Women’s World Cup Players Withdraw Gender Discrimination Claim Against FIFA

CREDIT: (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

Abby Wambach (left) was among the prominent players that challenged FIFA over the decision to play the 2015 World Cup on artificial turf.

Women’s soccer stars who filed a lawsuit against FIFA in a Canadian tribunal over the organization’s decision to play the 2015 Women’s World Cup on artificial turf surfaces withdrew their claim on Wednesday, bringing a sudden but perhaps predictable end to a dispute that began last summer. NBC Sports was first to report the decision to withdraw the claim, which was later confirmed in an email statement from the players and their attorneys.

A cadre of women’s stars led by United State Women’s National Team forward Abby Wambach filed their suit against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association in October after months of threatening to do so. In the gender discrimination suit brought in an Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, the players claimed that FIFA and the CSA violated Canadian law because the artificial surfaces were inferior to natural grass, and because men had never played such a major tournament on artificial turf (the next two men’s World Cups are also slated for grass).

Wambach said in the statement that while the suit was unsuccessful, she hoped it drew attention to issues women’s soccer players face.

“On behalf of the players, I want to thank all who aided our fight for natural grass fields at the 2015 World Cup including our volunteer lawyers from Canada and the United States,” Wambach said. “Our legal action has ended. But I am hopeful that the players’ willingness to contest the unequal playing fields – and the tremendous public support we received during the effort – marks the start of even greater activism to ensure fair treatment when it comes to women’s sports.”

Players had been outspoken about their distaste for playing on turf for months. More than three-quarters of the women’s players surveyed by FIFA at the 2013 Algarve Cup, another international tournament, said that they wanted their major tournaments played on natural grass surfaces. They began speaking out on it in the media afterward — top American player Megan Rapinoe said it was “bullshit” that FIFA wanted them to play on turf during a July interview — and on social media, and in July, 40 of the world’s top women’s players sent a letter to FIFA threatening the legal action they ultimately took in October.

Along the way, the players garnered support from other top athletes and even from the United States Senate, where groups of lawmakers sent two separate letters to FIFA calling for it to negotiate with the players. Their case, sometimes criticized as a public relations ploy, drew attention to a central claim: that if top men’s players had demanded nicer playing surfaces, as club and international teams have in the past, FIFA would have obliged without such a fight.

“It’s about doing the right thing, and I think this is the right thing to do,” Wambach told ThinkProgress in September. “We have to fight this fight for this World Cup and World Cups in the future. We have to make sure FIFA knows this is not OK. And they know it’s not OK. If you were to ask all of them, they know that they would never do this for the men.”

But the players’ legal case, while allowed to go forward, suffered a setback in November when the Tribunal decided not to grant an expedited ruling, which the players wanted in order to complete the case before the World Cup begins in June. FIFA, meanwhile, refused to bend, calling the discrimination claims “nonsense” and insisting that there was “no Plan B.” Wambach and other players met with FIFA officials at the organization’s international awards ceremony this month and presented a compromise proposal that would have only put the semifinals, third-place match, and finals on grass, but they came away from the meeting with little hope that anything had changed.

As a result, they felt they had no choice but to withdraw the claim if the World Cup was going to go on uninterrupted by the controversy.

Hampton Dellinger, the players’ lead attorney in the case, issued a statement saying that the “players are doing what FIFA and the CSA have proven incapable of: putting the sport of soccer first.”

“[T]he players and their supporters have highlighted continuing gender inequity in sports and lessened the chance that such wrongdoing will occur in the future,” Dellinger continued. “FIFA and CSA, on the other hand, will fail to host a discrimination-free tournament. They have embarrassed themselves and provided further grounds for reformers to challenge their current leadership.”

FIFA and the CSA have maintained that the artificial surfaces at each of the six Canadian venues be meet its “first-class surface” standards. And while the players are backing off their suit, it did not come without smaller victories: the most controversial surface, the turf at Vancouver’s BC Place, will be replaced with newer, nicer turf, and FIFA has agreed to institute goal-line technology at a Women’s World Cup for the first time, much as it did for the men at Brazil’s 2014 World Cup. The 2019 World Cup will also be held on grass, according to Dellinger (a host has not been chosen).

The Women’s World Cup begins June 6, when Canada takes on China in Edmonton. The United States will begin its quest for a third World Cup title — and Wambach’s first — two days later against Australia.