Lydia Nsekera, the President of the Burundi Football Association, was appointed to FIFA’s Executive Committee for a term of one year on Monday, becoming the first woman to be given a seat on the body. Ms Nsekera, who is 45, will be formally accepted to the Committee at the FIFA Congress on Friday.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the energetic yet grounded administrator, who has worked her way up from the bottom to this prestigious position, discussed her career to date, the demands of her new role and her love for football.
FIFA.com: Ms Nsekera, what does it mean to you to be admitted to the Executive Committee?
Lydia Nsekera: It’s important for me and for my association, which put its trust in me in 2004. To be honest, I never thought back then that I’d be able to run a football association because it’s a very difficult job. When the national team loses a game, when you talk about refereeing and when there’s the slightest problem, everyone points the finger at the president of the FA. The pressure is always on. And in Africa, no one thinks that women are cut out to be leaders, especially in football. So it’s been a long process for me to find acceptance. I’ve put a lot of hard work into it – in fact, some would say I’ve made a lot of sacrifices – and it makes me all the more happier for myself, my association and women in general.
How do you see your role?
FIFA’s Executive Committee is a vital body in world football. I’m going to participate with the other members and we’re going to work together. I see myself as another member of the family. The way I see it, football is for everyone, and my interest is in aiding the development of the game in general. Obviously I represent women’s football and I think it’s important to have a woman sitting on an executive body. More than anything else though, I represent the football family as a whole. Football is a universal sport. It’s as simple as that.
In Africa no one thinks that women are cut out to be leaders, especially in football. So it’s been a long process for me to find acceptance.
Tell us a little bit about your career
My father was the chairman of a club in the 1970s and my whole family was involved in the game. Some of my cousins played and the players from my father’s club used to meet round at our house, so I just couldn’t escape from it (laughs)! I didn’t play football when I was young because it wasn’t the done thing for girls in Africa at the time, though I did set up the first women’s teams in Bujumbura. When FIFA started getting behind the women’s game, they called me because I could often be seen at the stadium. I’m passionate about the game and I’ve always watched the World Cup and European Cup games, etc. They were looking for a woman who could organise the women’s game, and so I started by becoming the vice-president of Burundi’s Women’s Football Committee and I launched the first national women’s league. I founded a few clubs as well.
So what happened next?
In 2001, I became the chairperson of the Competitions Committee. There was a lot of unrest in the FA at the time and FIFA requested that early elections be held in 2004. My name was on a list and the other people on it asked if I wanted to stand for president. I looked at them and said to myself: ‘These people are crazy. Imagine a woman becoming president of the Burundi Football Association. It’s impossible’.
Do you think your election has helped changed attitudes?
Obviously my example has helped. My country went through a terrible ethnic conflict. One of the things that was said during the power-sharing negotiations at Arusha was that women should hold 30 per cent of the country’s executive positions, and throughout the year leading up to the presidential elections of 2005 my name was constantly brought up as an example of a female leader. People said that the FA had been through ten years of internal turmoil and that there have been no more problems ever since a woman took over. I’ve opened the door a little for the women of Burundi.
What is your objective as a member of a body like the Executive Committee?
The day I was elected to the football association I said to myself: ‘Ok, here I am. But I’m not sure that other women will be able to take up positions of responsibility in football.’ I also realised that if I stayed just in women’s football, I’d be restricting myself. I was elected because people could see that I was able to take care of clubs in general through the Competitions Committee. So what I’ve done is try to prevent this segregation of men and women, and I saw to it that female referees took charge of men’s games, and I’ve made a concerted effort to push women who’ve excelled in administrative areas to get involved higher up. It’s great to have women players, referees and coaches, but it gets harder when you start talking about positions of responsibility. I tell women not to set limits for themselves and to be aware that they can achieve things.
Whenever there was a match on, the whole ethnic thing wasn’t an issue anymore. That’s the power of this sport.
How can they do that?
Women have to understand that they have a role to play off the pitch, that they can easily take on responsibilities and become leaders. Men need to accept that too. And through my own experience I can tell you that it’s not that difficult. Men have accepted me in an executive position in a country where women do not have a prominent role.
Lastly, what is that excites you so much about the sport?
Football has this amazing socio-cultural role to play. Let me tell you a little story. I’ve founded clubs in areas that are mostly Hutu. I’m not Tutsi but I look like one. Back in 2000, when the war was on, I’d go to games in these areas in the afternoons. I’d do the kick-off, I’d take my seat in the stand and I’d watch the game, without any problems at all. And that’s because whenever there was a match on, the whole ethnic thing wasn’t an issue anymore. I was a football dignitary, full stop. Anyone else would have worried about it, but I didn’t because I was in the football family. That’s it. That’s the power of this sport.