FIFA drops Visit Saudi sponsorship plan for 2023 Women’s World Cup


FIFA has scrapped plans to have the tourism agency in Saudi Arabia sponsor the 2023 Women’s World Cup, the soccer body’s president Gianni Infantino said.

The proposal had sparked backlash from prominent footballers and fans as well as sports organizations in Australia and New Zealand, which host the tournament. Critics, including American soccer star Megan Rapinoe, said it was inappropriate for a competition that has used feminist-branded marketing – and which counts lesbian and bisexual women among its top stars – to be sponsored by a government that bans homosexuality, restricts women’s rights and treats dissidents harshly.

Speaking at a press conference at a FIFA meeting in Rwanda on Thursday, Infantino said an agreement with the Visit Saudi agency had been discussed but did not lead to a contract. He did not attribute Visit Saudi’s lack of participation to ethical concerns and said he would still seek future commercial deals with the Gulf nation.

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“FIFA consists of 211 countries,” he said, adding that “there is nothing bad” about being sponsored by members such as Saudi Arabia, China, the United States, Brazil or India.

The host nations’ football authorities welcomed the news that the tournament, which runs from July 20 to August 20, would not be sponsored by Saudi Arabia. “Equality, diversity and inclusion are really deep commitments for Football Australia,” Chief Executive James Johnson said. “We will continue to work hard with FIFA to ensure that the Women’s World Cup is shaped in this light.”

FIFA and Visit Saudi did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

The controversy is the latest example of human rights debates playing out on football pitches and in stadiums around the world. FIFA was heavily criticized for awarding Qatar hosting rights to last year’s men’s World Cup despite poor working conditions for migrant workers in the country. Fans were also banned from wearing LGBTQ-themed gear at the tournament. (Some argued that the public scrutiny encouraged Qatar to reform its labor laws.)

Justine Nolan, director of the Australian Human Rights Institute at the University of New South Wales, said the proposed Visit Saudi deal was part of a wider trend of “sports laundering”, when government and corporate entities use athletic sponsorships to repair their public Pictures.

She suggested that such instances included Saudi Arabia hosting a Formula One race, as well as Australia’s World Tour Cycling Team being renamed to reflect funding from the Saudi government.

While international sporting events are a powerful force for unity worldwide, sports organizations risk losing legitimacy if they allow their events to be used to cover up human rights abuses, she said. “Sports should not be hijacked for this purpose.”

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In recent years, Saudi Arabia has moved to liberalize parts of its legal system, including lifting a ban on driving and abolishing gender segregation in many public spaces. (Until recently, the kingdom jailed several women’s rights activists who pushed to end the driving restrictions.)

The social changes were driven by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who US intelligence has said was responsible for the 2018 killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post. Last year, a woman was sentenced to 34 years in prison for tweets critical of the government.

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