MELBOURNE - Former New Zealand international Maia Jackman said Saudi sponsorship of the Women's World Cup would be in "complete opposition" to female empowerment and set back her work as an ambassador for the tournament.
Australia and New Zealand, co-hosts of this year's World Cup, wrote to global soccer governing body FIFA on Wednesday seeking urgent clarification after The Guardian reported Visit Saudi will be named as a major sponsor of the tournament.
Jackman, one of FIFA's "Beyond Greatness Champions," a team of women promoting the World Cup, said accepting Saudi sponsorship would be a "disempowering message" for women.
"FIFA have so much power to change the world for females and this kind of comes out," she told New Zealand news website Stuff. "If (the Saudi sponsorship) goes to fruition, it would affect how people see the sport. It’s hard when we’re trying so hard to push things forward."
FIFA and Visit Saudi have declined to comment on sponsorship of the World Cup but the prospect of a commercial tie-up has triggered outrage in the host countries. Kate Gill, co-chair of players union Professional Footballers Australia, complained that players were not consulted on FIFA's commercial decisions and the governing body was not meeting human rights commitments.
"Unfortunately, FIFA has consistently shown that they lack the willingness to meet their own stated commitments and this has eroded football’s ability to be a genuine force for good," the former Australia striker said in comments published by Sydney Morning Herald.
Earlier on Thursday, New Zealand's sports minister Grant Robertson said FIFA should consider his country's progress on empowering women and girls.
"I would like to think that FIFA would understand that as well, and when they are thinking about their commercial arrangements that they would factor that in," he added.
The Women's World Cup runs from July 20 to Aug. 20.
Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has introduced reforms allowing women greater control over their lives in recent years but men still retain a tight grip on power in the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia, named host nation of the 2027 Asian Cup on Wednesday, also has ambitions of hosting the World Cup in 2030 as well as the Women's Asian Cup in 2026. Ibrahim Al Kassim, the secretary general of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, said on Wednesday that although his body was not involved in sponsorship deals, such moves were a part of his country's new engagement with the world.
"Saudi Arabia is opening to the world. Saudi Arabia is reaching out to the world, just to show the world what Saudi Arabia is capable of," he told Reuters at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) congress in Bahrain. "As you might have seen, Saudi Arabia has been hosting so many competitions, and so many sports."
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Additional reporting by Michael Church in Manama; Editing by Peter Rutherford)