Although our football fields are barren, and our players are in lockdown, the head of the women’s game at Fifa, Sarai Bareman, believes women’s football can grow out of the Covid-19 crisis.

Now is the perfect time to “push the reset button” and help the women’s game to continue to grow, Bareman told a ‘Leadership from Lockdown’ video interview organised by Women in Sport Aotearoa this morning. 

The Kiwi-Samoan, now in her sixth week in lockdown in Switzerland, believes moments of adversity are where the biggest opportunities lie for the women’s game – recalling the reforms to football after the 2016 corruption crisis within Fifa.

It was due to that crisis there are more women in positions of leadership in Fifa, Bareman explains.

“Women, the way we seem to hold ourselves – and Jacinda [Ardern] is a shining example of this – in moments of crisis and the leadership [we] demonstrate will lead to a lot of opportunities in themselves,” she says.

Bareman has formed a network with two other female leaders – New Zealander Katie Sadleir from World Rugby and Holly Calvin from the International Cricket Council – who have weekly phone calls to discuss what impacts Covid-19 could have on women’s sport.

“We share many of the same challenges. The main concern is linked to the old adage ‘last in, first out’ which happens across many industries. Women’s football at the elite end of the game is relatively in its infancy,” Bareman says.

“There are some concerns around ensuring the great momentum we have achieved particularly in the last few years, and off the back of the Women’s World Cup last year, we don’t take steps backwards and lose that momentum.”

*Watch the full interview here*

Bareman believes Fifa can do a lot to make sure that doesn’t happen. She’s in the second week of an intense consultation with member associations, clubs, players and leagues to get an overview of what the impact has been and what lies ahead.

The key, she says, is ensuring the support offered to each group is tailor-made.

With revenues freezing during this global pandemic, the knee-jerk reaction is to put all focus into where the revenues are coming from – predominantly the men’s game.

“Off the back of the women’s World Cup last year, women’s football has risen to a level of prominence where even those leaders in football who aren’t into it are forced to take notice and are obliged to invest. There’s also pressure on my end at Fifa level to ensure that happens,” she says.

“I really strongly believe that in the commercial value in football across both genders, the biggest opportunity lies with women’s football.”

Fifa has had to postpone tournaments like the women’s U17 and U20 World Cup tournaments slated for later this year, but Bareman believes the toughest decisions are still to come.

“They will be around coming out of this situation and a return to reality,” she says.

New Zealand’s U20 women’s team had qualified for the World Cup to take place in Costa Rica and Panama in August, but the impact of the virus on infrastructure would have made it too difficult for the two countries to host.

The issue with holding the U17 World Cup in November in India was that many countries still hadn’t qualified before the pandemic took hold. New Zealand’s qualifying route was stymied when the Oceania tournament in Tahiti last November was postponed because of the measles outbreak. 

The age regulations for both tournaments will be adjusted so players who were preparing to play won’t miss out.

Although she couldn’t predict when there would be a return to the football fields around the world, Bareman says it’s important to get women’s and youth leagues up and running “first and foremost” when it’s safe to play again. 

“Those leagues and club competitions are the foundation for everything. A lot of [Fifa’s] focus is around ensuring those competitions continue,” she says.

NZ Football would likely receive financial support from Fifa, who are now determining where a support fund is best directed. Bareman’s role is to make sure some of those funds go to women’s football.

“In moments like this everyone has stopped – elite performers and developing countries as well. The key is those less resourced in terms of funding how do we support them?”

Bareman is still looking to achieve the “lofty” goal of doubling the number of women and girls playing football around the globe to 60 million by 2026.

The key to drive participation is competitions, she says. “So we are putting a massive amount of resource and effort behind supporting our member countries to set up competitions where they don’t exist and enhance those that exist now,” she says.

Bareman sees it as important to continue growing the number of women in leadership positions in football around the world.

In her experience, she says, the women who are in leadership positions are “the most organised, deliver on time, to higher standards and they don’t get flustered under pressure.”

There will still be the challenge of selling the women’s game from a commercial perspective, which she says is an historical problem.  

“Women’s football has always been seen as a cost exercise, as opposed to a revenue generating exercise. A vast majority of member associations and women’s leagues are heavily reliant on subsidies from the men’s game. Because of that there’s a mindset in football that women’s football is a cost,” she says.

“A lot of the work we have to do is changing that mindset and getting those leaders to understand that investing up front for a longer-term gain is vital to reap the opportunities that exist in commercialising women’s football.”

* The weekly Leadership from Lockdown series is run by Women in Sport Aotearoa and Trans-Tasman Business Circle SportsConnect

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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