How FIFA Killed the Women's World Cup Lawsuit

FIFA didn't just ignore the lawsuit over the Women's World Cup's playing surface, they used every legal trick available to torpedo it.

Feb 3 2015, 1:46pm

On January 21, 84 soccer players representing 13 different countries dropped their lawsuit against FIFA. If these soccer players were men—the game's biggest stars suing FIFA for a civil rights violation—the suit would have been a fixture of every international news cycle. Instead, the plaintiffs were women, and the dropped lawsuit received cursory news coverage before evaporating altogether.

Ironically, the relative lack of media attention reflects the nature of the case itself. The players sued FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association—where this summer's Women's World Cup will be held—for gender discrimination because all six tournament venues feature artificial turf, which they argue is an inferior playing surface to natural grass. Had they been men, the players argued, they would have gotten to play on grass.

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The problem with the lawsuit was not necessarily one of merit, but of leverage. The players made clear from the very beginning that they had no intention of boycotting the tournament, effectively dooming the suit from the start. Naturally, this led FIFA to do absolutely nothing on their behalf.

At least three soccer federations intimidated players into withdrawing from the lawsuit. Teresa Noyola, a member of the Mexican National Team, received notice from Mexican Federation officials prior to the October qualifying matches that her participation in the lawsuit could result in a suspension or being dropped from the team altogether. According to documents filed by Hampton Dellinger, the D.C.-based lawyer representing the players, Noyola was immediately invited back to the team after withdrawing from the lawsuit. That same month, French internationals Camille Abily and Élise Bussaglia withdrew from the lawsuit as well after receiving similar threats. Diana Saenz and Katherine Alvarado of Costa Rica opted to stay on the lawsuit even though they were the subjects of threats as well.

The official mascot of the Women's World Cup. No, seriously. Image by Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Likewise, FIFA imposed delay after delay on the case, preventing it from coming to trial before the actual tournament. "They raised a number of hyper-technical procedural arguments that had the effect of slowing down or delaying the decision on the merits of this case," Dellinger told me over the phone. The first of such arguments, regarding how FIFA should have received notice of the case, was dismissed by the court.

Next, Dellinger and the players proposed a compromise, where the most important games (the semifinals, third-place match, and finals) would be played on grass, while the remaining games would stay on turf. FIFA rejected that, too. "They just wouldn't engage," Dellinger recalled. FIFA representatives also made clear to Dellinger that, even if the court ruled against FIFA before the tournament, it had no intention of honoring that ruling. "They said repeatedly there is no Plan B, this World Cup won't take place on grass."

The case was not brought in a regular court, but in front of a Human Rights Tribunal in Ontario, Canada. As law professor Michael McCann pointed out in Sports Illustrated, the case procedure is clearly designed to mediate, using adjudication as a last resort. Unfortunately, such a civil and orderly process is rendered moot when one side is childish and petty.

"If FIFA had been reasonable, none of this would have ever happened," Dellinger said. "These are the world's best women players. They are what makes the World Cup compelling. Anyone who knows anything about soccer knows that you play the World Cup on natural grass."

When it became clear FIFA had no intention of discussing the issue, Dellinger and the players realized they didn't have any more cards to play. With the first of national team training camps fast approaching, the players and coaches needed to know what surface to train on. Ultimately, the players decided to drop the case. Dellinger summarized the decision by saying, "In a world where you have two responsible parties, agreements can be reached. We certainly had hope that would have been the case here."

Although nothing changed in regards to the World Cup's playing surface, Dellinger isn't ready to declare the case a total loss. "Certainly we're disappointed, but I think it was an important effort." It raised awareness for gender discrimination within FIFA, exposed the lengths the organization would go to silence the case, and the players banded together in a way that professional athletes rarely do. When the three players withdrew from the lawsuit after being threatened, nearly the entire German National Team signed on to the lawsuit. Three names off became 20 names on.

Reforming FIFA—on issues ranging from widespread human rights violations to corruption and gender discrimination—remains a Sisyphean task, but that doesn't mean it's not worth trying. Whatever happens with FIFA going forward, at the very least, the playing surface at the next Women's World Cup won't be an issue. Both bidding nations, France and South Korea, are proposing to play every match on grass.