It’s a time-worn World Cup photo opportunity — prime ministers and presidents gurning away high in the stands beside stone-faced football officials.
But when Spain and England meet in Sydney on Sunday to determine who will be champions in the Women’s World Cup, neither country’s leader will be there.
For some, the implication is clear: The women’s game is being disrespected.
“It would be unthinkable for them to miss a men’s final,” Ed Vaizey, a former U.K. Conservative MP who was Culture Secretary from 2010 to 2016, wrote on social media on Friday, referring to the no-show in Sydney by U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Prince William, who is president of the English Football Association.
To be sure, it is a very long flight from Britain to Australia. But if Sunak were concerned for his carbon footprint, he might have reconsidered his recent visit to Los Angeles to go to Disneyland and — rumor has it — a Taylor Swift concert. Or perhaps refrained from issuing a swathe of new oil and gas licenses in the North Sea.
Sunak has also drawn criticism for refusing to promise a public holiday if the Lionesses win on Sunday. In 2017, Panama’s president declared a national holiday just for merely qualifying for the men’s World Cup.
For Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, matters are more complicated. He’s leading a caretaker government with limited powers. And he’s embroiled in a post-election nightmare: trying to persuade Barcelona-supporting Catalan separatists to put him, an Atlético de Madrid fan, back into office.
Spain’s Minister of Culture and Sports Miquel Iceta will attend. But traditionally Spain’s delegation at big sporting events is led by the royal head of state. Queen Letizia and her daughter Infanta Sofía will be at Stadium Australia for the game, the Royal Spanish Football Federation said this week.
Prince William has already fallen foul of football diplomacy once this week after celebrating England beating Australia in the semi-finals — only for former Australian football great and co-chair of the Australian Republic Movement Craig Foster to point out that William is prince of Australia too. Foster told the royal to spare the “patronising pat on the head.”
To be sure, political leaders don’t always show up to big games. No Spanish government official attended when Spain won the 2010 men’s World Cup. France’s Emmanuel Macron went to Qatar to see his team lose in the 2022 edition, while Argentina’s Alberto Fernandez celebrated at home.
Sunak watched the Lionesses win the European Championship in a pub last year. The game was in London. But he has been spotted in the stands watching his Southampton men’s team.
This year’s Women’s World Cup has been hailed as a smashing success, with the global football association FIFA reporting that the event was on track to reach a television audience of 2 billion.
But it was soured on Friday when FIFA President Gianni Infantino told reporters that women footballers “have the power to convince us men what we have to do” regarding equality in the game.
It’s this divide, which still stretches from the grassroots of the game to its most important match, that has brought criticism for Sunak in particular.
“We shouldn’t be surprised Sunak isn’t going to watch the Lionesses,” said Kate Osbourne, an MP for the U.K.’s opposition Labour Party. “Sunak likes to tweet support, but the reality is he does little for equality or sports in this country.”
Leader of the Women’s Equality Party Mandu Reid told the i newspaper that Prince William has betrayed his claims to be working for equality in U.K. football.
“Women have fought for decades to get even an iota of recognition in football,” she said. “For him to do this is the wrong move, deeply disappointing, and calls into question how sincere he is.”
A U.K. government spokesperson told POLITICO the country would be represented by Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Lucy Frazer and Foreign Secretary James Cleverly.
“Winning the World Cup would be a massive moment for the country and make no mistake we’ll find the right way to celebrate,” said the spokesperson.
Sánchez’s office in Madrid was contacted for comment but did not respond.
For their part, Sunak and Sánchez are already indulging in a less time-intensive political tradition: tweeting (or whatever it is now called).
“All of Spain is with you,” said Sanchez this week, no doubt wishing the same could be said about him.
“I know there is only one thing on all our minds — the mighty Lionesses,” wrote Sunak on Friday, in a comment tacked on to the bottom of a series of posts about inflation.
Aitor Hernández-Morales contributed reporting.