The 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup is a rare chance for sport to shape a better world | Craig Foster

The tournament in 2023 presents a unique opportunity to address equality, racism and Indigenous culture, and climate change

The announcement of hosting rights for the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup is serendipitous not just for Australian football or the country, but perhaps sport itself.

July 2023 could create a new paradigm in global sport following the social awakening of Covid-19, a more meaningful role for sport in society by following the lead of athletes worldwide and making public, advocatory contributions to important issues.

Thanks to the courage of the Matildas, who believed in their right to non-discrimination and took on both Football Federation Australia and Fifa for financial parity, 2023 is being sold as the World Cup of gender equality. Now is time for Fifa, FFA and World Cup tournaments to follow their lead.

Gender equality is a powerful mission for women in sport, as a vanguard for broader society, but what about the world around them? As other fundamental, existential issues like racial inequality or the climate burn, sport yet clings to outdated and damaging notions of exceptionalism since silence is a political choice when rights are being breached and people are losing homes.

More challenging questions are, where would the world be if global sport used its social licence for social progress? Through its historic, institutional reluctance, what damage is being caused?

We see historic platitudes about speaking out against injustice, that the standard we walk past is the standard we accept. And yet athletes who have historically spoken up for others have been ostracised, attacked, delegitimised.

After decades of sport’s refusal to engage in social reform, more are asking, if existential, planetary and human rights issues need to be addressed to the benefit of all, can the world do without one of its most powerful, influential social institutions and, in any event, why should it?

Sport’s reckoning is to acknowledge that it does not exist independent of the society that sustains it and claims of exceptionalism and neutrality ring hollow. We are all equally affected, and equally obliged.

In this context, we can ask, what should be the social dividend of 2023, beyond the economics, the uplift in players, new infrastructure for the sport? How does a World Cup actually help the world?

The rise in women’s sport is a vanguard for broader change and it will be glorious to see Australia’s women in football shine as the lights brighten in the next three years.

But the game can go further, and ask, how far does equality extend? At a time of economic restructure, and reimagining of sport, now is the time to bring women’s football into line with men’s. A plan should be made for gender parity across the entire game, and a roadmap to get there. Do not let 2023 simply embed structural inequalities by using the economic dividend to perpetuate the divide.

2023 can also help shape a better world around them through football’s incredible social power including Indigenous Australian culture and reconciliation, climate change education and commitment to action, multiculturalism and human rights.

Australia’s Indigenous culture is mentioned in the Bid document under human rights and stakeholder engagement. But this is a unique opportunity to be led by Indigenous Australia to ensure that Australia’s public face of 2023 represents our ancient, unresolved past. Work should begin immediately on what a modern Australian (and NZ) World Cup should look like, culturally.

Collaboration with the Uluru Statement Expert Panel and formal support of the document, as well as consultation with former and current Indigenous legends of the game can explore how to carry first nations’ culture to Australia, and the watching world. If equality is to be the slogan, then it must extend to the first inhabitants of this land.

Racism and intolerance has escalated during Covid-19. But diversity is the essence of the global game and it is noticeable that the prime minister, Scott Morrison, trumpeted Australia’s 200 cultures in his communique prior to the announcement. We may question whether many minority communities feel so welcome, nevertheless 2023 is an opportunity to demonstrate not just our multicoloured composition, but our deep commitment to multiculturalism and rejection of any attempts to divide.

And as more young people are attracted to the sport, let’s equip them with the tools to be as courageous as our own Matildas, or the world champions, USA. Teach them about the inalienable rights they possess, and must protect in others, help them become advocates for social justice and in this way sport genuinely does become a vehicle to a better world.

Fifa is a signatory to the UN Sport and Climate Action Framework and, by extension, FFA, an objective of which is to use sport as a unifying tool to promote both awareness and action. Time is past when simply offsetting emissions and auditing the sustainability of any sporting event is enough. Not just for Australia, at the frontline of environmental destruction and loss of life this summer past, or our Pacific neighbours, with whom we’re co-hosting the event, but because sport has an obligation to assist. Will we really continue to kick and hit, swim and tackle yet say nothing, while the Earth burns and millions are displaced?

Athletes are trained to carry the load, support the team, accept responsibility, yet sport as a social sector shirks its own.

2023 should be the “Green World Cup”. A tournament that partners with environmentally responsible companies, spreads the need for action, that empowers athletes to speak up and encourages all sport to join the global fight for a sustainable future.

Fifa’s slogan is “For the Game: For the World”. The first part takes care of itself. But standing “for the world”, now that is incredibly exciting and I’d like to believe that football, as the game that connects Australia to the world, possesses the moral courage on behalf of the country.

It’s a bold agenda, but certainly no bolder than the Matildas taking on their own Federation, and Fifa, to create a foundation of equality for which a home World Cup is their reward.

High time for the world’s largest sport, and all others, to accept their share of global, social responsibilities.

Because sport transformed, is a transformed humanity. And shouldn’t a “World Cup” be truly “for the world”?

Craig Foster is adjunct professor, sport and social responsibility, Torrens University. This piece is extracted from a letter to Football Federation Australia – 2023, A Social Dividend


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Craig Foster

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