Steffi Jones spent last weekend in Korea DPR capital of Pyongyang, the final stop on the OC President’s Welcome Tour of all the nations competing at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011. The round-the-world trip was an opportunity for Jones to congratulate the national associations and personally convey greetings from Germany. Due to the appalling natural catastrophe in Japan, the scheduled visit to Tokyo had to be cancelled.
Interviewed after the tour, Jones discussed the special features of the event in Korea DPR, and delivered a wide-ranging and personal review of the Welcome Tour, which was positively received at every port of call. The OC President also suggested ways to intensify and deepen the rapid progress being made by women’s football around the globe, and listed her expectations for Germany 2011, which kicks off in around ten weeks’ time.
Steffi Jones, your Welcome Tour of the nations competing at the FIFA Women’s World Cup ended in Pyongyang on Sunday. Was the political dimension the main reason for visiting Korea DPR?
No, our trip to Pyongyang wasn’t exclusively a political mission. As with all our previous trips on the Welcome Tour, the main focus was football, and on this specific occasion, Korea DPR’s role at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011. My view is that we opened a door through which political representatives and also the media were able to enter. For me, it’s yet more evidence of football’s power to transcend barriers, bring people together, promote global thinking, and boost integration, all in a very literal sense. Politicians can make use of that power.
What was special about your stay in the Korea DPR capital?
Leaving aside the political and geographical significance for a moment, Pyongyang was the last stop on our Welcome Tour, which began on 8 December in Sydney, and I have to say I felt a little sad it was over. It was a unique project with many unforgettable moments. However, any trip to Pyongyang is an adventure in itself. You experience a country and a system which is completely sealed off from the outside world and where daily life, compared to ours, could hardly be more of a contrast. For me personally, it was a valuable and extremely informative experience, and I also took part in political talks led by Claudia Roth, including meetings with high-ranking representatives of the Foreign Ministry and Central Committee.
Did your experience of Korea DPR match your overall impressions of the Welcome Tour?
Pyongyang was no different to anywhere else in that our visit was very well received. Our hosts, the teams and delegations appreciated the personal invitation to Germany and short preview of the major festival of women’s football this summer. That was a constant theme running through the tour. I took it as a huge compliment to us that the audiences at the Welcome events included not just national players - sometimes even complete squads - the coaching staff and the top association officials, but also leading figures from society, politics, and other sports. They’ll all spread the message about the FIFA Women’s World Cup to their networks.
Speaking as the OC President, what’s your overall summary of the Welcome Tour?
Just like Franz Beckenbauer’s visits to all 31 FIFA World Cup hopefuls five years ago, our Welcome Tour was a great success. I know we weren’t received by the Pope, as Italy unfortunately failed to qualify. And we weren’t greeted by as many heads of state and governments. But all the same, we were welcomed by some of the highest-ranking dignitaries, even though we were only there informally to offer congratulations and respect. The tour was a great advertisement for this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup and for our country. We couldn’t take for granted the support of world-renowned stars of the men’s game, so we can be really grateful to Brazilian superstars Carlos Alberto and Zico, Colombia’s Carlos Valderrama, and former Bundesliga players such as Jay-Jay Okocha, Wynton Rufer, Jan-Age Fjortoft, Patrik Andersson, Pavel Pardo, and Jens Lehmann and Holger Osieck. Their endorsement and massive popularity in their home countries will be very important in helping develop the women’s game.
What were the special moments likely to remain longest in the memory?
It's very difficult to pick out any single moment. We were received by Mexico’s First Lady at the government palace, and got to know state President Felipe Calderon personally, so that has to be a highlight. We gave interviews to CNN and the New York Times in the USA. I was also blown away on our arrival in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, where we were met at the airport just before midnight by the entire women’s national team. But I think the really abiding memory is the passion for the game we encountered at every stop on the tour, regardless of age, gender, skin colour, racial origin or political persuasion. Football inspires everybody. Football brings people together.
Were there any particularly moving or emotional moments?
No single moment, no. Each stop was special and had its own individual features. Everywhere we went, we also visited a school, a community initiative and a women’s football project. I always enjoy meeting kids and being reminded of their unadulterated joy at playing. They’re the future, and I’m convinced they’ll learn and assimilate many useful life skills and values from football. That’s something I’ve picked up as we travelled.
How different is the women’s game in the 14 countries you visited?
The gaps at the top of the world game are closing fast, so qualifying for the Women’s World Cup now urgently requires solid organisation and infrastructure. After all, it’s a get-together of the 16 best teams in the world. The European qualifiers are well set-up in this respect, and women’s football has always had a great reputation in the USA. It's the same in Canada, where the next FIFA Women’s World Cup will be held in four years. But they’re working very meticulously indeed in Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and Colombia too.
Brazil rate among the favourites for the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany, and Marta is the best player in the world at present, but the women’s game is relatively insignificant there for now. How would you explain this paradox?
I’ll have to contradict you there. The women’s players are obviously not in the forefront in Brazil, as the dominant men’s game overshadows absolutely everything else in that football-mad nation. But conditions there are still very good. I saw for myself how the long-established Vasco da Gama club is really getting behind its women’s section and continuing to expand its activities. The next step has to be the formation of a functional, wide-coverage league system, similar to the Bundesliga we have in Germany. There’s huge potential, and that would tap into it even more effectively.
Once the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011 is over, how can the women’s game be developed even more strongly and rapidly?
Let there be no mistake: women’s football is on the march all over the world. But the conditions under which women and girls can and are permitted to play vary enormously. Traditional attitudes, especially in societies which continue to be essentially male-dominated, still have to be broken down. And poverty is the biggest obstacle in many developing nations. Financial support, in school projects for example, and the dismantling of societal prejudices, are the key starting points here. We need to work together with FIFA and establish a more visible local presence with our development workers. Incidentally, FIFA has been a major contributor to the success of the Welcome Tour. President Joseph S. Blatter and Tatjana Haenni, the head of women’s competitions, were solidly behind our idea from the start, and made immense personal contributions.
Turning to your personal impressions, what was the most memorable moment?
I’ll never forget our very first appointment on the other side of the world in Australia, where we started our adventure with a very small team. At the time, we couldn’t guarantee it was right to set off on our trip around the world. I’m confident enough to say now that we’ve been rewarded for our courage in breaking new ground for the women’s game.
What are your expectations now for the first FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany?
We’re turning onto the home straight with very high expectations for the Women’s World Cup, which kicks off just a few weeks from now. I think we’re well prepared in every respect, but there’s no way we can sit back and relax, let alone declare the tournament open tomorrow. We still have some 250,000 tickets to sell, because we really want the stadiums filled. That was, and still remains, our biggest challenge, because sell-out crowds provide the spark to ignite the flames of enthusiasm throughout the country, and from there to the rest of the world.
Due to the horrifying and devastating consequences of the natural catastrophe in Japan, the Japanese ice hockey association has withdrawn its women’s team from this year’s World Cup. Might the football association follow suit?
What I’ve heard is that the Japanese ice hockey association made that decision, as it felt a moral obligation not to participate in festive sports events during the present period of national mourning. I totally understand that. Obviously, I sincerely hope and wish our friends in Japan that their very worst fears won’t be realised. We'll certainly lay on the warmest of welcomes for their team and delegation when they do arrive this summer.