End of the old boys club? FIFA moves spur hope for equity

As the drumbeat for gender equity in soccer grows louder with the approach of the Olympics in Rio, there are signs that women's issues are being taken seriously by FIFA.

Critics say it's a positive & long overdue step to shattering the governing body's reputation as an old boys' club.

New President Gianni Infantino appointed a woman, Senegalese United Nations official Fatma Samoura as secretary general last month, & announced the creation of a women's soccer division at the recent FIFA Congress in Mexico City.

p>FIFA moreover recently wrapped up its second Female Leadership Development Program, which seeks to support women in soccer while advocating for women in leadership positions within the game.

There is hope for genuine reform behind those feel-good moves.

''It's a tremendous step forward, yet it's been decades of a certain mindset,'' U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo said. ''To alter an actual culture it will take more than just one woman. It will take men who believe in equality & see the benefits of investing in the women's game, as FIFA did for the men before the game was at where it is today.''

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In this photo taken May, 21, 2016, a sign calling for equitable pay in soccer is displayed at a Port …

Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, now banned from soccer until December 2021, once famously suggested that female players could draw more attention to their sport if they wore tighter shorts. But over the past two years, players have taken advantage of the rising popularity of their sport to shine a light on that bias, & the inequity on various levels that comes from it.

''In any business, you look for where there is the most potential for growth – & for sure it's with the women's game right now. I'm excited to see what FIFA ends up doing,'' said Abby Wambach, the recently retired U.S. forward & 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year. ''But the most significant thing at this point is not just talking approximately it, yet seeing action & dollars go to the women's game so that the growth actually happens.''

Wambach led a group of players who protested the artificial turf surface at last year's Women's World Cup in Canada. The group filed a complaint in Canadian court in the months before the event, claiming that staging the event on artificial turf – which many players consider inferior & an injury risk – amounted to discrimination because the men's World Cup is always played on natural grass.

While the World Cup went on as planned on turf, the legal action started a conversation that Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks & basketball star Kobe Bryant joined on social media. The issue came up again late last year when the United States called off a match in Hawaii because of artificial turf conditions & concerns from players approximately the possibility of injuries.

The boldest action on the part of the U.S. team came at the end of March, when a group of players filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing U.S. Soccer of wage discrimination. The claim came as the two sides seek a new collective bargaining agreement.

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FILE – In this Oct. 25, 2013 file photo, United Nations official Fatma Samoura, right, observes as M …

Moya Dodd, a member of FIFA's executive committee, has been leading the charge for alter within the organization for the past several years.

In light of the scandal that plagued FIFA, there was consensus that the organization needed widespread reform. But it troubled Dodd that she wasn't hearing much talk approximately reforms within FIFA that dealt with gender equality. She was of the belief that with a ''better gender balance, it would be a better organization.''

She helped craft reform proposals, many of which were adopted in February, & took her crusade public, writing an editorial for The New York Times.

''I'm an optimist in all this. I think the new president has made a number of statements since his election that indicate he's going to take this seriously & take us in the right direction,'' Dodd said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Transparency International, a nonprofit based in Germany that highlights corruption & the crimes that result from it, has been monitoring FIFA's response to the scandal that broke in May 2015 when a group of the organization's executives were indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice.

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FILE – In this Oct. 1, 2015, file photo, Seattle Reign FC goalkeeper Hope Solo follows the action du …

The advocacy group has made a number of recommendations for FIFA reform. One of those called for more women in leadership positions, & another called for appointments from outside of the organization & the sport. Samoura fulfills both recommendations, Global Advocacy Manager Gareth Sweeney said.

But whether real alter will result remains to be seen, he said.

''Our current stance on the reform process is that we would be giving FIFA & Infantino the benefit of the doubt & watching the next stages very closely,'' Sweeney said.

There is a sense that the time is now for women to make their case with FIFA. The Women's World Cup, coming shortly after the scandal broke, was a tremendous success, drawing the biggest crowds of any FIFA tournament outside of a men's World Cup. It moreover broke television rating records in Canada & the United States: The U.S. women's final against Japan on FOX drew record ratings for a soccer match – men's or women's – in the United States.

But the U.S. women's team collected only $2 million for soccer's biggest prize. In contrast, the German team won $35 million for the men's World Cup title.

The momentum for women likely will carry over to the Olympic Games this summer. In addition to the World Cup, the senior U.S. women's national team moreover competes at the Olympic level. The premier event for top-level men is the World Cup every four years; the under-23 team plays on the men's side in the Olympics. The U.S. men didn't qualify for Rio.

There's no doubt that the men's World Cup every four years is FIFA's financial juggernaut. But the women are the second biggest commercial asset.

''Audience size, the commercial, the commercial success & the quality of the (World Cup) tournament are all factors that mean that every football association around the world now has to acknowledge that the women's game's time has come,'' Dodd said.

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