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Women’s World Cup host urges FIFA not to sign contract with Saudi sponsor

GENEVA –

Women’s World Cup co-organizers Australia and New Zealand urged FIFA on Wednesday not to sign a sponsorship deal with Saudi Arabia’s tourism agency, where “women’s rights remain severely limited.”

The leaders of the two national football federations warned in a letter to FIFA, including president Gianni Infantino, that unilaterally ending “Visit Saudi” sponsorship could “severely tarnish” fame” of the 32-nation tournament starting in July.

That’s despite the travel brand being endorsed by men’s World Cup-winning captain Lionel Messi, who was announced last year as a paid pitcher.

Such a confrontation between the World Cup host country and FIFA is unprecedented in recent history, and is likely to draw more attention to Saudi Arabia’s so-called “sports wash” investment. Ut.

“We are writing to express our grave disappointment and concern at the news of the explicit appointment of Visit Saudi as sponsor,” Chris Nikou of Australia and Joanna Wood of New Zealand wrote on Thursday. From a letter to FIFA seen by The Associated Press.

“We cannot express strongly enough the possible consequences and consequences of this decision.

“Australia and New Zealand, as sovereign nations and football associations, have for decades placed the utmost importance on gender equality and have sought to promote these ideals across the board. world,” the letter read, reminding FIFA that its government has invested hundreds of millions in the soccer event.

Tournament organizers and government officials in both countries are said to have not been consulted, they claimed, nor given the opportunity to make objections to a travel campaign. domestic.

Wood is one of the few women to lead one of FIFA’s 211 member confederations and is also an elected member of FIFA’s governing council chaired by Infantino.

FIFA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Saudi Arabia has made a lot of progress in women’s football over the past 3 years with the establishment of the national team and domestic league, plus preparations to host the 2026 AFC Women’s Championship.

However, in Saudi society, women’s freedoms are restricted by strict male guardianship laws.

“While we acknowledge a number of important and positive gender equality reforms have begun in Saudi Arabia, it cannot be denied by any reasonable standard that women’s rights remain limited. serious restrictions,” the Women’s World Cup host wrote to FIFA.

Tony Gustavsson, head coach of the Australian women’s national team, did not comment directly on the sponsorship issue on Thursday while announcing the squad for the 16-22 February Cup of Nations tournament. , but said, “I know what these women stand for and what the group stands for.”

“I had the honor of meeting the Matildas alumni and everyone knows the core values ​​of this team,” he said. Football Australia “is looking for more information and the team knows what they stand for.”

The “Visit Saudi” campaign was among more than 30 sponsors at the Men’s World Cup in Qatar last year.

FIFA hasn’t officially announced that deal, which became apparent through sideline ads when matches began in November.

The FIFA Women’s World Cup will take place from July 20 to August 8. 20. The United States is defending its title in the first edition of the marquee tournament expanded to 32 teams.

It will also be the first test of FIFA’s policy to separate broadcasting and sponsorship deals for the FIFA Women’s World Cup from the men’s event. That is to give women’s football independence and prove that it has commercial value of its own.

Infantino had previously defended the women’s tournament when he used the platform of the tournament’s final draw in Auckland in October to criticize broadcasters for making rights offers that FIFA deemed low. to an unacceptable level.

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AP Sports writer John Pye contributed from Brisbane, Australia.



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