup.” To others, it was far more than that.
“In leadership, you’ve got to take a stand on issues that you feel strongly about,” said James Johnson, the chief executive of Football Australia, the sport’s governing body in the country.
“This is one that caught us by surprise. It was one that we spoke with our players about, our governments, our partners. And we also had a good sense of the general feel around the Australian community that this deal was not in line with how we saw the tournament playing out. So we decided, together with New Zealand, that we would put our foot down on this occasion.”
Australia’s players were particularly frustrated with the proposed Saudi sponsorship, Johnson said, so much so that the situation has strengthened attitudes on the team that the tournament should be used as a platform to promote the values they stand for. At least one Australian player said FIFA’s decision to bring the World Cup to Qatar, and its willingness to bow to local attitudes, had been instructive.
“I think the last World Cup, the men’s World Cup, was a great example of just what’s going on in the world, and how much is still wrong,” said Emily Gielnik, a forward who has been a member of Australia’s women’s team for more than a decade.
“And I think there were some teams that were trying to represent that and obviously, playing the World Cup in that country was very controversial, for a lot of reasons. And hopefully, we can embody and resemble that, and be proud of who we are as people.”
Several federations bringing teams to the tournament, including those from England and Netherlands, two of the countries that had clashed most strongly with FIFA over armbands in Qatar, but also prominent powers like the United States and Germany, have a history of supporting their players and the causes most important to them.
While no plans for similar protests have been made public, women’s players also may be less likely than their men’s counterparts to take a step back should FIFA attempt to squelch their messaging as it did in Qatar. The teams coming to Australia and New Zealand feature some of the most prominent female athletes in the world, many of whom are comfortable speaking their minds on Saudi Arabia or anything else, and who have been emboldened by recent successes in fights as diverse as equal pay and uniform design.
The women’s game, Gielnik said, was further ahead than the men’s game when it came to speaking freely about social issues, and she predicted teams and players would not shy away from taking advantage of the platform offered by the World Cup.
“I think some things will be controversial,” said Gielnik, one of several gay players on the Matildas team. “It depends what path we take and what path other countries take.”
For FIFA, backing away from the Visit Saudi agreement was not easy. Saudi officials were frustrated about losing the deal, part of a suite of sponsorships that Saudi Arabia had agreed to with FIFA to promote the kingdom. Visit Saudi had quietly been added to the roster of sponsors at the Qatar World Cup last year and then at the Club World Cup in January in Morocco.
Clearly frustrated by having to change plans and disappoint Saudi Arabia, which has proved a key backer of his own interests, Infantino chided FIFA’s critics over the pressure to cancel the Visit Saudi deal for its marquee women’s championship. Australia, he pointed out, retains ongoing economic links with the kingdom.
“There is a double standard which I really do not understand,” Infantino said. “There is no issue. There is no contract. But of course we want to see how we can involve Saudi sponsors, and those from Qatar, in women’s football generally.”
Johnson, the Australian soccer executive, and others responded that attitudes in the Gulf about homosexuality were only part of the problem. At a recent event hosted by the Australian High Commission in London to mark 100 days until the start of the World Cup, officials spoke about how the tournament would also act as a showcase to promote tourism to both host countries, underlining another reason FIFA’s planned agreement to highlight Saudi tourism had caused so much distress.
“It could have been Visit Finland and it still would have been a problem,” Johnson said.