Social Justice & Action
‘Collectivism and solidarity are so critically important’
Watching the Matildas’ performance in this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup™ was “one of the best months of my life”, Craig Foster told delegates to the recent NSWNMA Annual Conference.
It was thrilling seeing these “powerful and strong” Australian women inspiring young girls and boys, said Foster, a former Socceroo captain and this year’s NSW Australian of the Year.
“There’s a great story about a young boy who went and said to his little compatriot when they were going to have a kick: ‘How about I’ll be Sam Kerr and you be Steph Catley?’”
But perhaps even more inspiring, for Foster, is the way the Matildas have led the world in the fight for equal pay.
“In this Women’s World Cup™, we wanted to watch Matildas play, but much, much, more than that, we wanted to have a conversation about gender equality.”
Seven years ago, Foster was appointed the interim chair of the footballers’ union, Professional Footballers Australia.
“The first thing that was obvious when I came in was that women didn’t have full membership of the organisation,” he said. “There were no women on the Board or on the executive. And for the first time, we brought the Matildas onto the Board.”
Having the Matildas as “part of decision-making at that table” changed the conversation and the organisation’s culture, Foster said. Now, the Matildas have won equal pay to the Socceroos through a deal negotiated with their union. This includes sharing the revenue from broadcast and ticket sales of all football games by both teams.
Since 2019, the Matildas have also led a global campaign to pressure FIFA for prize money equal to the Men’s World Cup™, but success there has been harder to achieve.
“The Matildas came out with their own campaign, and most of the female teams and their own global players’ union, which is called FEPRO, [initially] didn’t support them,” explained Foster.
He said they showed “why collectivism and solidarity are so critically important”.
Matildas not afraid to take a stand
Foster says he was not surprised when the Matildas were among the first to support the campaign he led in support of Hakeem al-Araibi, a refugee footballer from Bahrain.
Hakeen was incarcerated, along with 150 athletes who took part in a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration during the Arab Spring. The authorities “came in the middle of the night, put him in prison. They strapped him into a chair and smashed his legs with an iron bar,” Foster said.
When he was released, he fled to Australia. But he was arrested after pressure from Bahrain when he visited Thailand for his honeymoon. In his advocacy for Hakeem’s release, Foster organised a coalition of organisations and people. “The first port of call for me was to go to [the player’s union] that stands up for all our players. And that body immediately came on board. And the first people, not surprisingly to me, to step forward and hold a sign to say ‘Save Hakeem’ were the Matildas.
“Within the human rights environment it is predominantly women who have the incredible courage and strength to step forward. Many of our human rights organisations are run by women, and they are motivated by not so much the extraneous politics and other things, but just by doing what is right.”
Foster visited Hakeem in prison in Thailand and he came up with a plan to visit FIFA headquarters in Switzerland to seek their support, even though one of the organisation’s vice-presidents was a member of the Bahraini royal family.
“I sent them a tweet publicly and said, ‘I’ll be there in 48 hours from now and we’ll have a meeting at 1 pm at your offices. Otherwise, I’ll hold a press conference on your doorstep to tell everyone what’s going on.’”
He travelled to FIFA offices with friend Brendon Schwab, head of the World Players Association, the global athletes’ union, where they sat in the lobby and refused to leave until they had a media release from FIFA supporting Hakeem.
When Hakeem had his final court case, diplomats from 14 countries turned up to the courtroom in Bangkok to show solidarity. “It was a huge statement to Thailand, and it was one of the reasons why, in the end, we were able to get Hakeem out,” Foster said.
Foster urged the audience to think about “how we can lend our power to other people, both within your industry, and also in broader society. We all have a range of power, or social and political capital. Often, we don’t really recognise or realise how much of a voice we have.”