There are some announcements that are so incongruous and unlikely that the only appropriate response is: “You’re having a laugh, surely?”
Into that category must be placed the suggestion that Saudi Arabia is to become a major sponsor of football’s Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand this summer, a tournament that Ireland will open at Stadium Australia in Sydney against the Matildas. Such is the interest in the match that it has been moved to a venue with a capacity of 82,500.
Saudi Arabia’s tourist authority is being considered for prime commercial involvement despite the country’s history of oppression of women’s rights. True, there have been some changes — an end to the notorious ban on driving and semi-liberalisation of rules allowing women to apply for official documents including a passport and to travel alone (with “permission” from their husband or other male guardian.)
Progress has also been made in soccer with female fans free to attend football since 2018 and a four nation female football tournament taking place for the first time last month.
But the country still has a strict guardianship law. Women require male consent to marry or gain access to certain forms of healthcare. Legal actions can be brought for “disobedience” and for being absent from home. In addition, there remains low tolerance in the Gulf States for the LBGTQ+ communities, surely a contradiction when the women’s game has numerous players who are gay.
It’s not a form of progress which would be recognised by Aussie or New Zealand women which is one of the reasons that the joint hosts say they are “disappointed” and Amnesty International describe the move as "crude exploitation" of the sport.
Sometimes a bad idea can bring positive outcomes. While this is not of the order, perhaps, of presenting a musical in New York called, it is difficult to find reasons to commend it.
Perhaps it would have been useful to have discussed it with the participating teams first. But of course, the governing body Fifa, may not have felt the need. After all it was that organisation’s president, Gianni Infantino, who said at the start of the men’s world cup “today I feel gay” demonstrating that he has the requisite levels of empathy to judge such matters.