With WTO, Fifa scores one more in Geneva

French footballer Didier Drogba, Fifa president Gianni Infantino, German footballer Anja Mittag and WTO president Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala unveiling the 2023 Women's World Cup award at WTO headquarters, 1 May 2023. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

Six months after the controversial World Cup in Qatar, Fifa returned to Geneva to present a new partnership with the WTO at a star-filled event. But some are scratching their heads over the alliance.

The programme promised football giants, heads of United Nations organisations, a Saudi princess, female entrepreneurs and a reception to mingle with the all-star cast. The venue was the World Trade Organization (WTO), where its director general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Gianni Infantino, the newly re-elected president of football’s governing body, Fifa, and guests were to talk about “making trade score for women”.

Two months ahead of the Women’s World Cup, the event held on Monday also included ambassadors from Australia and New Zealand to instil the importance of supporting women in sport as well as of the month-long tournament their countries will host. It comes as Fifa struggles to lock television rights with networks to broadcast it.

But understanding how and why the two global organisations will cooperate was more unclear. Although admittedly reluctant to Infantino’s initial proposal to collaborate when he approached her in 2021, Okonjo-Iweala said she later thought it was “intriguing”.

“At first, I did a double take,” the Nigerian WTO chief told the audience at the event. “When I came back, and I had reflected on it, I thought, there are some parallels.” She listed efforts by Fifa to grow women’s football and reduce pay gaps, which were similar to objectives at WTO to empower women in trade.

According to both WTO and Fifa, at least $200 billion of global commerce is made in football-related goods and services annually, including cotton sports apparel produced in the “Cotton Four” nations in the western Sahel region of Africa – Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Benin. However, only 30 per cent of that goes to developing countries.  In September, the two organisations signed a memorandum of understanding to enhance the four countries’ role in football-wear supply chains.

Pointing to how much of the business from football is generated in Europe, Infantino queried: “Imagine how much of that could be generated elsewhere? The Cotton Four initiative is part of unleashing that potential.”

As a self-proclaimed reformer at Fifa for having nominated the first woman as its secretary general, Fatma Samoura, and endorsing equal pay for woman footballers, Infantino also called on public broadcasters to “put the money behind their policies” and offer to pay the same for rights to air the upcoming women’s football tournament as for the male events.

“They should pay the value that it is worth knowing that the money goes back to the women who play.  One hundred per cent of the money goes back,” Infantino said about rights payments made to Fifa.

In 2022, the prize pot for the men’s World Cup was $440 million, while, according to Fifa’s latest annual report, revenue from broadcasting rights was a whopping $2.9 billion. Fifa’s net in-the-pocket earnings for the year were $2.3 billion.

Risky, pragmatic or natural alliances?

Infantino, now in his seventh year as president of Fifa, has long sparked controversy since he complained of an unsatisfactory annual salary of less than CHF2 million and displayed a penchant for private jets. He has been a staunch supporter of Qatar even as evidence grew of labour abuses and reports of thousands of deaths of workers employed in the emirate since the country won the bidding contest for the World Cup. Infantino, who announced his residency in Qatar in early 2022, himself preferred to emphasise the opportunities that work in the Gulf state offered rather than its abysmal labour record.

A Fifa promo projected at the WTO event that hears the Fifa boss articulate his infamous description of Qatar as the “best World Cup ever”, however, included only a millisecond of footage showing the Swiss-Italian sharing the final podium with the country’s emir and the Argentinian champions.

Read more: Qatar World Cup: armbands, UN visits and the FIFA middleman

In recent years, Infantino has concluded multiple agreements with UN organisations, often related to the promotion of the World Cup. These included working with the World Health Organization (WHO) for a healthy tournament last year, with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) on a football-themed toolkit to promote education, and with UNHCR and the World Food Programme to appeal for assistance for Ukrainians following Russia’s invasion in February 2022.

In November, the head of the International Labour Organization (ILO) pressured Infantino to do more to scrutinise future World Cup hosts on workers’ rights after questions were raised over Qatar’s successful lobbying at the UN agency to stifle any criticism of its labour record. The ILO hailed Qatar for reforms in its labour laws, which others decried as incomplete.

“According to the statutes, Infantino’s job is not an operational job. It is a representational job, yet for 365 days a year, he operates outside the statutes,” a former Fifa official told Geneva Solutions. “He doesn’t see himself as a football leader but rather as a global leader and likes to be jetting around the world, meeting with royals and high-level politicians.”

“Being Fifa president really means having four years to campaign for the next term as president,” he added. “As long as the money continues to flow back to the global football institution, no one really cares.”

However, just like his disgraced predecessor, Joseph “Sepp” Blatter – also renowned for his inappropriate comments about women’s soccer – Infantino is aware of the importance of support from African nations, which represent the largest voting block in Fifa through the continent’s football confederation, Concacaf.

When asked by Geneva Solutions about concerns over partnering with Fifa, Okonjo-Iweala pointed to earlier alliances the football body had with other UN agencies. “It's not the first and it's nothing new,” she said.

“Our intent when they approached us was to say ‘what will be the benefit that will be derived to our members?’,” she added. “They (Fifa) are trying to turn over a new leaf to support women, and they have shown a concrete action plan on how they will improve women’s incomes through football. Meanwhile, we have a very clear idea on how trade would fit into that and, above all, help countries in West Africa to improve value added to their cotton.”

Impact in view?

While discussions Monday oscillated between what being a woman in football meant for Anja Mittag, who won the World Cup for Germany in 2007, to promoting how the sport became a thing for Saudi women in recent years, discussions on the core matter appeared to be more in the weeds.

With local textile production facing challenges from climate change straining cotton crops as well as the competition from cheap imports, Ahmad Makaila, Chad’s ambassador to the WTO, representing the Cotton Four, said linking the football industry to the regional cotton sector “can become a tool for fighting poverty and promoting sustainable growth”.

But it wasn’t before Makaila noted how intimidated he felt to be standing next to French-Ivorian football giant Didier Drogba, who was interviewed earlier on stage by a CNN moderator— a reminder of the real draw to the event for many in the audience.

Dorothy Tembo, deputy executive director of the International Trade Centre, meanwhile stressed the importance of building capacity in the cotton supply chain, particularly among women, through needed investment and buyers.

Amid the long list of prerequisites, Okonjo-Iweala said the new partnership should be seen in a “medium-term horizon”.

“It is not something that can happen overnight,” she told Geneva Solutions. She said the WTO was launching a cotton value chain study, with the support of the African Export-Import Bank and the Geneva-based UN Industrial Development Organization (Unido), that would include a focus on the inclusion of women. Okonjo-Iweala projected that within the next two or three years, “we should see some results”.