PASIFIKA SISTER #1

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 06: Sarai Bareman speaks during the FIFA Women's Football Convention at Paris Expo Porte de Versailles on June 06, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Hannah Peters - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 06: Sarai Bareman speaks during the FIFA Women's Football Convention at Paris Expo Porte de Versailles on June 06, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Hannah Peters - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Sarai Bareman.

If you’re visiting this site you must know her name by now. New Zealand-raised Bareman has taken a far from traditional career path and although she’s one of the most powerful women in football right now, she will alway call the Pacific home.

So how on earth did she get to where she is, as Chief Women’s Football Officer at FIFA, the international governing body of football?

Via little old Samoa, that’s how.

Raised in West Auckland, Bareman and her brothers were raised on an appetite of athletics and, of course, rugby among a host of other sports. In fact, most of her childhood memories have her as either a spectator or player.

“We had a family touch team that a lot of my friends played in and most of our friends we connected to thorough sports. A lot of it was driven by my father who is actually Dutch, from the Netherlands. I can’t remember a weekend in my childhood where we were not at the local rugby club or some kind of sports event.”

After starting her career in banking and finance, Bareman was soon in search of a new challenge so headed off to Samoa with her then partner. That relationship didn’t go the distance but it was the start of something special not just in terms of her career, but in discovering her Samoan roots too.

While football isn’t what took you to Samoa initially it became something which formed a lot of your experience there, do you see that as a positive way to have discovered your Samoan roots?

“Absolutely! It was through football and my role in the Football Federation of Samoa that I learnt the most about my Samoan culture.

The Samoan people have a beautiful way or incorporating their culture into their work and daily lives – it is unlike any other place I have worked since and I still carry those values with me today. I remember going to deliver football programmes to some of the villages in Savaii (the big island) and being overwhelmed with the hospitality and respect with which we were greeted in each of those places. There was more than one occasion where we drove back to Apia with a cooked pig in the boot and boxes of pisupo (corned beef) to share amongst the team. We opened every occasion and big meeting with a prayer and always gave praise and glory to God for the opportunities we had. These experiences taught me the importance of humility and grace and being in service to others above all else.”

How would you describe being a women involved in sport in the Pacific?

“So much pride comes with playing sports in the Pacific region. When you see how passionately fans follow their national teams and the boisterous, loud and unrelenting support they give to the players, it’s totally infectious. Just look at the Tongan fans during the Rugby League World Cup!

For me, working in sports in the Pacific region is the same. I count myself privileged to have the opportunities I have had and I am also very proud to be a product of the Pacific region. That’s not to say it hasn’t been challenging. There are very few women at the top tables in Pacific sports and this comes with a certain amount of isolation.

It has always been a case of having to work hard to prove myself and my abilities, but this has also built a resilience in me.”

How does your Pacific experience differ from the experience you are now having on a global level?

“On the global level things are not so different. The learnings I had in Samoa and the Pacific region have been invaluable to me in my new role.”

Chief Women’s Football Officer Sarai Bareman in Montevideo, Uruguay.
(Photo by Maddie Meyer – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Do you think the landscape has changed over time in Oceania in regards to the opportunities now available to women?

“Yes, there has definitely been progress. It is becoming more normal to see women amongst the decision making bodies and at the forefront of big projects and initiatives. In general I think there is a much higher level of acceptance and awareness about issues related to gender equality and the empowerment of women. This has led to a lot of political support and policy driven changes which allows more opportunities for women and girls. Social media and the media in general also has a big part to play.

It’s more common now to read empowering stories of women and girls in the region, whether it be in sports, politics or the private sector. Seeing these stories and having strong role models helps to keep the momentum going. There is still a long way to go in terms of equality for women, but I have definitely seen progress.”

You have a good understanding of the Pacific region, what do you think of the potential here?

“It’s a love/hate relationship that I have with the Pacific when it comes to potential.

Love – because I see the potential and it is absolutely huge, especially when it comes to sports, and particularly football.

Hate – because it is all too often that this potential goes unrealised due to lack of strong, sustainable and effective governance and administration. I think if we can get it right in the boardrooms and the offices of our sports leading bodies – the Pacific will be a force to be reckoned with on the international playing field.”

Looking specifically at football in Oceania, in your opinion what does the future hold for the women’s game here?

“I think the future is bright for Oceania. Recent changes at the highest levels of governance in the region and internationally have seen a much greater focus on women’s football including more resourcing and a top down push for more women in decision making bodies. These changes have already started to filter down to the Oceania member countries and it won’t be long till the results will start to show on the field. I think there needs to be a greater focus in Oceania on the player pathway for women and girls in football.

We are primarily an amateur football region, even in New Zealand which is the strongest footballing nation for women in Oceania. This means we have to look outside of football for solutions such as partnerships with Universities and educational organisations. We also need to make sure that our most talented players are given the best opportunities and conditions to thrive. There is a lot to focus on but for sure, the future is bright.”

Samoa snatch an early goal moments after kick off at the OFC Women’s Nations Cup 2018.
Photo: Shane Wenzlick / http://www.phototek.nz

Bareman is dominating the world stage, showing not only what women are capable of, but what women from the Pacific are capable of.

And she remains a strong advocate for the region, our people, our football and our women.

“Mine has been an interesting journey to say the least, and certainly not one that I had planned which makes it difficult to offer advice on how I got to where I am today,” she said.

“My advice to young sportswomen and women in sport from the Pacific is to be sure about what you want to pursue and go for it!

Always try to pursue something you are passionate about. When you are passionate about your cause it drives you to succeed, to overcome diversity and to break down barriers. Without passion, these things are not possible.”

Without a doubt Bareman’s success also comes down to strong familial roots, drive, passion and a desire to show that women are just as capable as men when it comes to getting things done.

Most of these qualities come ingrained in the Pacific culture and doors are certainly wedging open for women in the region, albeit slowly.

Fortunately we have Pasifika Sisters like Bareman helping to blaze a trail forward to greater equality.

“On your journey, always try to operate with integrity, stay true to yourself and when faced with a challenge or setback – use that as fuel to stay on track. Never be afraid to speak your mind, but be strategic about the way you do it. And most of all…be proud of where you have come from!

“The qualities of Pacific people are amongst the most beautiful, humanistic qualities I have seen all around the world. The key is to never lose sight of that.”

Challenges and setbacks are something Bareman knows all too well. Like many women in the Pacific she’s found herself in situations that don’t bear repeating.

But she’s also a lesson to us all in how we can overcome adversity. How we can get back on track and continue striving to achieve our goals.

Is there anything you wish you had known, or had the opportunity to do when you were younger?

“I wish I had known earlier in life that it is not a bad things to show vulnerability. I also I wish I knew earlier that it doesn’t matter what others think of you – if you stay true to yourself and your own morals and values, the people that truly know you and love you will always support you for this. And that’s all that matters in the end.

I think it’s even harder these days living with the pressures of social media and the images and expectations that come along with living a life played out online. Too much of what we do is about pleasing others and conforming to the opinion of others.”

What’s one last message you have for women in sport in the Pacific?

“Lift each other up and support each other. Even though we compete against each other on the field, as individuals we can only achieve so much. But together, we can take on the world!

Women supporting other women is an important part of our mission and in the Pacific region this is even more important. We already face so many challenges being women in a male-dominated industry. And, if you do make it to the top, always send the elevator back down for the women coming behind you. Be sure about what you want to achieve, dream big – and go for it!”

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