Chief Women's Football Officer | FIFA
Sarai Bareman’s early passion for football and experience in finance ultimately lead to a career working for national, regional and international football organisations, culminating in her appointed as Chief Women’s Football Officer for FIFA in 2016. Bareman spoke about how the corruption scandal that hit FIFA in 2015 ultimately lead to fairer and more equal resourcing for women’s football and explained how FIFA is supporting the development of female football players and professionals around the world.
Interview by Hannah McCarthy | @hannahmc_carthy
How did you make the journey from football player to working in the management of football organisations?
I grew up in New Zealand, where I played football within the club system since I was young. I fell in love with the sport as a player and that turned into a full-blown love affair when I stepped into an administrative role. As a player, I was always passionate about the impact the sport could have, not only on the pitch but also off the pitch, as I worked with young players who were coming through and joining the team I was playing with.
I have to be completely honest that my transition into the administration side was almost by chance and the result of being in the right place at the right time. In 2008 I took a trip to Samoa to meet my mother’s side of the family and learn more about Samoan culture. At that point, I was working in the banking and finance industry in New Zealand, but that year was also when the global financial crisis occurred. There were a lot of issues related to housing loans – which was the area I was working in. It was a harsh environment, so I started looking for other opportunities at that point.
While I was in Samoa, the local newspaper advertised a job for the Financial Manager of the Samoan Football Association. As I had been in the finance industry for 10 years and loved football, I thought this role could be a perfect fit for me. I applied, interviewed and ultimately got the job; that holiday to Samoa ended up being the start of a six-year stay in the country. I progressed from Finance Manager to the CEO of the Association, and that kick-started my journey which ultimately lead to my role with FIFA.
What was the level of female representation like at the Football Association in Samoa?
I was often the only woman in the room or the only woman in the room with decision-making capacity. As is often the case, there were women in more junior roles present, but their numbers dwindled off amongst more senior positions. It was my first experience being a woman in a male-dominated environment, and I often felt isolated and challenged by that. Female representation in football is improving, especially here at FIFA, but it has been an underlying theme throughout my career.
From your role with the Samoan Football Association, how did you position yourself to work for FIFA?
After my six years in Samoa, football was at a level where it was running well, and there was activity at every level of the game for girls, boys, women and men. I felt it was time for me to progress.
As a governing body, FIFA has six regional confederations, and under those confederations are 211 member countries. I met with the General Secretary of the Oceania Confederation based in Auckland, and he immediately offered me a role as the Deputy-General Secretary at the Oceania Confederation; for me, that was a natural next step. By then I had fallen in love with football for the positive impact I saw that it had, particularly on women and girls. I wanted to increase that impact and by moving to the Oceania Confederation, I was able to have that impact on 11 countries, rather than just one.
My role at the confederation gave me a chance to get to know the other countries in the Pacific region, and although they all share similar challenges, they have unique differences. I was at the confederation for two years, and it provided me with a bigger picture view of football than I had in Samoa. It was after the confederation that I progressed to FIFA.
Most people are familiar with FIFA in terms of the final product: the World Cup, and they often don’t think about what is happening behind the scenes. What is it like to work for FIFA as an organisation?
It is a real privilege to work here. There are very few jobs in the world where you can have a massive impact across the entire globe. Football is the most popular sport in the world, and as a platform for advocacy and social change, it has an amazing reach. Like any international organisation, it can be quite hectic!
In terms of my role, the women’s football division at FIFA is relatively new and has only been in existence since 2016 - following the FIFA Reforms that were put in place in 2015. Women's football presents the most significant growth opportunity, not just for FIFA but for football in general. Historically, women's football has always been in the shadows of men’s football, but the growth has been incredible. In the last FIFA Women’s World Cup final in Canada there was a huge global audience watching, and this year in France, we are looking to increase on all those numbers.
What is FIFA doing to counterbalance that perception that its focus is men’s football?
