FIFA Secretary-General Fatma Samoura hails female empowerment

Fatma Samba Diouf Samoura holds FIFA’s second-most powerful position. (Photo courtesy: FIFA)
Updated 08 March 2018
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FIFA Secretary-General Fatma Samoura hails female empowerment

DUBAI: At FIFA, long considered an old boys’ club with a locked door and glass floor, Fatma Samoura is the face of change. 
In June 2016, when newly elected president Gianni Infantino appointed her as his secretary-general, it went some way in suggesting “reform” was more than just a cute campaign slogan. Samoura, a black Muslim woman, became not only the first non-European to hold FIFA’s second-most powerful position, but also the first female to sit at the organization’s top table. 
The appointment was greeted with a mixture of satisfaction and cynicism. Supporters hailed the former UN employee as an outsider, a clean break from the previous regime and free of the stench of corruption. Critics, in contrast, noted her lack of sporting administrative experience and proclaimed the appointment as mere window dressing by Infantino. 
To mark International Women’s Day, Arab News spoke exclusively to Samoura about her journey to becoming the most influential female in world football. 
Fatma Samba Diouf Samoura was born in Dakar on Sept. 9, 1962, two years after Senegal declared independence from France. The former United Nations humanitarian co-ordinator acknowledges her parents laid the foundations for her to become the woman she is today.
“I was the second of seven children, but the only girl,” said Samoura, by phone from FIFA HQ in Zurich. “Traditionally in Senegal, because we are a Muslim society, they would not consider a woman’s education as a priority but in the case of my family it was totally the opposite. 
“My parents were both well educated — my mother was a teacher and my father was in the military — and they invested in my education, ensuring I was not discriminated either by my brothers or society. They gave me all the tools and support for me to grow up with an independent mindset.”
Samoura moved to France shortly after graduating from high school and spent the next six years studying. She returned home aged 25 with a master’s degree in English and Spanish from the University of Lyon and a postgraduate degree in international relations and trade from Strasbourg’s business school. 
For eight years, she worked for one of the largest fertilizer companies in the world. She married and now has three children, two boys and a girl.
“When I returned to Senegal, I occupied a position that was traditionally occupied by men, but I had the support of my boss, who was French and who had a very high opinion of Senegalese women. For this reason, I can say that from my childhood to the day I started working I have always been surrounded by supportive people who believe in female empowerment.”
Samoura joined the United Nations in 1995 and moved to Italy. Her job, however, would continually take her back to Africa as she worked to improve situations in places such as Chad, Madagascar, Darfur and Nigeria. It was in Madagascar during a World Cup 2018 qualifying game in November 2015 that she first met Infantino, who was reportedly immediately impressed. When the Swiss-Italian won the presidency four months later, she sent him an email. He called her, eventually offering her the job.
“I know there were other candidates,” said Samoura, who speaks French, English, Spanish, Italian and her native Wolof. “I cannot really say too much about the criteria for my appointment, but I think the fact that I was coming from a totally different background and yet had international experience was considered an asset. As for being a woman, I don’t feel any added pressure. Instead I see it as an opportunity. Already we can see FIFA is a more diverse, open and transparent organization than before and I am very proud to be leading this change.” 
FIFA’s reforms include statutory obligations to promote and support women in football and a requirement of at least one female representative in each of the six confederations on the FIFA Council. A new Women’s Football Division dedicated to the development of the female game has also been created and is led by New Zealand’s Sarai Bareman, the only woman on FIFA’s 2016 Reform Committee.
Samoura, who went to school with the former Senegalese goalkeeper Cheikh Seck and whose uncle and husband are both former players, said: “Football is nothing new to me, I have been surrounded by it since I was six years old, but I am proud to see the changes we are making and the progress we are taking in regard to the women’s game. 
“Throughout my life, I have always faced challenges as a woman in a traditional society or in a workplace dominated by men, but what has really taken me to where I am is hard work. I never expected anybody to do me a favor because I am a woman, and I still don’t.”


Riz Rehman is the man with a plan to ensure Premier League passion is Muslim-friendly

Updated 22 September 2018
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Riz Rehman is the man with a plan to ensure Premier League passion is Muslim-friendly

  • Mohamed Salah's record-breaking season has focused attention on the Premier League's Muslim players and fans.
  • Past three players to win Player of the Year have all been Muslim.

