Tuesday 18 July 2023, 06:00

Lilly: We all have a heart; we all have feelings, and we all want to be the best versions of ourselves

Discrimination - in all its possible forms and expressions - is one of the most common forms of human rights violations and abuse. It affects millions of people every day, stifling opportunities, harming physical and mental health, wasting human talent, and accentuating social tensions and inequalities. #NoDiscrimination is an awareness, education, and action campaign with the objective of inspiring change and action on discrimination. Our goal is to rid the football world of discrimination. We all have a part to play. On 1 July 2023, FIFA, in partnership with several United Nations agencies announced that it will use the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023™ to highlight a range of social causes, selected following extensive consultation with stakeholders including players and the 32 participating member associations. In the build-up to the tournament, we spoke to three FIFA Legends to understand their own personal experiences and hear their own advocacies for a better tomorrow.

Aya Miyama of Japan celebrates

Aya Miyama was a diminutive midfielder who excelled in the Nadeshiko’s midfield, earning over 160 international caps. Miyama crowned an already growing international profile with a stand-out role in 2011 when Japan won the final in a thrilling exhibition of passing football and penalty shoot-out nerve, against USA. “If you are involved in football one way or another, whether you’re a player or a supporter, it’s important to be aware that each and every one of us represents football so we need to respect and accept one another,” she said. Babett Peter is another international centurion and was a member of Germany’s FIFA Women’s World Cup winning squad in 2007.

 Babett Peter shadows Christine Sinclair in 2011

Just last month, Peter visited Rotorua Lakes High School in Aotearoa New Zealand as part of the FIFA Women’s World Cup trophy tour. Speaking to a gathered group of young children she explained: “I was able to live in different countries [and] speak different languages. For me, football is the door to the world.”

Reflecting on how football can play a role in tackling societal discrimination, her message was one of solidarity. “To eradicate discrimination in football we need to stand together. There’s no exception for discriminatory behaviour. We need to be strict, and we need to make sure that everyone feels welcome in such an inclusive sport like football.” Of the role of international sporting events to raise awareness and use their platforms, Peter was equally unequivocal.

“I think a lot of sports organisations realised that sport is a very important pillar in our society and that we can address very important, problematic things that are going on in our society through football,” she said. “With that being said, I think there’s still a lot to do – we have a long way to go. We need to use the big stages, like the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup to educate or to act; to function as a role model. As well as that, we need to implement at grassroots, in schools or in local football clubs, educational programmes.” Peter’s partner is former American player Ella Masar, with who she has a young son. Talking specifically about what could be done to ensure football globally is more LGBTQI+ inclusive, she said simply: “We need to make sure that we make this community feel welcome in our environment, that we make them feel safe, and make them feel protected. I think it’s our responsibility in football to educate and to focus on the part of society that needs to gain more respect.”

Members of the victorious USA team that beat Brazil 2-1 in extra time stand with their medals on the podium after the women's football match played between Brazil and the USA on August 26, 2004 during the Athens 2004 Summer Olympic Games

Kristine Lilly’s career achievements list is legendary, tallying 354 international appearances, 130 goals, appearing at five editions of the FIFA Women’s World Cup (winning twice) and three Olympic tournaments (also winning two gold medals). Like Babett Peter, the New York born Lilly recently visited Aotearoa New Zealand as part of the trophy tour, taking in a visit to Dunedin on the South Island. Speaking to news outlet Stuff, she explained the potential impact of the forthcoming tournament. “When we hosted [in 1999] the change that it makes for the communities, and for the country is amazing. You will see a change in excitement from the young people. It's going to bring people together; you're going to see people from all over the world come through your city. It's a wonderful thing, and something that you're very lucky to have.”

FIFA Women’s World Cup™ Trophy Tour - Kristine Lilly and Freestyler Lia Lewis pose with the Trophy

Expanding on the theme, Lilly cited the impact the tournament can also play in espousing messages of gender equality around the world. “Many of us don’t realise the impact that we can have on people. When we were playing, we wanted to win but we also wanted to let people know that women’s soccer is a great, great sport, it’s a great thing to get behind and that we deserve certain things. Now I think the gap for equality is getting really close to closing.” As for the unifying potential of a major international sport event like the FIFA Women’s World Cup, Lilly was frank. “I think we, as people, must remind ourselves that we are all the same: we all have a heart, we all have feelings, and we all want to be the best versions of ourselves. Discriminating against anyone is not a positive thing: it doesn’t help them; it doesn’t help you. “We have to be kind. One of the great things about soccer is that the game brings people together. When you come to a FIFA Women’s World Cup event, you’re bringing people from all over the world; countries that have different beliefs, different backgrounds and different religions and still they find ways to make it work on the field. The tournament is a great environment to bring people together and show the world that we can all get along.”

Kristine Lilly pictured with the FIFAWWC trophy in 2019