How the 2023 Women’s World Cup is already leaving a First Nations legacy

Tarntanya. Meaanjin. Naarm. Boorloo. Gadigal.

It seemed, at first, like a small thing: using traditional place names to describe the cities set to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup. After all, these names are far older than the ones we use every day when talking about Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney and are increasingly more commonly known.

But when FIFA unveiled the tournament’s official brand in October, these place names were flashed across the screen in big, bold letters alongside their New Zealand counterparts: Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland), Ōtepoti (Dunedin), Kirikiriro (Hamilton), and Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington).

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This is, in fact, no small thing. It’s the first time that First Nations languages have been incorporated into a World Cup identity in the tournament’s history.

Accompanied by a rich, earthy colour-scheme and Indigenous motifs – a collaboration between FIFA and local artists Fiona Collis (New Zealand) and Chern’ee Sutton (Australia) – these deliberate language and design choices hint at the work being done behind the scenes to ensure the 2023 World Cup is not an empty cultural gesture.

Rather, they are all part of systemic changes already happening within the sport; a piece of the larger legacy 2023 wants to create and leave, particularly for the First Nations communities being highlighted and celebrated.

“It is something that is very important for us, [and] for me personally,” said FIFA’s chief women’s football officer Sarai Bareman after the unveiling.

“Being New Zealand-born myself and coming from the region, I think something that’s really amazing about both [countries] is that we have these incredibly unique Indigenous cultures here.

“To start to see the cultures of both Australia and New Zealand seep into the day-to-day work that we’re doing here at FIFA, it’s something that I totally embrace and everyone who is involved in the tournament is totally embracing.

“It’s funny for me to hear some of my colleagues speaking Māori to me these days, but it’s something that I totally welcome and I think it’s something that is really important as we build up to this event.

Sarai Bareman speaks.
Sarai Bareman, a New Zealander who represented Samoa’s women’s national team, is personally invested in the representation of First Nations communities.(Photo by Aparna Jayakumar – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

“I’m a proud product of the Pacific region and it’s really, really important that those two cultures shine through and that the rest of the world can really feel and resonate with what they both represent.”

Even though the Women’s World Cup is still 18 months away, the ripple effect of co-hosting football’s biggest tournament has already started to change the Australian game from within.

In August, Football Australia (FA) appointed Gubbi Gubbi and Butchulla woman Courtney Hagen as their first engagement lead for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Hagen, who hails from south-east Queensland, had previously worked with Cricket Australia as a First Nations and social inclusion specialist, collaborating with Indigenous, gender-diverse, and LGBTQIA+ communities at the community sports level.

Hagen’s role at FA includes the development and implementation of FA’s first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), as well as overseeing the creation of the governing body’s first National Indigenous Advisory Group, with current and former First Nations players such as Karen Menzies, Kyah Simon and Jade North joining the inaugural body.

Photo of Courtney Hagen, Football Australia's new Lead for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities.
Courtney Hagen, Football Australia’s inaugural lead for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.(Cricket Australia / Darrian Traynor.)

“Sport is a space and a catalyst not only for social change but it’s something that brings people together in its purest form; it’s bigger than all of us,” Hagen, who led the push behind the use of traditional place names in the World Cup branding, told ABC Sport.

“Years ago, I was part of an excursion from Tennant Creek to Alice Springs for an Indigenous round for a sport. Bringing those kids that lived five hours away down to somewhere where they’ve never even seen the sport before – and them having the time of their lives – it really clicked for me that there’s a lot of opportunity lost to people that live outside of capital cities and to people that don’t have regular access to the same sports the rest of us sometimes take for granted.

“[Developing] the RAP is a great opportunity for football to start manoeuvring further in this space and ensure that community engagement is at the heart of everything we do; that cultural engagement and competency is fostered. Part of that, as well, is working with the 2023 Legacy team, which wants to accelerate change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players in the game.”

When it comes to the World Cup, Hagen – like Bareman – sees a unique opportunity to not just platform First Nations communities on both sides of the Tasman, but also to embrace those communities in a more genuine and meaningful way in the game.

As part of their 2023 legacy plan, for example, Football Australia will launch a National Indigenous Program that aims to reach over 16,000 First Nations participants in the years following the tournament.

Young Matildas player Shay Evans embraces former Socceroo and Indigenous football champion John Moriarty
John Moriarty (right) embraces Young Matilda Shadeene Evans, one of the first Indigenous players to emerge from the John Moriarty Football Foundation in the Northern Territory.(Twitter: @JohnMoriartyFootball)

Other FA-affiliated organisations, such as John Moriarty Football (JMF) – named in honour of the first Indigenous man to represent the Socceroos – are using the momentum around the World Cup to accelerate and platform First Nations women in the game.

This week, during the sixth annual Indigenous Football Week, JMF announced a series of initiatives including fast-tracking development pathways for Indigenous women in leadership, driving equal opportunity for First Nations mothers, and fostering culturally safe channels to promote gender equality across the sport.

“Sport is not always about putting on the green-and-gold jersey or going to the Olympics. Sometimes sport is just being in a space that gives you something to look forward to. It’s a massive support for a lot of people,” Hagen said.

“I think football is really embedded in culture; it’s fast-paced, it’s exciting, it’s accessible, it’s relatable. It’s strong in its sense of self and what it represents in every way. I think there’s a great narrative to thread through that.

“One example are place names. Yes, while these events are in capital cities, they’re also in places that have traditional names and have rich histories that outdate every one of us.

“[The World Cup] is a great way for those stories to come to life in a space like this. So that’s what I really hope it looks like, and that’s reflected not only in our players but our fans that will be attending, the way we broadcast and talk about it, the way it’s written about, the way the commentators speak about it.

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“It can’t all be encompassed in just a flag; it’s telling the stories of the diversity of our people, which hasn’t really had the opportunity to be told well. What I really want to see is that storytelling, whether it be football-related or not.

“There’s nothing more exciting than being able to share your culture on a world stage and global sporting tournaments provide the opportunity to change a nation and start conversations. I’m really looking forward to being involved in that; to see the way the World Cup can raise the bar and celebrate the oldest living and continuing culture in the world.”

The 2023 Women’s World Cup will be a tournament of firsts in many ways: the first co-hosted World Cup across two confederations, the first held in the Asia-Pacific region and the first in which its media and broadcast rights are unbundled from the men’s tournament.

It could also be – if these early announcements are anything to go by – the first World Cup that genuinely recognises and embraces the First Nations communities that have and continue to make football a truly global sport.

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