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FIFA drops plan for Saudi agency to sponsor Women’s World Cup

FIFA president Gianni Infantino gives a news conference in Kigali, Rwanda. (AP)
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FIFA has scrapped plans to have the tourism agency of Saudi Arabia sponsor the 2023 Women’s World Cup, the soccer body’s president Gianni Infantino said.

The proposal had sparked backlash from prominent soccer players and fans, as well as sports organizations in Australia and New Zealand, who are hosting the tournament. Critics, including U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe, said it was inappropriate for a competition that has used feminist-branded marketing — and which counts lesbian and bisexual women among its top stars — to be sponsored by a government which outlaws homosexuality, limits women’s rights and treats dissidents harshly.

Infantino said at a news conference at a FIFA meeting in Rwanda on Thursday that a deal with the Visit Saudi agency had been discussed but did not lead to a contract. He did not attribute Visit Saudi’s nonparticipation to the ethical concerns, and said he would still seek future commercial deals with the Gulf nation.

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“FIFA is comprised of 211 countries,” he said, adding that “there isn’t anything bad” about being sponsored by members such as Saudi Arabia, China, United States of America, Brazil or India.

Soccer authorities of the host nations welcomed the news that the tournament, which runs July 20 to Aug. 20, would not be sponsored by Saudi Arabia. “Equality, diversity and inclusion are really deep commitments for Football Australia,” chief executive James Johnson said. “We’ll continue to work hard with FIFA to ensure the Women’s World Cup is shaped in this light.”

FIFA and Visit Saudi did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

The controversy is the latest instance of human rights debates playing out on soccer fields and in stadiums around the world. FIFA was heavily criticized for awarding Qatar hosting rights to last year’s men’s World Cup despite poor labor conditions for migrant workers in the country. Fans were also prohibited from wearing LGBTQ-themed gear at the tournament. (Some argued that the public scrutiny encouraged Qatar to reform its labor laws.)

Justine Nolan, director of the Australian Human Rights Institute at the University of New South Wales, said the proposed Visit Saudi deal was part of a wider trend of “sports washing,” when government and corporate entities use athletic sponsorships to repair their public images.

She suggested that such instances included Saudi Arabia hosting a Formula 1 race, as well as Australia’s World Tour Cycling Team being renamed to reflect funding from the Saudi government.

While international sports events are a powerful force for unity worldwide, sporting organizations risk losing legitimacy if they allow their events to be used to cover up human rights abuses, she said. “Sport should not be hijacked for this purpose.”

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In recent years, Saudi Arabia has moved to liberalize parts of its legal system, including abolishing a ban on women driving and ending gender segregation in many public spaces. (Until recently, the kingdom imprisoned several women’s rights activists who pushed for an end to the driving restrictions.)

The social changes were driven by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom U.S. intelligence has said is responsible for the 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a contributing opinion columnist to The Washington Post. Last year, one woman was sentenced to 34 years in prison for tweets that were critical of the government.