Football pioneer Sarai Bareman stunned by prestigious New Year Honour

Women's football trailblazer Sarai Bareman admits she's still coming to terms with the fancy new honorific which now accompanies her name.

She was recognised for her ongoing services to football governance in the 2024 New Year Honour list by being named a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

"It's unreal," Dame Sarai told Newshub from her home in Switzerland.  

"I'm still processing it a little bit, I have to be honest. It's obviously an incredible honour. To be recognised to this level is amazing and I'm just thankful for the opportunities that have been given to me to enable to make such an impact.

"It's a very nice way to end what has already been an absolutely incredible year."

The unquestioned highlight of that year for Dame Sarai was the FIFA Women's World Cup - a tournament she was instrumental in bringing to New Zealand and Australia, which represented her landmark achievement to date in her role as the global governing body's first chief women's football officer.

The appointment was the latest in a series of posts she's held with FIFA, rising from deputy general secretary of the Oceania Football Confederation to become the only female member of the organisation's Reform Committee, where she became a leading advocate for increased numbers of women in leadership and the prioritisation of women's football.

Sarai Bareman delivers the keynote speech at the 2023 FIFA Women's Football Convention in Sydney.
Sarai Bareman delivers the keynote speech at the 2023 FIFA Women's Football Convention in Sydney. Photo credit: Getty Images

"I've been able to meet so many incredible women and to be able to see, in each of those countries, the impact of the work that me, FIFA, my team are doing is so rewarding, particularly when it's young girls in rural settings or places where other avenues are unable to reach," said Dame Sarai.

"I've always loved the sport. Not only as a fan of football, but because I know through playing it myself and through seeing how it can impact a society.  

"To be able to bring that home to New Zealand and to have my family and friends especially also see that firsthand. I was, I would say, one of the highlights of my career so far."

The tournament smashed a multitude records, most notably taking up the mantle of the most attended women's sporting event in history.

The record attendance for a football match in Aotearoa - men's or women's - was broken three times during the competition, with the final number sitting at 43,217 for the three knockout stage matches which were held at Auckland's Eden Park.

In total 1,978,274 spectators reached 64 matches, beating the attendance of the last World Cup hosted by France (which attracted 1,131,312 spectators across 52 matches).

"We knew it was going to be big, but it exceeded all of our expectations for sure," Dame Sarai admitted.

"We had nearly two million people filling the stadiums, two billion people engaged around the world watching it.

"The atmosphere, the football. The surprise results from the giants of the women's game being knocked out in the group stages. Every aspect of it was outstanding.  

"It was complete madness. It was travelling every day to a different city, to a different stadium, watching different games. But I wouldn't change any part of it. It was really amazing."

The Football World Cup smashed attendance records in New Zealand.
The Football World Cup smashed attendance records in New Zealand. Photo credit: Getty Images

After being responsible for launching the first ever global women's football strategy in 2018, the World Cup was the gleaming jewel in Dame Sarai's crown - helping fulfil her own edict to encourage female empowerment through football while growing the sport's popularity.

Also acknowledged for their contributions to the tournament in the New Year Honours were FIFA Women's World Cup chief executive Dave Beeche and Oceania representative to the FIFA Council Dr Johanna Wood, who were both named Companions of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Dame Sarai's primary focus now is to capitalise on the momentum created by World Cup to overcome what she believes is the next significant obstacle facing women's football - full-time professionalism.

Earlier this month, Wellington Phoenix star Chloe Knott made the shock decision to quit just six games into the new A-League Women's season, citing financial struggles as one of the main reasons for her departure.

Dame Sarai described Knott's situation as "heartbreaking" and one has added more fuel to her fire to ensure women's players can be afforded some of the jaw-dropping spoils on offer for their men's counterparts.

"I see what is possible at the highest level of our sport and I know the opportunities that lie within football... what happens on the men's side," she said.


"Some of the numbers around what men are being paid, transfer fees, all those kinds of things that are absolutely astounding.  

"And it's the same sport. The athletes, they sacrifice the exact amount of time. It's the same the effort they put in the way they train, it's all the same. But yet, what they receive and the conditions that they play within are so different.  

"We just have to keep working until that's not the case."

But for now, Dame Sarai is simply savouring an accomplishment that's involved an immense amount of sacrifice, including lengthy periods of separation from her now 18-month-old son while she travelled extensively this year for the World Cup.

And for everything she's achieved, she insists she's still that same ambitious Kiwi girl from West Auckland, and her family were quick to remind her as much upon hearing her latest news.

"Dad's exact words were; 'well, that's awesome Sar, but don't think it's going to get you to the front of the line at family dinner," Dame Sarai laughed.

"It doesn't matter how big I get or what title you give me, I'm still going to be Sarai Bareman from Massey lining up for a family dinner just like everybody else."