Ask any soccer fan: who won the most recent Men’s World Cup? He or she will answer Germany. Ask: who won the Women’s World Cup? He or she will answer the United States. These are easy answers for any soccer fan.
But Mahfuza Akhter Kiron, the new Asian Football Confederation female representative to the FIFA Council, couldn’t answer who won the most recent Women’s World Cup. Her first answer: North Korea! Then, Japan. It took her three tries to get to the United States.
While this could be considered a trivial question, it highlights an important fact. Some women being elected to the new FIFA Council are purposefully under-qualified.
Before the current FIFA Council, only 3 females, Lydia Nsekera, Sonia Bien-Aime and Moya Dodd, had ever served on the executive committee. Currently, women head only 2 of 211 member associations; Isha Tejan-Cole Johansen leads the Sierra Leone Football Association and Sonia Bien-Aime leads the Turks and Caicos Islands Football Association. Only 4 member associations have ever been lead by women; Lydia Nsekera was the president of the Burundi Football Association from 2003-2014 and Izetta Sombo Wesley was the leader of the Liberia Football Association from 2004-2010. Simply put, less than 1% of member associations are lead by a woman.
In an effort to promote greater diversity and stronger governance, FIFA passed a reform package in February 2016. According to their website, the reforms “pave the way for significant improvements to the governance of global football, including a clear separation of commercial and political decision-making, greater scrutiny of senior officials, and commitments to promoting women in football and human rights” (FIFA.com). These reforms included a restructuring of the FIFA-Exco into the FIFA Council, while expanding membership from 25 seats to 37 seats, including the president. Of these 37 seats, 6 must be women, with one woman representing each confederation.
Theoretically, these reforms will do as stated: promote greater diversity and stronger governance. More countries at the table means more voices in the pool. More women means more money and resources for women’s soccer. But all of those grand plans are just theoretical, especially if the women being elected are under-qualified and/or political tools for their confederation.
This seems to be the case in the AFC elections. Four women were originally slated to run for election to the FIFA council. On the day of the vote, only two, Moya Dodd of Australia and Muhfuza Akhter Kiron of Bangladesh, were on the ballot.
Moya Dodd is an accomplished football administrator, with years of experience in multiple fields. Growing up in Australia, Dodd played soccer in her local community, eventually making 20 appearances for the Matildas. During and after her soccer career, Dodd was a lawyer and economic analyst. In 2007, she joined the AFC ex-co, eventually being appointed to the FIFA ex-co in 2013. Most importantly, she helped to write the reform package that FIFA passed in 2016.
Mahfuza Akhter Kiron is a Bangladeshi entrepreneur, but largely an unknown entity. She is the deputy chairman on the Women’s Wing of the Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF), as well as a member of the BFF ex-co. Most recently, she made news for refusing to allow the Bangladesh women’s team to speak to the media. As a result, journalists have boycotted press conferences that Kiron has chaired.
Instead of electing the highly qualified Dodd, the AFC elected Kiron 27-17. After the election, Dodd had this to say, “Naturally I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to return to the FIFA Council today. I had hoped, through my policies and track record at FIFA, to persuade enough voting delegates to give me the job, but clearly that wasn’t the case.” During her years as ex-co member, she had done enough. In fact, she was one of three ex-co members who returned a “gift” watch that was given by the Brazilian Football Association during the 2014 World Cup. But the AFC chose not to give her the chance to continue her work. Instead, they elected Kiron, who has far less experience in football and none at the highest level.
This is a sign that the majority of the AFC’s male members aren’t ready for change. If they were, they would have supported the candidate who has experience but has also worked tirelessly to bring gender reforms to world football. They would have wanted what is actually best for the sport, and not for their pockets. Instead, they supported the status quo, where they get to make the decisions.
And yes, Dodd could have run for one of the other three open seats. But if the male members were willing to put a figurehead in the woman’s quota-ed spot, they surely would not have voted for her against other male candidates.
But more importantly, this election was about politics. Countries can only have one representative serving the FIFA Council or the confederation’s ex-co. This meant that many qualified women were unable to run. Japan, Korea, China, Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, India, and Uzbekistan already have male ex-co members. None of these members were prepared to step down to allow a female to fill his place. That left four women willing to stand for election initially and only two on election day.
Of these two, Dodd is from the outsider country. Australia has only been a member of the AFC since 2006. The federation is routinely more in synch with the Western Hemisphere on governance issues. Moreover, Middle-Eastern countries have long viewed Australia as an on-field threat, as they routinely qualify for the World Cup over other Asian countries.
In addition, they initially supported Prince Ali of Jordan in the 2016 FIFA presidential election over the candidate from Bahrain. When voting ended, the Australian FA (FFA) wholeheartedly endorsed Gianni Infantino, saying, “Our initial support was for Prince Ali because we felt he was a serious reform candidate with strong credentials, but, as he was not successful, we are very pleased that Gianni was elected.” And while the FFA was adamant that there would not be backlash for that vote, it seems that backlash has arrived.
Unfortunately for Dodd, that backlash fell onto her. The entire South Asian and Middle Eastern blocks of the AFC voted for Kiron. It’s safe to say that this wasn’t a vote for the best candidate; this was politics, plain and simple.
Ultimately, this is a sign that the FIFA reforms are already failing. Be prepared for “gender reforms” in name, but not in action. Be prepared for continued cronyism in the years to come.