LONDON: The face of English football has changed unimaginably since the start of the Premier League in 1992 — not least in terms of the number of Muslim footballers plying their trade in the most popular league in the world.
Twenty-six years ago, Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Nayim was the league’s only practicing Muslim. Fast forward to 2018 and there are now more than 40 Muslim players gracing England’s top flight — many of them global stars such as Mohamed Salah, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante. 
This is a hugely welcome development for the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) and its education adviser, Riz Rehman, who is himself a Muslim. 
Rehman’s role involves him supporting players of different backgrounds — including Muslims — and aiming to boost their participation in football. Little wonder, then, that he is delighted that the past three winners of the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award were all Muslim — Salah, Kante and Riyad Mahrez. 
“It’s great for the Muslim community — young people, players, aspiring players and coaches — that three Muslims have won this award and that two of them (Salah and Mahrez) are Arabs,” Rehman told Arab News. 
“It’s very important because it’s created more awareness about Muslims being good at the game and sport in general. It’s important we highlight this.” 
Leading Muslim footballers’ soaring success and stardom have coincided with rising Islamaphobic attacks in Britain following the Brexit vote in 2016. Regressive attitudes toward race, religion and immigration have raged in some parts of the country, as Rehman acknowledged. 
“The biggest misconceptions are that Muslims are all terrorists or that they are all Asian and have long beards,” he said. “Isolated incidents are giving Muslims a bad name.” 
Mercifully for Rehman and the PFA, the likes of Salah and Kante are portraying Muslims in a far more positive — and realistic — light on and off the pitch. 
During his sublime 2017-18 season, Liverpool star Salah topped the Premier League goal-scoring charts with 32 goals and reached the Champions League final. His unstinting brilliance led to him being serenaded with his own song by Liverpool fans, which includes the line: “If he scores another few, then I’ll be a Muslim too.” 

Mohamed Salah has created a positive image of Muslims during his record-breaking year in the Premier League. 


Many social media posts and videos showing young supporters copying the Egyptian maestro’s overtly religious goal celebration have also been posted many times. This involves him performing sujood, the Islamic art of prostration. 
“Things like that are really helping to bring down barriers in the game,” Rehman said. 
Likewise, he cites the fact that Salah and his Liverpool teammate, Sadio Mane, visit a mosque every week after training for Jumu’ah, the Friday prayer. 
Meanwhile, only last Saturday the humbleness of Chelsea’s irrepressible midfielder Kante — who has two Premier League winners’ medals and one FA Cup success to his name — was widely hailed. 
After missing his Eurostar train to Paris, Kante — who achieved World Cup glory with France in July — was invited home for dinner by Arsenal fan Badlur Rahman Jalil after meeting him while praying at a London mosque. Remarkably, Kante duly obliged and spent the evening watching Match of the Day and playing the FIFA video game with Jalil and his friends. 
“People are more aware that we have Muslim players in the game,” Rehman said. “Players are not afraid to come out and embrace the fact that they are Muslims and showing the world that they’re good people.” 
But are the PFA — and clubs in the Premier League and England in general — doing enough to increase Muslim representation in English football? 
“I think things are better than ever. A lot of clubs are working hard on all-inclusive programs,” replied Rehman, who was a promising youth-team player at Brentford before injury cut short his career at the age of 17 in 2000. 
“We deliver workshops aimed at club staff to educate them about better engaging Muslim communities. We get staff and coaches together and tell them more about Islam, what it involves and discuss Ramadan and how it might affect performance and participation at all levels. 
“On the back of that, hopefully clubs will deliver programs around the needs of the community. There are clubs like Crystal Palace who are looking to deliver Asian-specific programs to get more Asian kids playing football, more Asian coaches and look at the Muslim community as well.” 
Rehman himself helped organized an Iftar event at League One outfit Portsmouth earlier this year, which “went really well.” 
“We also had players come along to support the day. Clubs such as Crystal Palace, Leicester City and a few others are showing an interest in holding similar events next season. 
“Leicester City are a club with a massive Asian community and we are supporting them with trying to set up some programs.” 
Also high on Rehman’s agenda is encouraging more BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) coaches into the game. As well as sitting on the advisory group for the Premier Leagues Elite Coach Apprenticeship Scheme, one key program he is involved in is “Sidelined-to-Sidelines.”

N'Golo Kante has been one of the best players in England's top-flight since he moved to the Premier League three years ago. 


This was established by the Zesh Rehman Foundation — which was set up by his brother, a former Fulham defender — to address a shortage of qualified South Asian coaches. 
“We are setting up sessions to try and recruit young coaches at clubs like Crystal Palace, QPR and Chelsea,” Rehman revealed. “Coaches wearing those club badges become role models and are able to influence their own communities and encourage more kids (from under-represented ethnicities) to take up the game.” 
Rehman is keen to recruit more Muslim “ambassadors” at clubs “up and down the country” to emulate the likes of the inspirational Salah. 
“We want them to work with the community, local groups, mosques, and get players to actually go into those communities and build links with the clubs. It’s a two-way thing.” 
Progress has also been made in attracting more Muslim supporters to Premier League matches, Rehman added. Liverpool and Brighton and Hove Albion are among the clubs that have multi-faith prayer rooms to cater for their increasingly diverse fanbases, he said. 
“Some clubs sell halal food, too, so there’s something for everyone.
“It’s a worldwide game now. Mo Salah has reached out to a lot of people. I think Muslim communities themselves have to make an effort to go to matches. 
“It’s not an overnight success, but you do see different communities represented on match days, week in and week out.”