The Westie UFC fan running global football
Life has held a good few surprises for Sarai Bareman.
One of the biggest came just last month, when Bareman - a Kiwi-Samoan self-proclaimed Westie - popped up on a list of power-brokers that included the likes of IRB chief Brett Gosper, UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin and basketball colossus LeBron James.
Published by London-based sports business magazine Sportspro, the listicle highlighted the 10 people on the planet who would have the greatest influence on sport in 2019. “These figures will define the sports industry in the year ahead," it stated.
“I couldn’t believe it, honestly,” says Bareman, via telephone from Zurich. “I was shocked. Obviously I’m greatly humbled and appreciative to even be on a list with some of those people.
“It was nice recognition, but it also speaks to the scope of work I have in front of me, the responsibility I have on my shoulders. It's not something I take lightly.”
If Bareman was surprised to be named in such high-powered company, she probably shouldn’t have been. Her mandate as Fifa’s chief women’s football officer includes doubling the sports global female player base from 30 to 60 million.
She’s ultimately responsible for all levels of the game – from grassroots through to elite international competition – across 200 countries.
Fifa has more member nations than the United Nations, she points out. It’s some job she has on her hands, then.
As Sportspro describes it: “New Zealander Sarai Bareman is among the most high-profile advocates for change in a globally relevant, yet still male-dominated sport. If women’s soccer, and women’s sport in general, has been characterised by impressive popularity growth and increased commercialisation in recent times, 2019 will see a continuation of concerted efforts to realise genuine progress.”
Bareman’s journey from Auckland’s west to Fifa’s gilded halls in Zurich, and the forefront of a push for gender equality in the world’s biggest sport, is a tale of doing the right thing, with a good dollop of being in the right place at the right time - at the right moment in history.
She's still a little surprised by it.
“I still pinch myself at times,” she says. “It's been an interesting journey. I can’t say it's one that I planned.”
Bareman was raised in a traditional Kiwi rugby family - with a rugby coach father, team manager mother and three rugby-playing brothers.
By opting to switch from “first love” rugby to football at high school, she became the Bareman family's “black sheep”. But football suited her. And she loved it.
She made the Massey High School first XI, then graduated to club play with Waitakere, Glenfield and North Shore United, ultimately earning international representation for Samoa – the homeland of her mother.
But Bareman wasn’t spotted by Fifa for tearing up teams on the pitch. Rather, it was her work carefully, patiently stitching things back together off the field that caught the eye of the game’s power-brokers in Switzerland.
After a decade working in banking and finance in New Zealand, Bareman was ready for a change. She took a holiday to Samoa to learn more about her roots.
While there, she spotted an advertisement for a finance role at the Samoa Football Federation.
She landed the job – and some job it was. Having been cut off by Fifa (a process called being placed in normalisation) for misusing funds, the SFF was heavily in debt. Its facilities were in a state of disrepair; there was no football activity on the ground to speak of.
The game was effectively dead.
Bareman’s job was to help rebuild the sport from the ground up. That meant re-establishing relations with the country’s banks and corporate sector, and ultimately getting back on terms with Fifa.
Before long she became CEO, heading up what became a six-year reclamation project.
It would not be the last time she would deal with the toxic combination of incompetence and corruption – something that is hardly confined to the Pacific.
“It is something that happens globally, especially in the developing regions," she says. "Unfortunately, there are people out there who don’t have the best of intentions. Sport equals power, governance, politics, money. And when people who don’t have the best intentions get involved, that is when we see things start to go wrong.
“The saddest thing for me, particularly in Samoa and the Pacific region, is that the people who suffer are the players.”
By 2015, Bareman had returned to Auckland and taken up a role with the Oceania Football Federation. With the Confederation about to host the U20 World Cup in New Zealand, it was a heady time.
On the eve of the tournament, though, on the other side of the world, Fifa's crumbling sky fell in. Seven senior Fifa officials - including U20 World Cup chairman Jeffrey Webb, the Concacaf president - were arrested at a hotel in Zurich as they prepared for Fifa’s 65th congress. It was part of an investigation that would unearth global corruption in the game.
The scandal sparked a drive for meaningful change. Bareman’s experience in Samoa made her an ideal candidate to be Oceania’s representative – and the only female - on Fifa's 13-strong ‘reform’ committee.
It was a unique opportunity.
“As the only female on that committee I advocated for a higher representation of women within the decision-making bodies of football,” she says. “I also advocated that the women’s game needed to be brought into the mainstream – that there was a massive opportunity not only for Fifa, but for everyone, with the promotion of the women’s game, which has historically been in the shadows.
“It was really awesome to have that voice."
Her voice, as it transpired, was most certainly heard. In February 2016, Fifa’s congress approved the committee’s reform package, including measures to improve gender equality.
“That was a momentous occasion for women in football and the women’s game because we were able to instill within the constitution concrete measures towards increasing women in the game,” says Bareman.
One of the first moves made by incoming Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, was to set up a division dedicated to women’s football. Bareman was shoulder-tapped to apply to run it. By December, she was touching down in Zurich.
The decision to leave New Zealand wasn't hard.
“To be able to have an impact on a global scale with an organisation like Fifa is an incredible opportunity,” she says.
Bareman stands out in Zurich not just for hailing from one of the smaller members of Fifa’s smallest confederation, nor for being a high-ranking female in a world that is still male-dominated.
