SArai Bareman is in her third week back from maternity leave. Directly on a plane from Zurich to Auckland, then Sydney, and soon back to Auckland. It’s not so much about straying from her new normal, but simply adding a full-time job to the full-time mom equation. “It was a real baptism of fire,” she says. “It’s a whole different fight.”
Of course, her six-month-old boy doesn’t know. Matthijs was a nice surprise for Bareman and her husband but, now that she is juggling him and Fifa teams for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, her respect for female footballers returning to the pitch after giving birth has reached the realm of the unthinkable.
She talks about those like Katrina Gorry, who had her daughter last year and made her return to the Matildas starting XI. Ditto for some of the women who played in the Oceania World Cup qualifiers in July. Papua New Guinea, for example, had seven mums to help their country to the upcoming Intercontinental Qualifiers.
“There were three or four mums on the Samoan team,” she says. “Some days I can’t even get out of bed, and these mums are playing for the national team. And the cool thing is, we have high-profile mums, like Alex Morgan, taking their babies with them. They are visible, and that, for me, is so important.
In 2020, Fifa rewrote maternity leave regulations, announcing measures that will impose fines and transfer bans on clubs that discriminate against female players during pregnancy. It also complied with the International Labor Organization’s minimum of 14 weeks paid maternity leave, with at least eight weeks after birth, at two-thirds of their contract salary. The news was positive, but also raised concerns that these minimum standards were set too low.
Bareman, as the first chief executive of Fifa women’s football, realizes that this is “the main thing, a first step”. She’s also aware, from her decade of working in a male-dominated industry so often opposed to incremental change, that getting there takes tact and patience.
“There is a very wide range of things that need to be done in women’s sport to develop it en masse,” she says. “And sometimes the quick fixes aren’t always there. To me, you get a lot more return, ultimately, from a long-term, strategic approach, than a lot of quick fixes.
The World Cup, says Bareman, highlights the incongruity of the global landscape of women’s football. Between a tournament bigger than ever (literally – it grew from 24 to 32 teams) featuring top nations booming thanks to a flood of investment and the resounding success of France 2019 and this year’s Euros , and the rest are still floundering at the other end of a yawning economic chasm.
“It’s one of the biggest challenges for Fifa and women’s football,” she said. “Because when we have these incredible moments like the Women’s World Cup, when everyone’s watching and we’re on the front page of all the major newspapers, it raises great expectations.
“But I’m in this position at Fifa where I also see what the reality is for the vast majority of the rest of our member countries and, unfortunately for them, it’s not yet close to that level.
“Expectations are in the nature of our stakeholders, the fans, players and people involved in the game. I think that’s good. It pushes us, our member associations and the clubs to do more. But there isn’t always, shall we say, the appetite or the patience for the longer-term solution.
The message is that the World Cup is not only about high-level games played in big stadiums, but also about accelerating development. An example is Morocco. The country failed to qualify for the 2019 tournament, but the president of the Royal Moroccan Football Federation was one of 60,000 present at the final in Lyon, and was moved to upgrade the structures of development of the country. In November, the first national women’s league was launched and this year, under the tutelage of former Olympique Lyonnais coach Reynald Pedros, they hosted and played in the final of the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations, and have now qualified for their first World Cup.
For 2023 co-hosts Australia and New Zealand, the challenges are different. Football’s popularity in both countries is high in terms of grassroots attendance but, unless there is widespread support for national teams, the top domestic leagues struggle to break into the public consciousness of fans amid the cross-country crowd of men’s and women’s rugby, league and AFL. There is also a lesson to be learned from the 2015 Men’s Asian Cup, which Ange Postecoglou’s Australia won on home soil in a headline-grabbing moment that directors failed to grasp enough.
“That’s exactly why next year’s World Cup should be leveraged by all stakeholders in the game,” Bareman said. “My message to everyone involved in the game at all levels is that they should see it as an opportunity to boost it. This is an unbeatable moment to exploit.
We have to talk about ticket sales, because that’s what we’re here for. The organizers say that on the first day of the presale they outsold France for the entire first week of sales. For them, it’s a big indicator one week away from next Saturday’s draw in Auckland.
We also need to talk about women’s rights in Qatar, an issue which – alongside LGBT rights – is receiving less international attention amid concerns over the exploitation of migrant workers by the host nation of the 2022 Men’s World Cup. On this point she won’t be drawn, but does she have anything to say about the independent report released this month which concluded that sexual misconduct and emotional abuse are “systemic” in the United States National Women’s Soccer League?
“We wouldn’t normally say much until this stuff comes out,” she says. “But I have to say as a person, but also as a representative of Fifa, this type of abuse, harassment and discrimination has absolutely no place in football, period. And in women’s football , it’s something that’s becoming more and more prevalent. We have a zero-tolerance policy around that sort of thing.
“It’s a shame when you see the game on the trajectory it’s on – the incredible momentum we have – and then stories come out like what we’ve seen in the United States. To me that’s pretty heartbreaking If it takes these high profile cases like what we see happening in the NWSL to allow other women in these situations to speak out, then let it be Let it out because it’s the only way to get rid of it.
BAreman grew up playing rugby as a New Zealander with a Dutch father and a Samoan mother, and it wasn’t until she sought a connection to her mother’s homeland that she switched from club football to Auckland to Samoa national team representation. As a banking and financial expert, she was hired as Chief Financial Officer of the Samoa Football Association and then as Chief Executive between 2011 and 2014, rehabilitating the association after it was suspended by Fifa for embezzlement from the administration. former.
“It was the first position where I really experienced a level of discrimination because of my gender,” she says. “Samoa is an amazing place. I love it. It’s my house. I plan to retire there one day. But the football environment there is also very masculine, society in general is calm, what is the right word? Patriarchal.
“That was over 10 years ago. Now there is a female prime minister there, so things are definitely changing. But also culturally, even though I have Samoan blood, I didn’t speak the language when I arrived, so a lot of people wrote me off before they even knew me and before I even did any work. You’re a stranger, and there have been times when I’ve had to close my office door and breathe, and maybe sometimes shed a few tears, to get over some things.
In 2014, when she returned to Auckland to take on a new role as Deputy General Secretary of the Oceania Football Confederation, she walked straight into the fallout from the corruption allegations that rocked world football. “In 2015 there were arrests and high profile things in Zurich,” she says, referring to the infamous police raid on a series of Fifa officials accused of corruption during the awarding of the Cups Men’s World Cup 2018 and 2022. “The organization has been through a really dark time. What’s unique about me is that I’ve been part of the reform journey.
Bareman was named the only woman on the FIFA reforms committee, “which would become a recurring theme”. She advocated for more women in decision-making positions within the governing body. “I remember specifically saying, ‘If there were more women in high positions in Fifa, I don’t think we would be in the position we are in today, sitting here having to do a reform package “.”
At the start of 2016, she was one of those women in high office, sitting behind a desk overseeing 211 Member Associations – albeit at the aforementioned gradual pace. And when she recounts the harrowing experiences it took to get there, she speaks with a new authenticity that doesn’t sound like Fifa.
“Maybe some of the men wrote me off before they even knew me,” she says, “but I made 100% sure that in every meeting I attended, in every project I deployed , that I had my research and that I knew everything from A to Z. So maybe you think [because] I’m a woman I don’t belong here, but that speaks for itself.