FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, appointed Senegal’s Fatma Samoura as its new secretary general. Not only is Samoura the first woman to ever hold the post, she is also the first African and non-European to do so.
Samoura replaces former secretary general Jerome Valcke, who was fired last September and banned from soccer for 12 years for the illegal sale of World Cup tickets that emerged in the wake of a massive corruption scandal involving the FIFA leaders. Valcke had held the position since 2007.
Samoura is expected to take office in mid-June, subject to an eligibility check in accordance with FIFA rules. Though she has no previous experience in the soccer world, Samoura comes into the job on the back of a 21-year career as a United Nations official with the World Food Programme, work that took her to six African countries as a director or representative.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino says Samoura’s lack of sports experience is an asset, particularly as the body is addressing its credibility deficit.
“It is essential for FIFA to incorporate fresh perspectives—from outside the traditional pool of football executives—as we continue to restore and rebuild our organization,” Infantino said, citing Samoura’s “proven ability to build and lead teams.”
For Infantino, picking an African for such an important role could be crucial to building an important relationship with the continent that makes up FIFA’s largest voting bloc. His predecessor, Sepp Blatter, enjoyed goodwill in Africa as a result of his projects focused on growing the game on the continent and also his key role in the 2010 FIFA World Cup bid won by South Africa.
But that relationship took on a new tenor after the US Justice Department found that the South African football confederation sent a $10 million payment to Jack Warner, a former FIFA official facing criminal corruption charges. US investigators say the money was a bribe to win the rights to the Cup, while South African officials say it was an “above-board payment” to promote soccer in in the Caribbean.
Samoura’s appointment also comes at a time when gender equality in football is a burning issue. Nowhere is this more prominent than in the United States, where the national women’s team earns around 60% less than the men’s team despite a greater track record of success. Female players have filed a federal complaint against the US Soccer Federation protesting the pay gap.
FIFA has not been without its own gender issues. Two years ago, the body was accused of blatant sexism in appointing its officials, and Blatter himself had a tendency to spout crude misogyny. With the appointment of Samoura, FIFA officials says the organization is addressing gender balance in soccer.
“We want to embrace diversity and we believe in gender equality,” Infantino says.