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The domestic organizers of the Women’s World Cup, which will be held next summer in Australia and New Zealand, opposed the sponsorship of “Saudi Spirit” for this tournament, writes the New York Times.

Media reports said FIFA had reached an agreement with the government’s campaign to boost tourism in the country, known as “Visit Saudi”, which is linked to the state tourism authority for its sponsorship of the Women’s World Cup.

FIFA has not officially announced this sponsorship, which was reported by the media, including “The Athletic” newspaper and “Guardian” newspaper.

The Women’s World Cup will be held from July 20 to August 20, and will feature 32 national teams for the first time, making it the largest Women’s World Cup organized by FIFA.

Players, fans and supporters of the tournament – the biggest women’s sporting event ever – in Australia and New Zealand were trying to make sense of what appeared to them to be an “uncomfortable institutional marriage” between Saudi Arabia and FIFA, the US newspaper reported.

“We are extremely disappointed that Football Australia was not consulted on this matter before any decision was made,” a Football Australia spokeswoman said in a statement.

It added that the heads of the Australian and New Zealand Football Associations had “jointly written to FIFA to urgently clarify the situation”.

FIFA did not respond to messages sent to The New York Times seeking comment. A representative of the Saudi Tourism Authority did not immediately respond to a similar request.

Critics believe Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of the Women’s World Cup is in line with the kingdom’s “sports laundering” efforts to clean up its reputation and divert attention from its human rights record.

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied the allegations, pointing out that its sponsorship of sporting events is part of its strategy to diversify its sources of revenue and a plan known as “Saudi Vision 2030”.

Former Australian captain Craig Foster said: “Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of a global women’s sporting event is similar to Exxon’s (oil company) sponsorship of the COP 28 climate conference or McDonald’s sponsorship of a symposium on healthy eating or the fight against obesity.”

Foster, who is known for his advocacy of human rights issues, said the sponsorship was “completely in line with FIFA’s thirst for money at any cost and complete disregard for its human rights policies, let alone principles”.

He added that when it comes to FIFA, “concepts like gender equality remain constant as long as money is received from companies or countries that violate human rights, and money certainly wins.”

Riyadh has always denied accusations of “sports laundering” and says it is investing in sports to diversify revenue streams as part of the crown prince’s 2030 plan to reduce its economy’s dependence on oil.

James Dorsey, a researcher at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, said the Saudi sponsorship of the Women’s World Cup “is part of a much larger strategy across sports, aimed at making the Kingdom a regional center of gravity.”

He added: “Yes, it’s about image, but it’s about the kingdom’s status as a power.”

Over the past five years, Saudi Arabia has emerged as a major player in soccer, forging a close relationship with FIFA president Gianni Infantino and investing billions in hosting and organizing major events, including the acquisition of English club Newcastle.

Meanwhile, FIFA has sought to increase investment in women’s football, which despite its growth still receives a fraction of the financial support men receive.

Saudi Arabia did not allow women into soccer stadiums until a few years ago, when Prince Muhammad bin Salman took over as guardian of the alliance in the wealthy Gulf kingdom.

The Saudi Football Association also launched women’s football competitions for the first time last year, after the game was restricted to men.

David Roberts, a researcher specializing in Gulf affairs at Kings College London, said: “There is a clear desire (in Saudi Arabia) strongly driven by Mohammed bin Salman to carry out a huge kind of cultural revolution in a really short period of time.”

He added: “At the same time, there are qualitative changes that no one thought were reasonable or possible, with the relative emancipation of women as an independent active force in the economy.”

In another context, Sydney is home to the largest LGBT community, and the Australian city also hosts pride events, including the three-week Mardi Gras festival.

Some questioned the possibility of a member of the LGBT community visiting Saudi Arabia, given that the kingdom criminalizes same-sex relationships. Homosexuals also face severe social stigma in Saudi Arabia and several Muslim countries.

“If these reports are true, they are very confusing,” said Moya Dodd, a former Australian player and former member of FIFA’s Asia Council.

“If FIFA plans to be paid to tell LGBTQ fans and players – Eye to Visit Saudi Arabia,” it’s hard to imagine how that could pass the principles of responsible business, let alone meet FIFA’s human rights obligations and policies.

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