Monday, June 29, 2015
I hope all of you have been watching the FIFA Women’s World Cup. There’s been something for everyone’s sense of drama: upsets, bad calls, nail biters, extraordinary play, and stupendous feats of athleticism. By the time this is published, we’ll know if the U.S. Women’s National Team will be playing in the semifinals. The great news is that FWWC is pulling in record viewership. The U.S.-Columbia game had 4.1 million tuned in with a peak of 6.4 million. Only two other broadcasts had higher numbers on Fox Sports 1: Game 4 (5.1 million) and Game 5 (4.9 million) of the 2014 National League Championship Series between St. Louis and San Francisco. Likewise, Canada nearly drew more viewers for their opening game vs. China than the Stanley Cup game that evening. Quite a spectacular outcome given that hockey is the national sport. Even Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Benoit couldn’t put a damper on the upswing of interest in the event when he tweeted that “Women’s sports in general [are] not worth watching…Women are every bit as good as men in general, better in many aspects, their sports are just less entertaining. TV ratings agree, btw.” Apparently he missed the reports on the Women’s World Cup, as well as the ratings athletes like Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey pull in.
While watching the matches, I couldn’t help but notice the various scrawls on the message boards surrounding the pitch. While FIFA has suffered a tarnishing of their image, there were several reminders of their charitable programs and social platforms. I wondered if these millions of viewers in the U.S. (estimates are 1 billion world-wide) had: A. taken note of the advertisements, B. looked the programs up, C. acted on anything they had learned. After all, there was plenty to watch on the pitch, so people would be forgiven for not heeding the constant verbiage scrolling in the background. I decided to look the programs up, curious as to what FIFA was touting. There were four agendas: Football for Hope, Football for the Planet, Say No to Racism, and Fair Play. Each of these has a particular purpose in promoting FIFA’s image which certainly needs some propping up. Adding to the quartet is adidas’ campaign #BetheDifference.
Football for Hope started in 2005 to promote the issues of children in impoverished areas. FIFA works through local private and community-based organizations supporting the resources used to foster the social development of youth. Much of FIFA’s support comes in the form of football-based programs. During the Men’s World Cup in Brazil in 2015, FIFA sponsored a festival with delegates from 32 of some of the 108 world-wide organizations involved in the Football for Hope initiative. The projects span a variety of social issues, from homelessness in the UK and landmines in Laos, to HIV/AIDS education in South Africa and responsible citizenship in Brazil. For the World Cup, Football for Hope focused its resources in Brazil, donating $1.05 million to programs in Brazil and an additional $2.05 million world-wide. FIFA encourages the communities receiving funding to hold matches where there are no referees. All conflicts are resolved through agreement either by admission or through dialog which FIFA believes promotes personal development and mutual understanding. Likewise, representatives from the communities being served meet regularly to discuss ways to use football to advance and improve social concerns. While the money FIFA contributes is substantial, it pales to what they made alone from the 2014 World Cup, which was $2.6 billion – that’s billion with a B.
Football for the Planet is the official environmental program for FIFA started in 2006 during the World Cup in Germany. The program has evolved over the past decade to embrace some fairly sophisticated efforts in off-setting the ecologic impact of the World Cup matches on the host country’s environment. For the 2014 competition in Brazil FIFA worked on three fronts to reduce the harm an influx of millions of fans would have on the environs. First FIFA worked to offset carbon emissions which have the largest effect on climate change. They estimated that the World Cup would produce 2.7 million tons of CO2 emissions of which FIFA had control over 250,000 tons. Using local emission programs, FIFA offset all of their CO2 emissions. Second FIFA required that new stadiums in Brazil be sustainable. For example they encouraged the installation of solar panels and expected the stadiums to earn the maximum points of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for green building which encourages sustainability and efficiency. To that end they sponsored training sessions in building green for the architects and contractors of each stadium. Third, FIFA developed waste management programs for the stadiums helping vendors to institute proper waste disposal to include strong recycling efforts. Additionally FIFA used its mascot to instruct spectators on responsible waste disposal.
Say No to Racism is an education program that grew out of FIFA’s article 3: Discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of ethnic origin, gender, language, religion, politics or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion. For many years this article was not clearly and consistently enforced, but over the last decade more incidents of discrimination and hate speech appeared at FIFA-sponsored events. Black players regularly face abuse which includes bananas tossed at them from the stands, racist chants from fans, and racist taunts from other players. Anti-Semitism comes in the form of fans openly waving Nazi flags at matches and taunting Jewish fans and players. For many years, FIFA simply turned a deaf ear and blind eye to these overt acts, choosing to let “boys be boys.” However, with riots at Egyptian matches based on deep religious divides, dangerous anti-black sentiments in Europe, and hooliganism based on racial biases, FIFA realized it needed to act. More dangerous to the organization is the threat by several African nations and individual black players to boycott the 2018 World Cup in Russia if racism isn’t addressed. To that end, in May 2013 the FIFA Congress adopted a resolution on the fight against racism and discrimination which highlighted the need for strong punishments to support the position that racism has no place in football. FIFA has joined with the continental soccer governing organizations such as UEFA and CONCACAF to sanction teams, players, and administrators who practice or condone racist actions. Sanctions based on prejudicial behaviors have now come regularly and without mercy for the offenders. Unfortunately the idea of solving such a complicated issue as bigotry by just “saying no” is about as effective as Nancy Regan’s campaign to just say no to drugs. Nevertheless, it is heartening to see that FIFA is taking the issue seriously and encouraging fans to recognize the harmful effects of bigoted behaviors on the sport.
Fair Play has ironic implications considering the level at which FIFA’s integrity has come under attack. The program uses the slogan “My game is fair play” to promote respect on and off the pitch among all players, officials, coaches and fans. The purpose is to play the game peacefully with integrity, fairness, dignity and respect. FIFA might want to take a page from its own promotions to find ways to conduct their activities with the same four cornerstones of behavior. Once a year they dedicate a week to highlight the people who best exemplify the principles of fair play. One person or group is recognized for special acts with the annual Fair Play Award. At every FIFA tournament teams are judged on their behavior and one team is selected for the tournament Fair Play Award. FIFA also encourages individual clubs all the way down to youth soccer to promote fair play both on and off the pitch, asking clubs to be sure to highlight those who exemplify honorable behavior.
Although not directly a FIFA program, adidas sponsors the “Be the Difference” platform. Obviously created to sell more shoes, it highlights the energy required to be a top soccer player. As adidas states, “Soccer is changing. In the style and way it is played and in the types of players who grace the game. For a team to be successful, you need two types of players – Playmakers who orchestrate and control everything, and Game changers who smash the defense and cause chaos. Pick your side and be the difference.” While an advertising ploy, the statement is powerful for young soccer players who may feel that they are marginalize if they play any position other than striker. The commercial purposely doesn’t identify impact by a particular position, rather by performance which supports the idea that every child makes a significant contribution to the success of a team. I think besides getting kids salivating about a particular boot, the campaign elevates the importance of every player by exposing the ability to make a difference comes through passion for and investment in the sport.
If you remember while cheering on your particular team or player at any FIFA event, check out the boards around the pitch. There are mostly advertisements displayed there, but occasionally there are some interesting statements being made about soccer beyond the competition. I will agree with FIFA on the point that we need our kids to see how we behave in our soccer lives needs to mirror how we behave off the pitch. We can be part of the solution of many of the world’s problems by simply applying some of the principles we learn while playing: cooperation, respect for authority, charity, fairness, integrity, tolerance, and accepting success with humility and defeat with dignity. Sometimes what appears in the background can be a good read to remind us of these values.