Among the 58,000 in attendance at the Fifa Women’s World Cup final on Monday (NZT) will be one very proud Kiwi. She’ll be mixing with the dignitaries, world leaders and other VIP’s that gather on such stages, for the clash between the United States and the Netherlands. While most will be basking in the glory of the occasion, Sarai Bareman’s emotions will be a mix of quiet satisfaction, pride and relief. That’s because this tournament, which has been arguably the most successful women’s event in Fifa’s history, with close to a million spectators and record television audiences, has been her baby. Bareman, who grew up in West Auckland and attended Massey High school, is the global head of Women’s football at FIFA, responsible for overseeing the delivery of this World Cup. It’s occupied much of her time over the last two years, and that work has paid off. If the 2015 World Cup in Canada put female football on the map, this edition has taken it to another stratosphere. It’s captured the imagination of the sports world in a way never seen before, and converted legions of new fans, in a kaleidoscope of colour and compelling action. France’s run to the last eight saw unprecedented media coverage across the host nation, while England’s semifinal with the USA drew a peak audience of 11.7 million to the BBC, attracting 43 per cent of all British prime time viewers. The second semifinal, between the Netherlands and Sweden, was the most watched programme on Dutch television since the 2014 Fifa World Cup, while Brazil’s quarterfinal against France had 35 million Brazilians riveted to their screens, the largest single Women’s World Cup match audience in history. Bareman has also driven a new, innovative digital approach — spearheaded by the Super Heroes campaign ahead of the tournament, which enlisted 23 legendary male and female players to promote the event, with The Invisible Wall (Gilberto Silva), The Bison (Michael Essien), Martial Lore (Laura Georges) and K.O. (Tim Cahill). Bareman, 38, also showed her fun approach recently, when she posted letters from Fifa to Twitter, giving “official” permission for people to miss work or school to watch the important games. “We are trying to change the face of Fifa and how we are viewed,” Bareman tells the Herald. “We need to stay relevant and young, get more people into the game because it’s cool what we do and we need to remember that.” While Bareman loves the opportunity she has been given, it’s also all consuming. Since beginning the job in late 2016, Bareman has lost count of the number of countries she has visited. Fifa has 211 member nations — more than the UN — across the full spectrum of cultures, languages and political ideologies. “I’ve got one of those cardboard globes and I used to put a pin in every place but I ran out of pins,” says Bareman. “It’s been quite a few and I have become very familiar with the inside of hotel rooms.” Sarai Bareman during a press conference ahead of the Fifa under-17 Women’s World Cup in Uruguay last year. Photo / Getty Images Bareman values the personal touch, saying it’s hard to understand the footballing landscape in Bolivia, Burkina Faso or Bosnia, unless you are actually there. “You really need to understand your members and the context on the ground,” she says. “And the only way to do that is to see them in their environment, seeing the challenges and success stories directly.” Bareman has a team in Zurich, and earlier this year a women’s football specialist was also appointed to each of Fifa’s nine regions worldwide. But Bareman is at the top of the tree, which can mean enquiries at all hours from the across the globe. “In terms of calls and texts from around the world, it is still happening but I would say a little less now,” she says. “But when you work in an international organisation, it’s part of the job, with stakeholders all around the world. “I don’t mind it, if I get a warning in advance. The calls in the middle of the night are sometimes still a little jarring. But it’s become better, I’ve built relationships with a few stakeholders and they kinda know I’m sleeping.” Bareman has a football administration background — she was CEO of the Samoan federation then spent two years at the Oceania Football Confederation — but being a key part of the Fifa machine, which clocked US$6.4 billion in revenue over the last four years, is another challenge altogether. It’s big business, with big demands. The FIFA Women’s Wrld Cup trophy is displayed on a train between Nice and Lyon in France. Photo / Getty Images “There have still been plenty of days leaving the office very late,” says Bareman. “I’ve got a very understanding husband. It’s the nature of the beast, especially this year with a World Cup, but I couldn’t do it if I wasn’t passionate.” “The biggest challenge is prioritising, [as] the demands on my time are always going to be there. I use a lot of organising apps and project management tools and rely heavily on my super-efficient Swiss PA. She looks out for my wellbeing and often pulls me into line. She will tell me ‘you are not going to do this trip, it’s too much’.” Bareman’s position also