So FIFA, So Good - An Interview With Sarai Bareman

I would say to dream big – know what you want in life and pursue it with passion and integrity while staying true to who you are. Don’t let challenges and adversity stop you from going for what you want – use it as fuel for your passion and go for it!
— Sarai Bareman - Chief Women's Football Officer at FIFA

by J.S. Leatherbarrow

I’ve come to realise that the world is made up of two types of people - adventurers & philosophers. Essentially those that do and those that think. Very occasionally you get both wrapped up in one person.

Sarai Bareman is just such a person. She is the change we all need.

The philosopher in her realised that football, and wider society, needed to change its approach to women. Starting with giving more opportunities to take up leadership positions at FIFA where she is the Chief Women's Football Officer. The first ever one, in fact.

The adventurer in Sarai Bareman realised that something actually needed to be done - and set about doing this.

As the only female representative on the FIFA Reform Committee, she lobbied for wide-reaching changes including increased female representation in leadership at the top table of the governing body.

Before this, she was an international footballer for Samoa and later on their finance officer & CEO.

Passion is what is needed to wring lasting, positive, changes in our sport and in the wider world. Intelligence too. Bareman has both in spades.

J.S. Leatherbarrow sat down with Sarai to discuss the 2019 World Cup in France, the FIFA response & the rise of the women’s game.

FATC: How did it come to pass that you were selected to the FIFA Reform Committee in 2016?

That’s a good question! In order to answer it I need to step back a little further…. My first administrative role in football was for the Football Federation of Samoa in 2008 as the Finance Manager. When I joined the Federation had just been put into “Normalisation” which basically means that the previous administration had misused the FIFA funds and were suspended. Joining the Federation at that point in time meant that I was able to have a direct hand in reforming the organisation. I was promoted to General Secretary which is the football worlds fancy way of saying CEO, and from there with my team we completely rebuilt the game of football in the country. Fast Forward to 2016 and the request from FIFA to select a representative from the Oceania region for the FIFA reforms committee. That was me!!

FATC: Did this experience of being the only woman on the panel help fortify your thoughts on the need for increased female representation at the top table of the governing body?

Absolutely! The irony was not lost on me being the sole female committee member in those meetings, advocating to change exactly what was happening to me in that moment. Also it was a no brainer – there are so many research pieces out there (especially in the corporate world) that prove that having more women in decision making positions creates a better and more diverse decision making process. I believed (and I even said it in those meetings) that if there were more women at the top table in football, we wouldn’t have had the scandal that lead to the reform of FIFA.

FATC: Have you been pleased with the response from Infantino and others?

The first time I met Gianni was in that Reform Committee! At the time he was the General Secretary of UEFA and I don’t think either of us had any idea at that point that we would end up in FIFA! One of the things that made me confident of taking this job in FIFA was knowing that women’s football has the full support of Gianni. My experience of working with him in that reforms committee had shown me that he was a strong advocate for more women in football but also fairer resourcing and increased focus on building the women’s game. He was definitely a champion of the measures we put in place and since I have joined FIFA he has continued to be a driving force behind the change and growth that has and will continue to take place.

FATC: What are the biggest, remaining, challenges in bringing the women's game firmly out of the shadows into the limelight?

Our main objective is to bring women’s football into the mainstream. The ultimate goal for FIFA and for my Division is that “women’s” football will not exist, and that in the end all we talk about is just football. We want a future that doesn’t require a special division or dedicated team to bring focus to the women’s game, because ultimately, everyone in football should take responsibility for women’s football (as they do the men’s game). I believe the biggest remaining challenge we have in this respect is changing the culture – for too long women’s football has been seen as the poor sister of the men’s game, a cost exercise, a social activity that is not considered real football. We have seen massive positive changes to this culture over the last few years but we still have a long way to go. He same attention and resource and focus that is given to the men’s game needs to be given to women’s football.

An example of this that I encountered when I arrived in FIFA is the Women’s International Match Calendar. Until last year, it had never been given the attention and focus that it deserved (especially as a key tool for the development of the women’s game on the global scale). As of 2020, for the first time ever - it will be fixed for a four year period with all stakeholders consulted and in-depth analysis on the landscape of the women’s game leading to an evolved calendar.

FATC: How does FIFA plan to combat these?

We spent 12 months developing the first ever global strategy for women’s football which was launched in October last year. We believe that in order to overcome the challenges that exist – especially to accelerate the cultural change that needs to take place in football, you need to work on the entire ecosystem of the women’s game. The strategy has five pillars which cover all aspects of the game including Development, competitions, commercialization and communication, governance and education and also empowerment. By having dedicated programs and support available for our 211 Member Associations in all these areas we are able to make broad improvements on a global scale. It’s definitely a long term approach, which makes it tough because a lot of football stakeholders are not so interested in the long game – BUT, if we want our work to be sustainable and we want to create real, meaningful change, this is the best way to do it.

FATC: With the obvious rise of women's football in the last few years, what sort of impact do you think the World Cup in France will have? Is it the catalyst the game needs?

I believe the Women’s World Cup this year will be a massive milestone in the women’s game that we will look back on in years to come and identify as the game changing moment. The momentum we have right now in the lead up to the FWWC is huge! I am writing you now from South Korea on the Trophy Tour and the buzz in every single one of the qualified countries is awesome. Outside of the World Cup we have seen record crowds like the recent match in Spain with more than 60,000 in the stadium, we have seen record breaking commercial partnerships like the recent sponsorship of the FA Womens Super League from Barclays. Our players are becoming household names and the fan base is continually growing. The FWWC will take all this momentum and give it a massive boost – we will reach new heights in France and I can’t wait!

FATC: What has been the most rewarding aspect of the work you have done at FIFA so far?

Seeing the success stories and the changes taking place. Being able to see a direct result of the hard work that we are doing every day makes the job so rewarding! When you have a chance to visit a country and see that smile on a little girls face as she kicks the ball for the first time, or is selected for an elite players academy or a women taking a key position in a Federation or club – this is where the reward lies. I think the other thing that is the most rewarding is working with my team. I have an amazing team of passionate, motivated people who are always up for a laugh when things get tough and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. When there are so many challenges – it’s so important to be surrounded by good people that you get along with.

FATC: What message would you like to give to girls and women everywhere about football?

Well, the first one is to watch the FIFA Womens World Cup this summer. It will be a truly momentous and magical moment and if you want to be inspired – the FWWC will definitely deliver!! Secondly, I would say to dream big – know what you want in life and pursue it with passion and integrity while staying true to who you are. Don’t let challenges and adversity stop you from going for what you want – use it as fuel for your passion and go for it!

Words & Interview by J.S. Leatherbarrow. Original photograph used by the kind permission of FIFA - artwork by FATC - all rights reserved.

J.S. Leatherbarrow