June 24, 2024

Norway’s Lise Klaveness is calling FIFA from the inside

Lise Klaveness was only a few weeks into her job as president of the Norwegian soccer federation last year when she decided to start saying the quiet part.

Rising from her seat among the delegates at FIFA’s annual conference in Qatar, Klaveness made her way diligently to the raised dais where officials, for the better part of an hour, gave little more than unfavorable comments about the men’s World Cup that would take place in the Gulf country later that year. There was talk of procedural matters, and updates on the financial details.

Klaveness, one of the few women in soccer leadership, had other themes on her mind. Addressing issues that have been the bane of FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, for many years, she spoke about ethical issues, migrant workers, women’s and gay rights. She spoke about the responsibility of the officials (mostly male) in the room to ensure that soccer maintains a higher moral and ethical standard when it chooses its leaders and the locations of its biggest competitions.

By the time Klaveness had finished about five minutes later, she had issued a challenge, in typically direct style, to FIFA itself.

But she had also made a goal for herself.

Almost as soon as she returned to her seat, a Honduran official asked to speak. He bluntly told Klaveness that the FIFA Congress was “not the right forum or the right time” to make such comments. A few minutes later, Qatar was interrupted by the head of the World Cup organizing committee, who told her that she should “educate yourself” before speaking out.

“Ever since that speech in Doha so many people, and powerful people, have been trying to tell me to relax,” she said, describing how she and the Norwegian Confederation had openly and openly criticized her in what she claims was a deliberate attempt to silence her.

Far from being a cow, Klaveness, who played for the Norwegian national team before becoming a lawyer and judge, has continued to speak, and continued to challenge soccer orthodoxy that sensitive matters should remain behind closed doors.

“It made me a bit more politically exposed, and people might want to say to me, ‘Who do you think you are?’ in different ways,” Klaveness, 42, said in an interview ahead of the Women’s World Cup. She openly raised questions about human rights and good governance, she said, “with a price.”

She also believes that her positions reflect the position of her federation and her country. And she says she won’t stop pushing them. “I’m very motivated,” she said, “and the day I’m not, I’ll quit. I have nothing to lose.”

Even some of his closest allies questioned Klaveness’s style – which was so in tune with soccer’s conservative traditions.

“Maybe not the most strategic because it was very controversial,” Gijs de Jong, secretary general of the Dutch soccer federation, said of Klaveness’ speech in Qatar. De Jong has worked closely with Klaveness for the past two years, and said he shares many of the same frustrations with FIFA’s record of following through on its stated commitments, particularly when it comes to human rights.

But while he admitted that soccer could face some tough issues, he suggested that a more diplomatic approach would yield results.

“I’ve learned in the last six, seven years that you have to stay in touch,” he said. “And the risk of giving such a controversial speech is that you lose touch with the rest of the world. And I think that’s the danger of this approach.”

Klaveness said she had been told “not to exaggerate at least a thousand times” by other soccer leaders. They encouraged her to talk about what she describes as her “inner voice,” to be more diplomatic, to work differently. But she said that’s difficult “when you have 100 years of proof of no change.”

“I think she is very popular in Norway because she never hides and never lies and she speaks a language that everyone understands,” said the coach of the Norwegian men’s team, Stale Solbakken. “I also think that football needs voices that can tackle men’s lives as in football.”

Earlier this year, Klaveness decided to challenge convention again by standing in elections for a place on the governing board of UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, against male candidates, instead of seeking election as the only place reserved for women. She was well beaten, but after that she preferred to see the positive things from the votes — 18, from the 55 member states in Europe — that she received.

“I see that one third of UEFA presidents want change – 18 of them voted for it,” she said. Soccer leaders always have a significant position with their priorities, she said, “but below them there are a lot of people reaching out.”

Soccer remains plagued by what Klaveness described as a “culture of fear,” a chilling influence that keeps officials aware that they could be ostracized and lose prestigious, often well-paid roles, from speaking out. For Klaveness, the conversation is well worth having.

The situation of migrant workers in Qatar, for example, remains a matter of concern. In March, FIFA promised to study whether it had any ongoing responsibilities to police soccer projects if its human rights statutes were breached. European officials enlisted Klaveness and De Jong to join a FIFA committee on the matter, but now months have passed with no confirmation of how the committee will work, Klaveness said. Her now-familiar response in letters and messages for updates is given: “Let me get back to you.”

Klaveness rejected the idea that any of the stances she took would make her an activist, as some have argued, or take away from her role as a soccer leader, which will undoubtedly attract more scrutiny if Norway’s national teams continue to struggle on the field.

Norway’s men’s team, blessed with a generation of talent including Erling Haaland and Martin Odegaard, could not take part in protests at the Qatar World Cup after failing to qualify. England’s women’s team, which includes former world player of the year Ada Hegerberg, was 8-0 at last year’s European Championships, and opened the World Cup last week with a loss to New Zealand, who had never won a game in the tournament.

Rather than shying away from it, Klaveness said the issues and platforms she has made as a Norwegian federation and team are directly related to the game, especially when it comes to issues of inclusivity.

She said she wants to set an example, to show other soccer leaders that they can be more than the world expects of them, more than the sea of ​​men in suits that usually fill hotel rooms and conference halls whenever FIFA comes to town.

She traveled to New Zealand with her wife, and three young children all under the age of 10, and told other officers in the Norwegian contingent that they could also bring their families with them.

“It’s a big problem for me and for us at the Norwegian Confederation,” she said, explaining how the travel commitments associated with soccer leadership roles have made it difficult to recruit women, and that “it’s easy for people to say that women don’t want the job.”

Klaveness, whose term as Federation president will expire in March 2026, knows her time is limited. She is not willing to hang on to the role for the sake of staying in soccer, she said. But as long as she is there, she will continue to speak. And that continued this week.

Her current focus is on the prize money at the Women’s World Cup. Before the tournament, FIFA announced that participating players would receive 30 percent of the $110 million prize money available, with a minimum of $30,000 per player. A number of national confederations, including the English confederation, appear to be using FIFA’s offer as cover to withhold further bonus payments. And last week the president of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, refused to guarantee that the players would get the money in the end. According to FIFA rules, he said, the money will be paid to the federations, implying that the proposed bonuses were a recommendation and not a guarantee.

“It could and should be clear that it is a mandatory payment,” Klaveness said. “Why would you say it’s not that simple?”

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