A core mission for FIFA is to see women’s football flourish, and female participation in the beautiful game has undoubtedly grown over recent years. There is, however, still room for further development, even in countries that lead the way in this field, such as FIFA Women’s World Cup™ winners United States.
Prior to his participation in the second edition of the FIFA Women’s Football and Leadership Conference, which will take place at the Home of FIFA on Monday 7 March, US Soccer President and FIFA Executive Committee member Sunil Gulati sat down with FIFA.com to speak about development in women’s football and the societal shifts still needed to yield yet more growth across the world.
FIFA.com: How much of a commitment is there right now within world football’s leaders to empower women and increase the number of women in leadership positions?
Sunil Gulati: Not enough. But it’s getting better. It will take continued diligence and effort and persuasiveness on the parts of those who are inclined and understand that we’d be improving not just women’s participation, but the overall sport by doing that. That’s the goal, and that’s the challenge.
The fact that we still need a women’s conference with a specific day to urge that empowerment means that there’s still quite a long way to go, doesn’t it?
Absolutely. The true measure of having reached the goals we want from a societal point of view is when you don’t need either specific targets, or allocations, or reserved seats. We’re a long way from that, so we have to continue to be diligent. It’s different in different countries, and even in some cases within countries. It’s going to take time but with some things it’s good to be impatient.
How does football compare to society when it comes to the role of women?
I think it’s very much a mirror of societal issues. It’s not a surprise to me that some of the countries that were very good early on at the Women’s World Cup were Scandinavian countries and the USA, where the role of women had probably changed a couple of decades earlier than in some other places. Other places are now catching up as the role of women has changed, and participation and emphasis in sport for women has changed - specifically with football. I think it is very much emblematic of societal issues and the good news is there’s a way to focus society’s interest on it. The bad news is that society still has a long way to go in many of these areas, so we have to keep working at them.
Is it fair to say that the case of the US is even more unusual, with women’s football having grown more strongly in terms of popularity and strength on the pitch than the men’s game?
The second part of that is certainly accurate, in terms of on-field performance. The USA women are world champions, while the men have never been close to that. In terms of popularity and what developed first, the men’s game has been around much longer with far more resources poured into it, and a professional league. The women’s game had a lot of success on the field, winning the first Women’s World Cup in 1991, and a lot of that has been spurred by specific legislation in the United States that made girls and women’s sports especially attractive at college level. That led to some big changes in university funding for women’s sports and changed the dynamic quite a bit, but men’s football has been around much longer and always had an emphasis [placed on it].
But, culturally, is it fair to say that in the US that it’s a game with a less male-driven ethos than in most places in the world?
I think that part is right. Culturally, 45 to 48 per cent of our registered players are girls and women. That’s unique. Even when FIFA did their study of the women’s game around the world, they did it by confederation, but then had a specific subset of that for Canada and the US, which are very unique in terms of leadership and participation on the women’s side.
How much of that do you see being replicated by other countries and confederations?
It’s going to take time. It’s going to take leadership on the part of people in office and it’s going to take continued emphasis by the people leading the women’s football movement. I think some of the things that FIFA is doing now certainly will help in that area, but in the end it’s going to take a lot of investment and not just with national teams but at grassroots level because it has to start with participation and opportunities. That’s happening in some places much more rapidly than in others, but there’s still a long way to go.
So the cornerstone of it all shouldn’t necessarily just be success at a Women’s World Cup, but at a grassroots development level?
They can work together, right? Because if you’re successful and there are visible events and visible success for the women’s programme, that then provides role models for young players. But there has to be a way for them to enter the game and participate. It’s really grassroots funding opportunities that will lead to some of those things, but they can work hand-in-hand. The Women’s World Cup is a good example. When we had the Women’s World Cup in the USA, that spurred a lot of young girls to get involved in the game. But there were opportunities available for them to do that. There was a mechanism, a vehicle, but suddenly there were even more players participating. So, they work hand-in-hand.