Anxious supporters across the two countries were sent into raptures when FIFA’s Executive Council, meeting via teleconference, voted 22-13 in favour of the combined Antipodean bid and sent a senior World Cup Down Under for the very first time.
Bid officials had been quietly confident heading into the vote that they had done enough to secure the 2023 Women’s World Cup, with the lobbying efforts of New Zealand Football (NZF) President Johanna Wood — the only woman heading any of the bids — and Football Federation Australia (FFA) CEO James Johnson playing an important part in the bid’s push in the halls of Zurich.
But despite appearing to be the favourites heading into the vote, there was an undeniable air of trepidation from those on the outside looking in as the moment of truth drew ever closer.
Especially for fans of football in Australia, where it often feels as though their game just isn’t allowed nice things; a combination of external and internal malaise conspiring to ensure that the next bout of abject misery is never too far away.
Thus, when ESPN reported just over 24 hours out from the final vote that UEFA was set to swing its support behind the rival Colombian bid, nerves well and truly kicked into overdrive and a foreboding sense of dread began to bubble.
It appeared to be happening again.
Back in 2010, Australia made a naïve foray into Sepp Blatter’s FIFA in an attempt to bring the 2022 Men’s World Cup to its shores, only to be eliminated in the first round after receiving just a solitary vote.
The calamitous effort ultimately cost Australian taxpayers AU$45 million and left a bad taste in the mouths of fans that has never gone away — a sensation reinforced with every tidbit surrounding the sheer incompetence of the Australian bid and the unethical and sometimes outright criminal conduct of the 22 members of the FIFA Executive Committee who took part in that vote and those seeking to curry their favour that is revealed.
But with new president Gianni Infantino embarking on a public relations campaign centred around restoring trust in FIFA by promising greater accountability and transparency, hope sprang anew that things might be different this time.
Joining forces with sister-nation New Zealand to stage a bold, cross-confederation bid (Australia resides in the Asian Football Confederation while New Zealand plays in the Oceanic equivalent) for the newly inaugurated 32-nation tournament, the “As One” 2023 campaign went all-in on Infantino’s promise of a new FIFA as they put together a meticulously organised application.
Measured on stadia, facilities, accommodation, broadcast, fan zones and commercial return, the AU-NZ bid was adjudged the strongest of the three bids that received an evaluation from FIFA — scoring a 4.1 out of 5 when compared with a 3.9 score for Japan and a 2.8 for Colombia.
Importantly, the proposal, more than any other, was determined to most closely match FIFA’s desire to use the tournament to leave a tangible legacy of growing the women’s game and drive positive social change.
The Australian and New Zealand governments have pledged approximately US$75m in investment in the event that the cross-confederation bid was successful, and the tournament was forecast to bring an estimated US$318m in social and economic benefit for the two nations.
Crucial in securing support from the ASEAN Football Federation bid organisers promised to help foster the game across South East Asia and the Pacific by expanding leadership and development opportunities to women throughout the region both in the lead-in and aftermath of the tournament, as well as expand collaboration across all areas of the women’s and men’s games.
That backing from the AFF played a key factor in Japan opting to withdraw from the race, seemingly uniting the AFC, and its influential President Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa of Bahrain, behind Australian and New Zealand and turning the excitement in the two countries up to 11.
But despite all this, when the reports of UEFA’s confluence behind Colombia emerged, a forlornly familiar sense of devastation began to creep into Aussie and Kiwi minds.
Despite seemingly doing everything right, it felt like politics was about to see them lose out to a bid that, according to FIFA’s own evaluation, was clearly second best. It just felt like the type of thing that would happen.
But then a weird thing happened — it didn’t.
Now, as bleary-eyed Aussies and Kiwis celebrate their victory and struggle to figure out how they’re supposed to go to sleep after all that — the announcement arrived in the very early hours of Friday morning in the two countries — that sense of anxiety has been replaced with a much-needed sense of elation.
In recent months, the quest to bring the Women’s World Cup Down Under has provided a rare light in the darkness, as the game in Australia has with the effects of COVID-19 and an ugly disagreement with its primary broadcaster over an existing television deal.
For a short time at least, that can be forgotten amidst the blissful celebrations accompanying the realisation that the Women’s World Cup is on its way — a tournament that, perhaps, may have a critical role in yanking football back from the brink.
Research already continuously places the Matildas at the vanguard of Australia’s most beloved sporting brands, with a recent study showing that only Australia’s women’s cricket team — who won the T20 World Cup on home soil in front of a record 86,174 fans back in March 2019 — was held in greater esteem by the public.
Now, Sam Kerr, Caitlin Foord, Ellie Carpenter and Co. will get a home World Cup of their own to drive themselves deeper into the hearts and minds of the Australian football public and well and truly establish themselves at the front of a changing face of sport in Australia — one that the FFA hopes will see a 50-50 gender split in registered community players by 2027.
For New Zealand’s Football Ferns, who are yet to win a game at the Women’s World Cup in five previous attempts, the opportunity to break that duck will never be greater than on home soil.
A home World Cup — 45% of the tournament’s games will be staged in New Zealand — will also provide a significant boost to NZF’s plans to achieve a 7 percent year-on-year growth in participation levels among women and girls in the country, which has already grown 35 percent in the past five years.
Though it had already been stated to not be dependent on a successful bid, it will also likely supercharge the efforts of New Zealand’s only professional football club, the A-League‘s Wellington Phoenix, to secure a licence to field a women’s side in the Australian W-League. Such a team would become the first professional women’s football side to represent Oceania.
It’s not just at the elite level where the impact will be felt, either, with the prospect of a home World Cup a powerful tool for the FFA and NZF and throttle affiliates to use in negotiating for funding and support for their grassroots, whose ranks will be swelled by a new generation of field, and boys, that are inspired into taking up the game.
Technically, Australia and New Zealand only won the rights to host the Women’s World Cup. But in reality they, and the Asia Pacific, have won a whole lot more.