It is important to take a step back to answer that question. At the FIFA Congress in Zurich in 2015, some high-level executives were arrested and ultimately extradited to the United States on charges of corruption and fraud. It was a dark time for FIFA and football in general. However, for women's football, it proved to be a very opportune time. Following that scandal FIFA put together a committee to reform the organisation and ensure that what had happened will never happen again.
I was chosen to be on that committee due to the work that I had done in Samoa and the Pacific region. I was also the only woman on the committee, but it has always been those moments of adversity which have led to the greatest opportunities for me. I was able to use my voice on that committee and those reforms to advocate for concrete measures to be incorporated in the FIFA constitution and regulatory framework to have more women involved in decision-making and more fair and equal resourcing for women’s football.
In February 2016, the 211 member countries present at the FIFA Congress unanimously approved the reforms proposed by the committee, which included those constitutional changes. That was a massive milestone for women’s football. After that, the women’s football division was created and Gianni Infantino wanted to bring more women into the game.
FIFA often emphasises that it is not a political organisation and that it is focused on sport, but in many countries women participating in competitive sports is a political statement. How do you go about supporting the development of football in those countries where there may be hostility to women participating in football?
FIFA has more member countries than the United Nations, and that involves a diverse range of countries, religions and populations. Every state is different to some extent. There are many countries where for various cultural or religious reasons, it is not normal for women to participate in sport, including football. FIFA’s approach is to provide solutions that are specific to the needs of the country.
I come from the Pacific Region which is very rich in culture but includes countries which have male-dominated societies, such as Samoa. I experienced first-hand what it is like to develop the sport in that environment. For that reason, I am a strong advocate for approaching each country on an individual basis and offering support that is very tailored to the landscape in the country.
For example, in Kuwait, it is still controversial for a woman to be seen to be participating in sport. FIFA recently launched the first ever women’s football league there but it happened indoors in a closed environment where the girls could play in a safe environment without fear of retribution. There were similar events organised in Saudi Arabia. It is really about providing each country with tailor-made solutions.
FIFA is looking to increase the number of women who sit on its committees and who are involved in the governance of the organisation. Could you tell us about the initiatives FIFA is undertaking to achieve this goal?
In October 2018, FIFA launched its Women's Football Strategy, marking the first time the organisation had a strategy for the women's game. Within that strategy, we have quite lofty goals including increasing the number of women playing football to 60 million by 2026. We also want to increase women within the decision-making bodies. We are looking at this issue from different angles and attack it from the top down, as well as the bottom up.
By top-down, we need to think about what can FIFA do through the regulatory framework of the game to increase women in the decision-making bodies. For example, we are aiming for every one of the 211 member states to have, at minimum, one woman within its executive committee.
The bottom-up approach is about proactive workshops and courses that FIFA runs around women’s leadership. FIFA has a program called the Female Leadership Development Program that we offer on a national or regional basis. We also provide training at the executive level for women from around the world who are on a leadership path in football together. We provide them with skills training, support and mentorship, from men and women who are already in decision-making bodies within football. I personally graduated from that program and wouldn’t be here today if I had not.
What advice would you have for young girls who are playing sport at the moment and would like to pursue a career in international sport?
Be clear about what you want to achieve, dream big, and go for it.
Try and attach yourself to an organisation within the football structure whether that is local clubs, associations or confederations and, even if you are working voluntarily, you get your foot in the door. Then use your passion and your capabilities to further yourself and your career. Do everything with integrity. If young women out there have a passion, they have to pursue it with everything they’ve got.
There also seems to be an assumption among women that to be involved in a sports organisation that they have to be a sporty person or have participated in sport or football themselves - that is not the case. Many capable women who have not played football at a high level work within the sport in high-level positions. For example, FIFA’s current General Secretary, Fatma Samoura - who was the first ever woman appointed to that role.
International football covers a massive range of career paths: communications, marketing, law, regulation and coaching. There is a path within the game for pretty much every career you could think of, and it is crucial that girls understand that. You don't need to have been an awesome footballer to have a great career in football.