From her time as a player on the Samoan women’s national team to becoming deputy secretary general of the tiny Oceania Football Confederation, few people are better suited to addressing the challenges faced by the global women’s game – itself a monument to life on the margins.
Now, as Fifa’s inaugural chief women’s football officer, the New Zealand-born Sarai Bareman is in charge of developing and delivering the sport across the world’s 211 associations.
Her modest, boots-on-the-ground introduction to football in the Pacific – a region historically ignored by the world game – means Bareman understands well the wider cultural and structural forces that exist while trying to grow a neglected sport.
“Whilst we have such a diverse range of members, in the women’s game a lot of the challenges our member associations face are quite similar,” Bareman told Guardian Australia from an Auckland hotel room. “Having come through Oceania and working in Samoa, those challenges can be as simple as access to infrastructure.
“When you’re working in small countries like that, which don’t have a lot of infrastructure, often the women and girls’ programs are fighting for space and facilities with the men’s programs – not only within football, but often across multiple sports.
“I think the other thing, just thinking about my own journey, it’s also the perception; the perception of women’s football. Even though we saw some amazing moments in France last year at the Women’s World Cup, unfortunately the reality is that, for the vast majority of our member associations, they’re still struggling with things like a negative perception around women and girls playing the game.
“A lot of that is historical. It has been excluded from the earliest of days. There’s still, I think, a cultural change that needs to take place in many of those countries where it becomes normalised to see women and girls playing, to see women in the administration of football, and to really see it as a day-to-day normal approach that those in charge of the game are equally responsible for delivering the women’s game as they are for the men’s.”
Bareman is driving that cultural change from within. In 2016, she became the only woman appointed to Fifa’s reform committee following the infamous corruption scandal. She used the opportunity to advocate for greater representation of women in the organisation, including quotas and regulatory changes. Fifa listened, appointing her to lead the newly created women’s football division soon afterwards.
Part of Bareman’s mandate was the development and implementation of the governing body’s first women’s football strategy in 2018; a roadmap for the growth of the women’s game around the world.
This strategy, she says, is one of the reasons women’s football has not lost significant ground during the pandemic. “Covid has obviously had a huge impact globally. Speaking to you from a government isolation facility in New Zealand is a very good example of that. But the momentum in the women’s game and where it sits now is beyond the point where the gains that have been made can be lost.
“It’s really important for Fifa to show very clearly throughout Covid that women’s football remains a top priority; that we are continuing to invest in it. Even in terms of the relief plan that we put together, there’s dedicated funding that is specifically ring-fenced to support the women’s football community and overcome some of those negative impacts.
“One of the things I’ve been proud of is the way Fifa has adapted, as well as our stakeholders. We have six confederations, each of them has a dedicated women’s football team in place, and the relationship that we’ve built over the past nine or ten months has been incredible.
“These people coming together in what is not-so-pleasant circumstances has actually created a really important bond between those groups, basically driven by the passion that we all have for the women’s game and the desire we have to see that it’s not negatively impacted by the pandemic.”
Although the pandemic has forced the global game to look inwards, Bareman cannot help but turn her gaze towards the future, particularly with the 2023 Women’s World Cup coming to her home region – the place where it all began.
“I’m obviously so excited that it’s coming Down Under, being a proud Kiwi,” she beamed. “I’m excited for the rest of the world to see and understand the beauty of these two countries.
“I still have a close connection with what’s happening in Oceania and the buzz that’s been created in all those 11 member countries is incredible. We’ve seen women’s leagues start in Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, dedicated programs specifically for it, they’ve employed new women’s football officers in every single one of those countries.
“And Oceania will get a half-slot – a play-off slot – which is incredible. It’s always been New Zealand that have qualified in the past, so you can imagine the incentive now that will exist for those other 10 countries, knowing they have a possibility to be at the Women’s World Cup.”
The 2023 edition will push the dial even further, Bareman says, by being the first Women’s World Cup that is commercialised as a stand-alone event – unbundled from the men’s tournament – while also utilising digital technologies to enhance the fan experience in unprecedented ways. She hopes it will build upon the success of 2019, inspiring the next generation of girls to take up the sport and achieve Fifa’s goal of 60 million women and girls playing the game around the world.
“I get goosebumps thinking about [France],” she said. “I remember being in the general admission area before a game and seeing a young group of excited girls, I think they must have been twelve or thirteen years old, all dressed in their uniforms, their faces painted, wide-eyed, and just the excitement on their faces, you know?
“Moments like that, for me, are so important because quite often you’re sitting at your desk and you work away and what you’re doing is important, but until you see it in front of you in moments like that, it reminds you and grounds you in the reason why you’re doing what you do.
“That opening match, in a full stadium with a roaring crowd, the flags waving of the national teams. The two teams were marching out onto the field. I was with my colleagues – the management board of Fifa, of which I’m one of four women – and I looked to the left and to the right of me, looked down at the full stadium, and I just started crying because I thought: this is actually it. This is the moment. And for every person that doesn’t believe in the possibilities of the women’s game, look at this and never doubt it again.
“When you’re sitting in a full stadium with a passionate crowd, watching beautiful displays of football from some really incredible athletes, it’s an incredible thing to be able to look around and say, ‘this is what women’s football is. You can’t deny us any further. We’re here and we’re here to stay’.”