Honey Thaljieh calls her job with FIFA “a dream come true.” As a corporate communications manager for soccer’s world governing body, she lives in Zurich, travels the world, and promotes the sport she loves. Last week, Thaljieh visited schools in Massachusetts, talking about how soccer changed her life and how much money FIFA spends on women’s and youth soccer tournaments ($360,000 per day).
But Thaljieh can’t hide from headline-making criticisms of FIFA: charges of corruption, sexism, and general crassness.
After lecturing to a sports management class at Lasell College in Newton, Thaljieh, 30, was asked about the lawsuit that more than 40 female soccer players recently brought against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association. The players claim that FIFA’s decision to stage the 2015 Women’s World Cup on artificial turf puts participants at greater risk of injury, changes how soccer is played, and constitutes gender bias. The women want to compete on grass, the same surface used in all the past men’s and women’s World Cups.
“I used to play on asphalt and dirt,” says Thaljieh, who cofounded and captained the first Palestinian women’s soccer team. “If I got a chance to play on artificial turf, I would be so happy about it. I don’t see it as an issue.”
It is an honest answer delivered with a broad smile. Still, her non-issue stance follows FIFA thinking.
With her background, Thaljieh is FIFA’s preferred image for women’s soccer, living proof of how the sport can empower female players. She is instantly likable, joking about her first name (it’s her real name, not something her boyfriend calls her). She offers a marketable contrast to 78-year-old FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who exemplifies the governing body’s entrenched, male power structure.
Yet watching Thaljieh click through her PowerPoint presentation with slides about the World Cup bidding process, the FIFA organizational structure, and the average age of FIFA employees (39) and its percentage of women workers (45) is uncomfortable. Not because of Thaljieh, but because of the script. Every bullet point and promotional video is designed to neutralize criticisms of the governing body.
Such propaganda and spin is tough to sit through. It’s even tougher when it’s a woman speaking on behalf of an organization with a long history of sexist attitudes.
Plus, as Thaljieh relays FIFA’s worldview for nearly an hour, it looks like a familiar setup. Today, for sports organizations that struggle with sexism or domestic abuse or ineptitude on women’s issues, the go-to move is hiring or promoting women or somehow putting them out front. Think of the NFL and the female advisers it retained in the wake of the Ray Rice scandal.
To be fair, Thaljieh is not a high-ranking FIFA official or special adviser to Blatter. Her Boston tour was not part of some grand FIFA publicity push. She is a young woman eager to raise the profile and competitiveness of women’s soccer in the Middle East. She is also in a tough position, playing a long game from within FIFA’s corridors of power. Perhaps a very long game.
Not many women occupy powerful positions in FIFA. In its 110-year-history, only one woman — Burundi’s Lydia Nsekera — has been elected to the 25-member FIFA executive committee headed by Blatter. That happened in 2013. Two other women serve the committee as “co-opted members for special tasks.” Yes, that’s the title FIFA gave them.
To make matters more awkward, when introducing the three new female committee members last year, Blatter opened with, “Say something, ladies. You are always speaking at home. Say something now.” That ranks right up there with his 2004 suggestion that female players wear sexier uniforms with, for example, “tighter shorts.”
One woman in front of 25 students at Lasell or 200 at the Parker Charter School in Devens or 50 at UMass-Lowell can only do so much in light of such comments from FIFA’s leader.
Nonetheless, Thaljieh was the consummate FIFA spokeswoman at each stop. She hit every talking point with enthusiasm. But when Thaljieh told her story about life as a Palestinian, Christian, Arab, not FIFA’s story, she made the most passionate and compelling argument for what the governing body can do through soccer.
Note to Blatter (and other sports organizations tempted to co-opt women): It’s not about women simply saying something. It’s about women giving voice to their unique perspectives. Everyone is better served by that.
Growing up in Bethlehem in the West Bank, Thaljieh discovered a passion for soccer in neighborhood pickup games. She developed a “love relationship with this game,” despite her father’s regular punishments for playing. In her patriarchal society, her passion for soccer was not culturally accepted.
“They expected that nobody would want to marry a girl who played because it’s a male game,” says Thaljieh. “They said we would become masculine.”
But for Thaljieh, soccer offered self-esteem and brief escapes from the challenges of a West Bank childhood.
In 2002, as a student at Bethlehem University, Thaljieh responded to an advertisement looking for female soccer players. The ad had gone unanswered for years. From there, Thaljieh poured her energies into creating a Palestinian women’s soccer team. Today, the Palestinian women’s program boasts 400 registered players and four teams in different age groups.
“If you teach people sports, it empowers them, especially women,” she said. “If you empower women, you empower the whole community. If you give women the chance to play sports, you give them a chance to be leaders. You give them a chance to empower others.”
When Thaljieh talks about the young girls playing soccer in Bethlehem or Ramallah or Jericho, she emphasizes how change slowly takes root and how one generation inspires the next. She dreams of a women’s World Cup with Palestine participating alongside countries from across the Middle East. She still goes back to Bethlehem and plays pickup games on the asphalt and dirt. But now, her father likes to come around and watch.
It’s an image more powerful, more hopeful, and more honest than any PowerPoint presentation.Fair Play is a regular column that explores the challenges girls and women face in today’s sports world, as well as their athletic accomplishments. Shira Springer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ShiraSpringer.