Why Infantino, FIFA’s interest in women’s soccer, World Cup feels like an act

In less than six months FIFA will, at long last, award hosting rights to the 2027 Women’s World Cup. Now that South Africa has withdrawn from the field of bidders, just three potential hosts remain. On Dec. 8, joint bids from the United States and Mexico; Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands; and a solo effort by Brazil, have been formalized for FIFA’s member nations to vote on May 17, 2024.

That is to say, the host of the next Women’s World Cup will not be known until three years before the tournament kicks off.

If you’ve paid any attention at all, you’ll have seen that the men’s World Cups have already been arranged through 2034. The 2026 edition, to be jointly held in the United States, Mexico and Canada, was awarded on April 10, 2017 — fully nine years before the first game. Saudi Arabia, the presumptive hosts in 2034 (we’ll get to that) have 11 years of lead time, which is almost as much as Qatar’s dozen years from its awarding in 2010 until the 2022 World Cup.

Yet the 2023 Women’s World Cup, like the next edition, wasn’t assigned to Australia and New Zealand until June 25, 2020 — again, three years out. The discrepancy jars particularly when you consider just how much effort has gone into steering the next few men’s World Cups to the desired hosts. In recent weeks, the 2030 World Cup host was officially announced — and the 2034 unofficially so — without an actual vote taking place by FIFA’s 211 member associations.

On Oct. 4, to the reported surprise of some of its own member associations, FIFA announced that its 2030 edition would go to … everybody. It would be staged in Spain and Portugal and Morocco and also, at the outset, in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Ostensibly, this is to celebrate the World Cup’s centennial anniversary from its first edition in Uruguay. A vote to award the tournament had been planned for 2024, but when the two clusters of would-be co-hosts worked out a compromise, it left just one approved bidder and the deal was done.

This mega-World Cup, spread over three continents, left only Asia and Oceania eligible to host the 2034 edition by dint of FIFA’s rotational system, which prevents continents from staging the tournament more than once every three editions. FIFA had originally planned to award the 2034 World Cup in 2028, before moving the process up to 2027 and then 2024. FIFA then moved up its deadline to formally express interest, and provide all manner of government assurances, to a mere few weeks. When the Oct. 31 deadline passed, only Saudi Arabia had met it.

“Saudi is a strong bid, they’ve got a lot of resources,” said Football Australia CEO James Johnson after his federation became the last standing rival of the Saudis to pull out of the race. “Their government, top down, are prioritizing the investment in football and that’s difficult to compete with.”

With no alternatives, Saudi Arabia was unofficially awarded the next World Cup by default, just 27 days after the 2030 World Cup was assigned. This was confirmed by FIFA president Gianni Infantino himself, when he wrote on Instagram that the 25th edition of the tournament will be held in Saudi Arabia. If the Instagram post was a gaffe, Infantino has not bothered to correct it. “The bidding processes were approved by consensus via the FIFA Council — where all six confederations are represented — after constructive dialogue and extensive consultation,” Infantino wrote in the caption.

Infantino spent three years steering the 2034 edition to Saudi Arabia, according to reporting by The New York Times. The petrostate has been pouring money into the sport, spending lavishly on its little-watched domestic league and signing deals with many FIFA member federations to fund various “projects.” Saudi Arabia has now doled out more than 300 sponsorships in sports, according to the Danish Institute for Sports Studies, and its de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, openly admits that his government will “continue doing sportswashing.”

All the while, there was no such urgency to orchestrate the chain of custody for the Women’s World Cup.

There is some measure of irony in FIFA’s fixation on its men’s World Cup and safeguarding its towering revenues when you consider that there might be far more untapped upside in the women’s tournament. In spite of its short lead time, the 2023 Women’s World Cup broke even, at $570 million in revenues, even though FIFA didn’t sell TV rights in several territories until the eleventh hour. Imagine if it had been given the same kind of commercial runway the men’s tournament is granted — or even half that much. By delaying the selection of the 2027 host until 2024, FIFA is arguably harming its own leverage to fully monetize the next edition.

“This FIFA Women’s World Cup has been truly transformational, not only in Australia and New Zealand but all over the world,” Infantino proclaimed after the tournament in Australia and New Zealand ended. “In the host countries, we had almost two million spectators in the stadiums — full houses everywhere — and two billion watching all over the world. And not just watching their own country but watching the World Cup, because it’s an event [where] I don’t just watch my team. It’s great sport, it’s entertaining and people love it.”

Before the final, he even encouraged the women’s side of the game to demand more. “I say to all the women, you have the power to change,” Infantino said. “Pick the right battles. Pick the right fights. Just keep pushing, keep the momentum, keep dreaming, and let’s really go for a full equality. Not just equal pay in the World Cup.”

Yet when he returned to the work of organizing future World Cups, his attention went back to the men’s edition over the long term, rather than building out the women’s money apparatus as suggested.

When Infantino was elected as president of the beleaguered governing body as a change candidate in 2016, he swept into office on a platform of reform and transparency. A short while later, he said at a women’s football conference that “women’s football doesn’t need charity, we have to focus on ensuring that the revenues grow to ensure it grows … and it can stand on its own.”

But for as much as Infantino has reformed FIFA, the effects on World Cup bidding are felt only on the men’s side. FIFA’s old voting system for men’s World Cup hosts was problematic with regard to its secret balloting by member nations, but it at least had a semi-public process around it. Timelines were honored and not revised; extensive visits were made to inspect the suitability of the contending hosts. Once all bidding documents and elements had been considered, the winner would be announced publicly, on TV, in a room full of bidders and stakeholders, rather than soft-launched on Instagram.

“They promised a much higher degree of transparency on how the bidding was going to take place,” Miguel Maduro, FIFA’s former governance chief, who was ousted by Infantino’s regime in 2017, told Sky Sports. “We saw nothing of that type in this process. Basically, it is something that was cooked internally, within what I usually call the political cartel that dominates FIFA.” He added, “It has actually backtracked on the reform process that they had initiated.”

Infantino has created a system that allows him to award World Cups without the trouble of holding elections. Meanwhile, the Women’s World Cup remains beholden to the same old system. And while it is more transparent and democratic than the men’s side, it also reveals, in a perverse sense, where Infantino’s priorities lie.

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