From rugby in west Auckland to the pinnacle of Fifa’s Women’s World Cup

Sarai Bareman’s brother coaches UFC superstars and she still follows rugby, but, writes Tony Smith, her focus is on getting 60 million women playing football.



Stuff NZ Newspapers


She’s still an All Blacks rugby fan who rises at 4am to watch her brother’s UFC fighters, but west Auckland-raised Sarai Bareman is in love with ‘‘the beautiful game’’. Bareman, Fifa’s chief women’s football officer, will oversee the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup in New Zealand and Australia as she strives to double the number of women involved in football to 60 million. The lofty heights of a Fifa executive position in Zurich is far cry from her sporting start at west Auckland’s Massey Rugby Club. ‘‘I grew up playing rugby, it’s my first sport, my first love,’’ she told the Sunday Star-Times. ‘‘My dad was a coach, I played, all my brothers played. I’m still an avid follower of rugby, particularly the All Blacks, as you can imagine.’’ Bareman – born in Auckland to a Samoan mother and a Dutch dad – became ‘‘a little bit of a black sheep in my family’’ when she switched to football at Massey High School in the mid-1990s. ‘‘It’s something I fell in love with as a player and obviously that love for the game has deepened a lot. Now I’m in a position to use the game as a platform for many, many things, but particularly empowering women and girls. It’s a very privileged position and one I don’t take very lightly at all.’’ Bareman played club football as a midfielder for Waitakere in the Northern Women’s Premier League from 2005 to 2008, for Glenfield Rovers and North Shore United, and represented Samoa. After a decade in the banking industry her football administration career began while visiting Samoa to learn more about her ancestry in 2008. She saw Football Federation Samoa (FFS) advertising for a financial officer. ‘‘It was almost like the stars aligned for me. I had the banking background — I’d obviously been playing for some time. It was just a matter of my professional background coming together with my love for the game. I threw my hat in the ring for that role and haven’t looked back.’’ She became Samoa’s chief executive in 2009, leading a total overhaul. ‘‘When I joined [FFS] were in ‘normalisation’ where the organisation had been suspended by Fifa because the administration had misused the funding. A complete rebuild was needed. It gave me this incredible insight into how to build and rebuild a sport from scratch across the country. ‘‘I spent six years in Samoa and by the time I left we had established a national league, youth leagues, all the national teams were active at senior and youth level, we set up regional centres, we had regular grassroots’ kids activities, football was going into schools. We reintroduced the sport to the country quite successfully.’’ But Bareman’s Samoan CEO appointment was met with some resistance from men with entrenched sexist attitudes about women in sport. In an interview last October on TVNZ’s Sunday show, Bareman revealed she ‘‘wasn’t respected because of my gender’’ and when she tried to ‘‘drive things forward’’ she was told: ‘‘you don’t belong her, get back in the kitchen ... really horrible stuff’’. ‘‘Football is traditionally a male-dominated sport, both on and off the pitch,’’ she said. ‘‘It shook things up a little bit, me being from New Zealand, this outsider woman, relatively young still at that stage appointed to a position of authority. ‘‘I think it took some time for many to adjust to that. I had to deal with a bit of discrimination around that, which wasn’t easy I have to say.’’ Her frustrations became public during a keynote address at the Pacific Youth and Sport Conference in 2013 in New Caledonia where she told the audience about the discrimination and prejudice she had faced. ‘‘What really stuck out about that was after my speech the number of people that swarmed around me, women in particular, who shared with me their own stories. ‘‘That helped me to understand that my story’s not unique, unfortunately, particularly at that time years ago. A lot of women in the Pacific region were experiencing similar things, and were grateful to me for having voiced it because it was something that was going unseen. ‘‘Standing there and sharing my story helped to empower a lot of women who were in that same position in one form or other. ‘‘Things have obviously improved massively since then, but it’s also fair to say there’s still a long way to go before we really do normalise seeing women in decision-making roles right across the world in football. ‘‘I’m really grateful that now I’m in a position with Fifa where I can actually assess the change from that top down.’’ Bareman says the New Caledonia speech was a career turning point. ‘‘That’s what gave me the strength and confidence to not hide behind those things [and] to know that my story’s not unique and that there are many other women in the region and around the globe who are in similar positions, and it’s important that we actually work together as women in a maledominated sport.’’ She left Samoa in 2015 to return to Auckland as deputy director at the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) where she enjoyed the opportunity to expand her efforts right across the Pacific, to ‘‘go beyond Samoa and learn more about the Pacific neighbours, and I really loved that’’. Bareman hadn’t been at the OFC long before Fifa was rocked by a corruption scandal where there were some high-profile arrests. A Fifa reform committee was put in place in 2016 and ‘‘because of the work I’d done in Samoa rebuilding the federation [after its suspension]’’, Bareman was selected as the committee’s Oceania representative. ‘‘And it just so happened that I was the only woman in that committee, so I ended up really pushing for and representing the interests of the women’s game, and women in football. Many of the reforms that I negotiated for within that committee were directly related to more resourcing of the women’s game, more representation for women in decisionmaking, and those reforms were eventually approved and put in place.’’ Bareman worked closely during the reform process with European football representative Gianni Infantino, a Swiss lawyer and secretary general of the Uefa confederation. ‘‘What a lot of people don’t know, in those [reform committee] meetings when I was advocating for changes and clauses relating to women and women’s football, Gianni was always the first person to speak up in support of my proposals,’’ Bareman said. ‘‘He helped me a lot actually, using his legal background to put together and draft some of the clauses that eventually got into the constitution. I saw back then, before either of us knew or dreamt we’d be in Fifa, he was supporting all the initiatives I was putting forward around the women’s game.’’ Bareman says ‘‘for me, it was very natural’’ that when Infantino became Fifa president at its 2016 Congress ‘‘women’s football was at the top of his list in terms of his agenda’’. Fifa established its first-ever Women’s Football Division in 2016 with Bareman appointed chief women’s football officer. She lives in Zurich with her husband Mark Blakelock-Toma, a quantity surveyor she met in Samoa, and their young son. Bareman oversaw the Fifa women’s World Cup in France in 2019 where a record 1,131,312 fans watched the 52 games (at an average of 21,756 per game) and global TV audiences topped one billion. She’s confident the 2023 World Cup down under will be ‘‘bigger and better’’ and says women’s football is ‘‘the biggest growth area in our game, hands-down across the board’’. ‘‘Year on year, we see huge indications, even domestically in some of the leagues around the world. There were more than 90,000 for the local derby in Spain in Barcelona, we saw 87,000 at the final of the women’s Euros (in 2022) in England. That was obviously a dream result with the host getting through to the final and winning it. ‘‘But even beyond those numbers, we see more and more countries around the world being active. At the moment, there are more and more teams with the Fifa women’s rankings than there ever have been in the history of Fifa. That means more and more countries are playing on a regular basis, and we know that when a national team is active the entire structure underneath is active as well. The 2023 World Cup will be the first with 32 teams – up from 24 in 2015 and 2019. ‘‘We’ve got a whole lot of debutants joining the women’s World Cup this year,’’ Bareman says. ‘‘Some of the stories around their qualifying were absolutely beautiful. In [the Republic of] Ireland, the country went absolutely nuts when they qualified.’’ Seeing teams like the Irish and fellow first-timers Morocco – whose men’s side reached last month’s World Cup semifinals in Qatar – ‘‘come into the fray alongside the usual powerhouses, the likes of USA, Netherlands, France and Germany, makes it really exciting for us’’. Bareman believes Fifa is on track to reaching its 60 million female participants because ‘‘all the indicators show that the growth of the game is continuing at a rapid pace. ‘‘To be at the pulse of that, and to be able to shape that somewhat, is a huge privilege.’’ Bareman is hugely passionate abut her Fifa job, but isn’t blinkered when it comes to other sports. She and her husband ‘‘often get up at 4am [in Switzerland] in the wee hours on the pay-per-view’’ to watch fighters trained by her brother Eugene Bareman, from Auckland’s famed City Kickboxing Gym, compete on the UFC circuit. ‘‘It’s a sport I also fell in love with, obviously with my brother being involved in combat sport for many, many years, initially kick boxing and later MMA when he progressed to that. I’m very, very proud of Eugene and the success he’s had. ‘‘I’m a huge fan [of MMA]. It’s an incredible sport, I’ve seen firsthand the dedication and commitment it takes for those athletes to excel at the highest level. I have a lot of respect for those athletes and my brother for what he does to train them.’’ Bareman says ‘‘having that wide sporting experience, and also fandom I’d have to say’’ has helped her in her Fifa role. Bareman hopes the cup can build on the energy and goodwill created by last year’s women’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. She was ‘‘lucky enough’’ to be home for it, and, like millions of her Kiwi compatriots, ‘‘fell in love with’’ the Black Ferns on their march to the title. Bareman says the cup will be ‘‘a huge catalyst’’ in Fifa’s push for the magic 60m female goal. ‘‘We saw after France [in 2019] that in England alone 850,000 women and girls joined football and laced up their boots for the first time. ‘‘It is the beautiful game, and there are so many benefits to playing it and having it accessible to women and girls. If we can expand that and increase the number of girls that are playing, we absolutely should.’’ The cup ‘‘shines the spotlight’’ on all women involved in the game, from players, coaches, referees and administrators. ‘‘We’ve got a strategy, a clear objective, and we know that once every four years when a women’s World Cup comes around it provides an accelerator effect.’’ This tournament is even more special for Bareman because it’s in her backyard. ‘‘Obviously, from my personal perspective being a Kiwi and coming from under down under . . . I’m really excited for everyone back home to see and fell how big a women’s World Cup really is.’’