means she is a target for criticism. Last October Fifa announced a significant increase in the Women’s World Cup prizemoney, from $US15 million to US$30 million. It was a 100 per cent jump, but didn’t satisfy critics, including some players, who fixate on the disparity with the men’s game while ignoring the relative revenue streams. “I’ve had to harden myself a bit to it,” says Bareman. “The most difficult aspect is that a lot of the criticism is coming from other women. For me, that’s somehow surprising because it is not the way I operate and has taken some getting used to. “We more than tripled the prizemoney package, and within that we have introduced, for the first time, preparatory money for the teams that have qualified and a club benefits programme which rewards the clubs that have developed the players. These are milestone moments and something that should be celebrated, as a step forward for Fifa and the women’s game “So I was surprised at the level of criticism that came; negative comments on social media, the attacks on you personally but they are also part of my journey.” Those who push the inequality band wagon — particularly the high profile USA team — often omit context from their argument. The first Women’s World Cup was staged 61 years after the inaugural edition of the men’s (in 1930), and had no prizemoney until 2007. And the women’s teams receive a much greater share of their tournament revenue than their male counterparts did in Russia last year. Alex Morgan of the USA celebrates after scoring her side’s second goal during the World Cup semifinal against England. Photo / Getty Images For her part, Bareman sees more urgent priorities than simply prizemoney. “The global reality is far from that elite level; the majority of our countries are still developing and there are not a lot of places around the world where women can earn a living playing football — that’s our reality.” Statistics bear that out. It’s estimated there are more than 130,000 professional male players across the world, compared with around 1,200 females. “If we are going to invest millions of dollars into the women’s game, is it really of value to just put it into the top 24 nations who qualified for the women’s World Cup? Or should we be looking to spread that across the global base to bring the rest up to the level where they can compete at the elite level? “Still, I applaud [the players] for speaking out. They are well within their rights and in their shoes I would do the same thing.” Fifa president Gianni Infantino is a strong ally. He shoulder tapped Bareman for the role, after serving with her on the Fifa reform committee in 2015, before Infantino was elected president in February 2016. Fifa president Gianni Infantino (left) with French president Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, at the Women’s World Cup. Photo / Getty Images “I know her very well,” Infantino told the Herald during his visit to Auckland in March. “She was actually the only woman on that reform committee and she made sure that gender equality questions were present in our discussions and debates. Sarai always brought us back to this, in addition to her competencies on the football side. “I was very happy when she decided to join Fifa. I wanted to create a dedicated division for women’s football, which Sarai is directing now. She brings a lot of competence, a lot of expertise. She is used to working in difficult situations; in Oceania it’s not always easy, and she has been doing that. What she brings as well is always a smile and sunshine.” Bareman is looking forward to returning Down Under over Christmas, and it should be a more relaxing time than last year’s trip south. At that time, aside from enjoying time with her family in west Auckland, Bareman also spent a few weeks with her husband Mark in Samoa, as he undertook the ritual of Pe’a, the traditional tattoo from waist to knees, with his two brothers. “It was really intense, exhausting but the most amazing experience, humbling and very grounding,” says Bareman. “I was so proud of him because not an easy thing to go through. The longest session was 12 hours. It’s not with the needle; it’s the traditional method, with traditional tools. It’s a really brave thing to go through.” Sarai Bareman in Auckland earlier this year. Photo / Photosport But for now she is focussed on driving the newly launched Fifa’s Women’s Football strategy — the first of its kind — which aims to double player numbers (to 60 million) by 2026 and increase commercial opportunities for the women’s game. The success of the tournament in France will only enhance Bareman’s reputation in Fifa circles, and improve her leverage among some of world sports’ biggest power brokers. It’s a long way from Massey High, and the National Bank branch in Ponsonby, where Bareman had her first job as a bank teller. “It is, but you know what, it was those places, and it was that school, and where I grew up and the people around me made me who I am today,” she says. “I’ll never forget that and it’s with me every day and everywhere that I go”

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