Lise Klaveness is best known in Norway as the “brave” and “outspoken” president of the country’s national football federation NFF. She didn’t manage to break the glass ceiling at the male-dominated European federation (UEFA) this week, but she’s not giving up: The former top professional player who’s also a lawyer and judge vows to run again for an ordinary seat on UEFA’s board.
“This isn’t the end, it’s the beginning,” Klaveness said, referring to her campaign to open up the international football bureaucracy to more women who aren’t just brought in under a quota program. She vowed to move forward “with full strength” towards the next board election at the UEFA Congress in 2025, claiming that “the wave of change and modernization can’t be stopped.”
Klaveness was prepared to lose her bid in Lisbon on Wednesday to become the first woman football president to win a board seat in UEFA’s history. She sprang to global attention when she made a heartfelt speech last year at the international football federation FIFA’s congress about the importance of human rights and equality, which many claimed were ignored during preparations for the last year’s World Cup in Qatar. She later expressed huge frustration with FIFA and the authorities in Qatar, who were widely viewed as having exploited cheap labour to build the World Cup facilities.
She stressed that she didn’t run for election only to become the first woman on UEFA’s board, rather because she cares passionately about football, has a lot to contribute and is convinced she would do a good job. Norway’s own federation and hundreds of thousands of Norwegian fans and players also wanted her to represent them, and bring new perspectives to the sport.
At the same time Klaveness made it clear that it’s simply not right that UEFA’s board still doesn’t have a single female president on its highest organ of authority. At a time when women’s football has drawn crowds as big as the men’s, it’s a glaring omission with so little female representation at the highest levels. Fully 19 of the 20 seats on the board are held by men. Seven of them were up for election.
“Football is the world’s largest sport for girls and women, we live in a world with 50 percent women and it’s of course unacceptable that we’re now moving on with the same imbalance we’ve had for the past 100 years,” she said on NFF’s website. Klaveness was encouraged, though, that Debbie Hewitt, the president of England’s football federation, was elected a vice president the same day. “That’s good news,” Klaveness said.
She added that NFF, meanwhile, has been working to build up a “broad platform and alliances with new football federations, fans and other influential people” throughout Europe. “We will continue to work for a strong UEFA and a better FIFA,” she said.
Klaveness lost out to imcumbent Jesper Møller, president of Denmark’s football federation who ran for re-election. The Nordic countries reportedly have a tradition of agreeing on a candidate but Klaveness claims it had been “impossible” to engage Møller in conversation over the past few months. At a press conference following the election on Wednesday, he blamed a “misunderstanding” if Klaveness “expected that I would withdraw if she ran (for a board seat). I take care of the interests in Danish football, she takes care of the interests in Norwegian football.” He denied the Nordics vote as a bloc “but we normally always support the Nordic candidates.” He claimed they supported her candidacy, too, but in the end, only he won a seat on the board.
Klaveness is not satisfied that only one woman is on the board, ushered in through a quota system. “We can’t live with that,” she told state broadcaster NRK after the election. “Now we have that imbalance for at least two more years (until the next election).”
Several of Norway’s top players and football officials are also dissatisfied. “I think it’s sad,” Ada Hegerberg, Norway’s prize-winning star player for Lyon and the national team. “It’s sad for Lise but it’s also sad for football. She has full backing from me, full backing from all of us.” Hegerberg added that “we’ll have to keep pushing” for change at UEFA and FIFA.
Ståle Solbakken, head coach of Norway’s national men’s football squad, was also disappointed but said he wasn’t surprised. “She’s doing the right thing,” Solbakken told NRK. “I don’t think either UEFA or FIFA can stand up against the times. Lise has the right values, the capacity for hard work and the intelligence. It’s just a matter of time before she’s elected if she’ll hang in there.”
She intends to do so. Klaveness, now age 41, has also won prizes for what Norway’s Fritt Ord (which champions freedom of expression) called her “brave and direct speech” at last year’s FIFA Congress about human rights violations and discrimination in the run-up to the World Cup in Qatar. She’s battled discrimination herself, as a homosexual football player but went on to play 73 national team matches for Norway, along with winning both league championships and gold at Norway’s Cup while playing professionally for Stabæk. She’s highly respected and has promised to follow up the human rights abuses in Qatar. UEFA can expect her to follow up on a variety of other issues, too, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.