How does one transform indisputably beautiful words like “equality” and “diversity” into concrete actions that make a difference? This years’ FIFA Conference for Equality and Inclusion set the stage for the many potential answers to this question and displayed just how complex the process is – both within football and in other areas of society.

With the theme of “Making Equality a Reality," FIFA’s third annual conference brought to Zurich some of the world’s strongest voices in the fight for a fair, non-discriminatory society. Representatives from different walks of life discussed the efforts carried out by football’s administration and identified the many steps that still need to be taken, particularly to close the existing gap between men and women.

“When an organisation as influential as FIFA embraces the cause of women’s rights, this means a major step for the whole of society; for areas that go well beyond sports,” said deputy director of UN Women Lakshmi Puri during her opening keynote speech. “The pledge to which we come back every year on 8 March is not about a single day, the International Women’s Day, but about a concept that should permeate every moment. It is auspicious to see international institutions working to make this come true.”

FIFA President Gianni Infantino welcomed the participants with a summary of the steps that the organisation has taken over the last 12 months and what it aims to do in the years to come. “The statutory reforms approved in February 2016 brought about concrete changes, such as the quota for women in the FIFA Council. Our work has been to implement these reforms and to go beyond it. This why we increased the presence of women to an unprecedented level, both in our standing committees and in the administration’s management board. The ultimate goal is simple: that football may count on the right persons for the right positions, regardless of their gender or where they come from.”

Against all forms of discrimination
This Monday’s schedule featured a packed morning, with panels in which FIFA’s two female chief officers – Joyce Cook, for Member Associations, and Sarai Bareman, for Women’s Football – held open discussions with renowned specialists in equality and larger-than-life characters whose experience embodies the concept.

This is certainly the case of the former captain of the Afghan women’s national football team Khalida Popal, whose daring and open-hearted speech left the audience at the Home of FIFA in awe. “I started playing football for the fun of it, until the day when I first heard that it was insulting for the sport that we, women, should play it. They took our ball and destroyed it. From that day on, I also started to play to change the situation of women in Afghanistan,” said the 29-year-old former player, whose defiant attitude sparked a number of attacks and death threats and eventually led her to leaving the country.

Gender equality was not the only form of inclusion at stake, though. The afternoon session started with the event’s moderator Sherine Tadros, Head of Amnesty International’s New York office, mediating a comprehensive conversation between former Canada goalkeeper and UNICEF ambassador Karina LeBlanc and former Dutch international Clarence Seedorf.

The discussion with the former players was followed by the panel “Strength in diversity: achieving inclusion in and through sport”, a rich showcase of how to empower people from different backgrounds and use sport as a tool to promote inclusion – fighting racism, sexism, homophobia and all forms of discrimination.

“As the world governing body of the planet’s most popular sport, we represent millions of people – regardless of gender, origin, social status or religious belief. We must be human, full stop,” said FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samoura. “Diversity is the only way forward. Not only because morally it is the right thing to do, but because there is richness in it. The group of people in this conference today is a solid example of this. It is a beautiful representation of what the whole world should be and what football can and should represent. And for that we do not need words, but actions.”