Why you should care
Because this UN veteran’s leadership will be under a microscope at this year’s World Cup.
In white and black sneakers, she methodically dribbles the soccer ball — which matches her footwear — next to rows of national flags from all over the world. Carefully, she passes the ball from one foot to the other, showing off for the camera. For someone with no professional soccer experience, Fatma Samoura’s technique isn’t half bad. But it’s not her football skills that brought her to a high-ranking leadership role within FIFA, an organization long dominated by men and long embroiled in corruption.
In March, Forbes named Samoura, 55, the Most Powerful Woman in International Sport, and last week, BBC added her to its annual “100 Women” list of the most influential and inspirational women in the world. When FIFA president Gianni Infantino appointed Senegal-born Samoura as secretary general in 2016, she became the first woman and first non-European to hold the position. She replaced Jérôme Valcke, who was banned from soccer-related activity for 12 years for ethical breaches including misuse of private jets — just one of many recent FIFA scandals still hanging over the organization as the World Cup begins in Russia this month, and Samoura’s leadership goes under a global microscope.
Some don’t think a Black woman should be leading FIFA.
Though she has no prior experience in a professional sporting organization, Samoura’s 21 years in the United Nations, most recently as a humanitarian coordinator, prepared her well for the FIFA job. At the UN, she fostered peace and supported gender-equality efforts in some of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, including Afghanistan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Kosovo and Nigeria. Her on-the-ground experience, coupled with a post-master’s degree in international relations and international trade, translates well to governing soccer in FIFA’s 211 member countries. And crisis experience matters as FIFA has been trying to haul itself out of a deep well of corruption. In 2015, 41 people and companies were charged in connection with an FBI investigation into FIFA’s wire fraud, racketeering and money laundering. Then-president Sepp Blatter was removed as a result.
Samoura’s global policy background and peacekeeping prowess have slowly helped the organization rebuild its reputation. She’s kept a close eye on its finances, and under her watch, the proportion of women within FIFA’s administration increased from 32 percent in 2016 to 48 percent today.
Samoura is also trying to repair a scandal more serious than bribery: the conditions for approximately 1.6 million migrant workers in Qatar who are building facilities for the 2022 World Cup and have been subject to rampant abuse and exploitation. “Over the past six months we haven’t heard anything negative about the worker condition in Qatar,” Samoura told the BBC.
But Amnesty International released a report in April finding continued exploitation of construction workers. While World Cup organizers, led by Samoura, have enforced special regulations aimed at stemming the problem, workers still live under Qatar’s repressive system that gives employers power to abuse them. And there are no signs of abatement as Qatar is set to build at least seven more World Cup stadiums in the coming years.
Samoura’s short time as secretary general has come with other challenges too. In April, FIFA’s World Cup bid evaluation committee accused Samoura of knowingly failing to declare that one of the bid ambassadors in Morocco, former Liverpool forward El Hadji Diouf, is her cousin. Samoura called the accusations “totally ridiculous and baseless” and several days later the FIFA ethics team cleared her of wrongdoing.
It’s the kind of incident that leads Samoura to believe that sexism and racism still reign within the organization. “Some don’t think a Black woman should be leading FIFA,” she told the BBC. But she sticks it out for one reason: the unifying power of soccer. At FIFA’s 2018 Conference for Equality and Inclusion, Samoura spoke about her experience working for the UN in Liberia during the country’s first civil war: “The only moment when people would stop fighting … was when it was raining or when they were playing football.”
With its corruption hangover and ongoing human-rights abuses, FIFA is hardly associated with innocent sandlot footie anymore. As her leadership comes under further scrutiny in the coming weeks during Russia’s World Cup — hosted by a nation with its own global PR problems — Samoura’s job is to keep the world’s eyes squarely on the field.