Her colleagues are a bit baffled, she admits, by her habit of watching live broadcasts of mixed martial arts - the bloodiest of all the blood sports.
“I’m often up late at night here in Switzerland tuned in to the UFC,” she chuckles.
Her interest in proceedings is more than just passing. She grew up watching ringside as eldest brother, Eugene, fashioned a decent kickboxing and MMA record as a fighter. She's since looked on admiringly as he has created one of the world’s pre-eminent UFC fighter stables as a coach.
“I spent many an evening screaming my lungs out as a spectator at many of his fights,” she says.
It's genuinely hard to imagine a scene more remote from Fifa's staid Zurich headquarters than a west Auckland kickboxing promotion. However, there is no doubt both Bareman siblings are having a major impact on the sporting world just now.
Eugene Bareman's City Kickboxing gym was ranked the third most successful in the UFC in 2018 - with Israel Adesanya, Dan Hooker and Kai Kara-France headlining a cast of fighters attracting global attention.
“I’m really, really proud of him,” Bareman says of Eugene. “I’m not just saying this because he's my brother, but there are few people in the world I have met who have that level of commitment, dedication and passion for what they do.
“He's been like that for as long as I’ve known him, so it's so great to see the success that's coming from that.”
While never tempted to fight herself, Bareman often trained in Eugene’s gym and remains a genuine MMA fan.
“A lot of people are surprised when they see how supportive I am of that sport – but I think it is amazing. What the athletes do is really incredible.”
Given her “to-do” list in her day job, it’s no surprise Bareman seeks the odd distraction.
With a primary objective of developing the female game globally, the focus of Fifa’s women’s football unit is on helping member nations develop the women’s game on the ground.
Their work encompasses driving participation, technical development, coaching, governance, implementing the international calendar, increased professionalisation and commercial development: “Basically everything,” Bareman says.
“This year we are also delivering the women’s World Cup in France. I am so excited for that. It's going to be massive - the biggest female sporting event in the world. For me that provides the biggest opportunity to put our sport in front of the eyeballs of millions of people around the world and showcase what women’s football really is.
“My ultimate goal is that Fifa as an organisation shouldn’t need to have a chief of women’s football or a dedicated division, because everyone collectively across Fifa and its member countries will be equally responsible for the women’s game as they are for the men’s game. And, in the end, we aren’t talking about women’s football and men’s football, we are just talking about football.”
We’re not there yet.
The first men’s World Cup for men was 1930 in Uruguay. The women’s version didn’t appear until 1991. It was another 16 years until the women’s event offered prizemoney.
Here's another stark statistic. In 2018, Fifa tracked transfers of female professional players for the first time. The sum total of all global transfers was less than $US600,000. In the same year, Paris St Germain paid Barcelona $US262 million for Neymar.
“When you look at that, you can see that women’s football is in its infancy,” Bareman says. “We have to keep that in mind and be realistic in what we are trying to achieve.”
She has watched proceedings in New Zealand football – which have included the sacking of the Football Ferns coach amid allegations of bullying and a major review of the sport’s governance – with a keen interest.
“From my perspective from my time in Samoa and here at Fifa, it is actually the times of adversity that lead to the greatest opportunities and possibilities - and I believe the same will happen to New Zealand football,” she says.
“I’m following closely and supporting from afar.”
New Zealand, though, is just one tiny outpost on a footballing planet that needs plenty of attention. Not to mention that, to achieve one of Fifa’s stated goals, Bareman and her team need to dig up another 30,000,0000 players.
“By doubling the numbers of females playing, it will have a positive impact not just on football, but on society,” she says. “We see through women playing sports, girls participating in football, there are so many benefits off the back of that. If we can increase that impact of that then why wouldn’t we try? We have to. It's part of our obligation.”
SportsPro’s bio of Sarai Bareman
Chief women’s football officer, Fifa
Installed as Fifa’s first chief women’s football officer in 2016, New Zealander Sarai Bareman is among the most high-profile advocates for change in a globally relevant yet still male-dominated sport. If women’s soccer, and women’s sport in general, has been characterised by impressive popularity growth and increased commercialisation in recent times, 2019 will see a continuation of concerted efforts to realise genuine progress.
In October, Fifa launched its first-ever Women's Football Strategy, a far-reaching initiative designed to grow girls participation worldwide, to boost professionalisation and enhance commercial value of the women’s game, and to ensure greater female representation on key decision-making bodies. In doing so, Bareman and her colleagues set down a marker for how women in sport might be viewed for years to come.
And there can be no mistaking that women’s soccer, particularly at international level, is gathering momentum. Canada’s Women’s World Cup in 2015 broke just about every record for the tournament; this summer’s edition in France, as one of the standout events of the sporting year, looks set to raise the bar once again. Off the field, too, major brands like Nike and Adidas are throwing their considerable marketing muscle behind the women’s game, while grassroots programmes and participation drives like Uefa’s 'Together #WePlayStrong' campaign signify a rising tide of high-level support.
Another successful World Cup in France would be the ideal platform to build towards achieving Fifa’s stated goal of doubling the number of female soccer players to 60 million by 2026. But at a time when attitudes are slowly but surely changing, Bareman’s role should be seen within the context of a far broader social and cultural movement towards women’s empowerment and gender equality.