Why FIFA needs female leadership

FIFA was founded in 1904. In 2013, Lydia Nsekera of Burundi became the first woman elected to the 24-member FIFA executive board. Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

This World Cup has given us a little bit (and a little bite) of everything on the pitch, proving once again that the beautiful game will always be more powerful than the FIFA overlords who rule it.

With Argentina, Brazil, Germany and the Netherlands set to clash in a semifinal round of heavyweights, soon a new champion will be crowned. But as all eyes look toward the future, the conversation will inevitably return to the same question that so many people were asking in the months leading up to the World Cup: How can FIFA be fixed?

"People link FIFA to corruption and bribery and all kinds of old boys' networks," said Michael van Praag, a member of Europe's UEFA executive committee, speaking to reporters in Brazil before the tournament kicked off.

And yet for all the talk about how to repair FIFA's reputation -- everything from dumping embattled president Sepp Blatter to abolishing the entire organization -- one obvious approach has drawn hardly any attention.

FIFA needs to include more women.

After all, as Blatter himself declared last year, "the future of football is feminine."

Sure, it sounded kind of funny coming from a man who has a well-documented habit of making sexist remarks (see here, here and here). But let's focus on the message, not the messenger, because there is no denying the core truth behind the sentiment.

While FIFA has been around for 110 years, women's soccer is a young sport. As of 2007, the last time FIFA released its Big Count, an estimated 29 million girls and women across the globe were playing soccer, about 10 percent of the sport's participants. Today, those figures are projected to be much higher. Here in the United States, for example, 48 percent of the 3 million players registered in 2012 with U.S. Youth Soccer were girls.

The inaugural FIFA Women's World Cup, held in 1991, featured 12 teams; next year, 24 countries will send squads to Canada for the quadrennial event. There are now 123 countries with women's senior national teams, and women play in some capacity in all of FIFA's 209 member nations.

"We're on the edge of a sea change," said April Heinrichs, technical director for U.S. women's soccer and former head coach of the national team, speaking with espnW recently. "I think in the next 20 years, we're going to see some explosive growth in the world of women's football."

The problem is that FIFA's leadership looks nothing like the future. Over the past 53 years, FIFA has had only three presidents: Blatter, who took over in 1998, Joao Havelange (1974-1998) and Stanley Rous (1961-1974). Of the 25 official members on the current executive committee, 24 are men, and the average age is 64. The group, whose actions can make the CIA seem transparent, meets two or three times a year in private, and at its most recent gathering, on the eve of the World Cup, members decided against imposing age and term limits. (They serve four-year terms.)

The lone woman and second-youngest member of the committee, 47-year-old Lydia Nsekera of Burundi, joined the ranks last year, the first time that a woman was voted onto the board. But Nsekera's ascension was hardly an organic event: FIFA decided to designate one seat on the executive committee for a woman, initially labeling the position as the "representative of women's football." That was crossed out -- literally, there is a line through it in the FIFA documents -- in favor of "female member of the executive committee." (Two other women were appointed to the board in 2013, but they will serve for only one year.)

The picture isn't much different at the national level. Bonita Mersiades, a member of the senior management team for Australia's failed bid to host the 2018 or 2022 World Cup, highlighted the gender gap in soccer's governing bodies during a speech last year at the Play the Game conference in Denmark. Even in a country such as Australia, known for supporting women's sports at a high level, the lack of female leadership is glaring. Mersiades estimated that 35 percent of spectators at professional games are women and that approximately 33 percent of Australia's registered youth players are girls -- yet of the 61 board members of the country's top-level soccer organizations, only three are women.

Mersiades began her presentation with a rhetorical question: "What will it take for a woman to be president of FIFA?"

Once she had everyone's attention, she went on to assert that "involving women in the main game will improve the management and relevance of the sport, increase its profitability and enhance its reputation."

There is plenty of commonsense research to support Mersiades' point. Take, for example, the 2012 report released by the Credit Suisse Research Institute, which says that in times of crisis, companies with women on their boards outperform those with men only. Diversity is not about checking boxes; it's about having people at the table who bring different viewpoints and ideas, who challenge traditional thinking.

Mersiades argued that Nsekera's seat at FIFA's big table was little more than tokenism and that anyone who thinks it's "a sign of gender inclusiveness at the top levels of football probably also thinks pigs fly."

But as Heinrichs notes, FIFA needed to start somewhere, to create a path for female leadership where none has existed before. "There is a danger in quotas," Heinrichs acknowledged. "But in some of these countries, women are never going to rise to the level of a senior leadership position if FIFA doesn't explore a mandate."

And in countries where women's soccer is already popular -- the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Japan, China, Sweden -- it's reasonable to suggest that soccer's governing bodies begin to put programs in place to identify and develop female executives who can help shape the sport's future. U.S. Soccer has never had a female president, and men dominate the leadership.

U.S. star Abby Wambach says there are so few high-ranking women in international soccer that no one seems to be championing issues that affect specifically the women's game. A prime example: The 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup will be played on turf, a less forgiving surface than natural grass. Wambach has been outspoken about the decision, noting that the major men's tournaments are played on grass. "It's a travesty that we would even be considering playing on turf, let alone actually playing on it," Wambach said. "If there were more women in positions of power, who knows what would happen? Right now there's almost this sense of, 'What can we do -- it's FIFA.' We're at their mercy."

Meanwhile, there is also a strong case to be made that opening FIFA's leadership ranks to more women would go a long way toward curtailing corruption.

A research article published last year in the academic journal Politics & Gender found that "women are not necessarily more intrinsically honest or averse to corruption than men," but when female leaders are in organizations or governments where corruption is risky, or its perpetrators are stigmatized (i.e., FIFA), women are less likely to engage in the activity. The reasoning is simple: Women know they are more vulnerable to punishment than men because of gender discrimination, so they're less willing to engage in corruption and more likely to play by the rules when the game is under the spotlight.

Soccer's lack of female leadership is hardly unique in the sports landscape. But the men behind the wheel for FIFA are driving right off the road.

Giving Blatter the boot will mean little if the status quo remains in place. That's what FIFA has had for the past half-century: men who've been inside the system for so long that they don't remember the smell of fresh-cut grass.

FIFA needs fundamental change. So why not start by making women an integral part of the process?

As Mersiades said in her presentation, "What is there to lose?"

That's a very good question.