Football Australia is still in the dark around the rumoured sponsorship deal between Visit Saudi — the tourism arm of the Saudi Arabian government — and the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which will take place on Australian and New Zealand shores in six months’ time.
At a media conference on Thursday to announce the Matildas’ squad for the upcoming Cup Of Nations tournament, an FA spokesperson addressed the room ahead of time to say the federation was still awaiting clarity and justification from FIFA, having written to them in the past 48 hours after news broke on social media.
“Football Australia understands [that] FIFA has entered into a destination partnership agreement in respect to the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023”, an official statement said.
“We are very disappointed that Football Australia [was] not consulted on this matter prior to any decision being made.
“Football Australia and New Zealand Football have jointly written to FIFA to urgently clarify the situation.”
Saudi Arabia’s record regarding the rights of women and the LGBTQIA+ community has been heavily criticised by multiple human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Women were not allowed to play sport, enter public football stadiums, or apply for a driver’s licence in Saudi Arabia until 2018.
While there has been some reform in recent years, it is still the case that women must obtain permission from their male guardian to be married, leave prison or obtain access to sexual or reproductive healthcare.
Further, men can still file legal cases against daughters, wives or female relatives under charges of “disobedience”, with courts able to penalise women with losing their financial independence if they refuse to return to their marital home in such cases.
Homosexuality and same-sex marriage are both outlawed according to the nation’s uncodified Islamic law.
There are also major concerns over the nation’s response to public criticism, with a 2022 Human Rights Watch report claiming: “Dozens of human rights defenders and activists continue to serve long prison sentences for criticising authorities or advocating political and rights reforms […] The near-total repression of independent civil society and critical voices impedes the chances that reform efforts will succeed.”
A UN investigation in 2019 concluded that the death of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi — who regularly criticised the government — “constituted an extrajudicial killing, for which the state of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible”. Saudi Arabia has denied the report’s conclusions.
Visit Saudi is set to join major brands, such as Adidas, Coca-Cola, Visa, and the Commonwealth Bank, in sponsoring the world’s biggest women’s sports event. All are organisations that have publicly championed the rights of women and the LGBTQIA+ community in the past.
As Nikita White, an Amnesty Australia campaigner, told The Guardian: “It would be quite the irony for Saudi’s tourism body to sponsor the largest celebration of women’s sport in the world when you consider that, as a woman in Saudi Arabia, you can’t even have a job without the permission of your male guardian.
“The Saudi authorities have a horrendous record of human rights abuses, including cracking down on women’s rights defenders.
“The campaign of so-called reform leader Mohammed bin Salman has been on is nothing more than a publicity stunt to try to diversify the economy. The Saudi authorities sponsoring the Women’s World Cup would be a textbook case of sport-washing.”
Saudi Arabia has slowly moved into global sport over the past decade, most recently being the major backer of the LIV International Golf Tournament, purchasing English Premier League club Newcastle United, paying a record fee for Portugal striker Cristiano Ronaldo to play in their domestic league with club Al Nassr, and bringing World Cup winner Lionel Messi on board as an ambassador for a reported $32 million per year.
The Gulf nation is also set to host the 2027 AFC Asian Cup, and is rumoured to be bidding to host the men’s World Cup in 2030.
When asked about the potential sponsorship, Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson referred to FA’s official statement, but said that the team and the federation are firm in their own principles.
“I know what these women stand for … and what the Federation stands for,” he said.
“And that’s way before my time. That’s not about me. I had the privilege to meet the Matildas alumni — the generation before these players — and these players, and everyone, knows the core values of this team.”
Senior Matilda Tameka Yallop, who is married to former Football Ferns national team player Kirsty Yallop, echoed the federation’s statement while highlighting that the group was focused on leaving a legacy for the women’s game beyond the tournament.
“It’s definitely a difficult topic to talk about at the moment, with everything being unconfirmed,” she said.
“We do have that sort of cause to think about, what that could potentially mean and the areas that it may effect. But, at the end of the day, it hasn’t been confirmed and I think there’s still a lot of discussion to have between federations and learning more of the details around certain aspects.
“From a player’s perspective, our main focus of a World Cup is players first, and getting women’s football out there and visible to as many people as we can. I think that’s our main priority. So it’s hard to comment at the minute.
“From my point of view, all we can really do is focus on our World Cup and the legacy that we want to leave behind as players for 2023.”
What kind of legacy that is, however, could become murkier if the reported deal is confirmed, with sources suggesting that the Matildas could stage a protest similar to the Socceroos’ public statement ahead of the World Cup in Qatar, using their platform to draw attention to the country’s human rights record, while also acknowledging issues closer to home such as Australia’s treatment of First Nations people and asylum seekers.