Report: FIFA ‘shocked’ by backlash against Saudi World Cup sponsorship

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Led by star Sam Kerr, Australia will serve as a co-host for the 2023 World Cup. (Albert Perez/Getty Images)

FIFA may scrap its plans for a Visit Saudi sponsorship for the 2023 Women’s World Cup following backlash from the tournament co-hosts and star players. 

Australia and New Zealand, the countries set to host the World Cup starting in July, both have criticized the potential sponsorship, as have some of the game’s biggest stars – including U.S. women’s national team stars Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan.

“I think it’s totally inappropriate,” Rapinoe told reporters during the SheBelieves Cup. “If they want to do, like, a 20-year-long women’s empowerment project and in 2043 sponsor a World Cup, that would be something. But I think it kind of just further proves the corruption and the thought process of FIFA.

“I’ve said for a long time, I don’t think FIFA really truly cares about the women’s game the way that it cares about the men’s game.”

Morgan referred to FIFA’s consideration of the sponsorship with Visit Saudi, the official Saudi Arabia tourism agency, as “bizarre.”

The scale of the backlash “has shocked FIFA,” a source familiar with the tournament’s planning told told the Sydney Morning Herald.

New Zealand Football chief executive Andrew Pragnell believes FIFA was rethinking the deal based on a response to his federation’s letter pushing back against the sponsorship, he said.

“I found the response fairly ambiguous. It didn’t confirm nor deny the potential Visit Saudi sponsorship that has been reported in the media,” Pragnell told New Zealand media Friday. “It did allude to the importance of treating all member associations equally and the importance of engagement as opposed to isolation. Other than that, it stated that they’d be reaching out through their media and partnerships team for further conversations.

“We’re left in a little bit of uncertainty as to what’s going on here, to be frank, which is a bit disappointing. Anything further I say would be speculation because I don’t know, but clearly our letter, given the delay in the response, and the absence of confirmation or denial, has caused some form of rethink in FIFA about this issue.”

One possible outcome of going through with the sponsorship could be in-game protests, similar to those seen at the men’s World Cup in Qatar in 2022. FIFA president Gianni Infantino has pointed to those protests as a “learning” experience.

“What we will try to do better this time is to search and look for dialogue with everyone involved – the captains, the federations, the players generally, FIFA – from all over the world to capture the different sensitivities, to explain, to exchange, and to see what can be done in order to express a position, a value or a feeling that somebody has without hurting anyone else,” he said.

“In a positive way, we are looking for a dialogue and we will have a position in place well before the Women’s World Cup, I hope so.”