Fireside vigil for As One’s World Cup succeeds

UPDATE: New Zealand and Australia will host the 2023 FIFA 2023 Women's World Cup, with their As One bid successful overnight. It will be the first tournament of its kind held in the Asia-Pacific region and the Southern Hemisphere, and promises to be the biggest women's football event ever. 

Earlier this week Ella Reilly looked at the opportunities that could open up for our girls and women in football. 

Being awake in the middle of the night for football is one of the many rituals familiar to New Zealanders. So often global football's biggest moments, its biggest competitions, take place on the other side of the world.

So it’s apt that, from 1am this Friday, New Zealand Football president and member of the FIFA Council, Dr Johanna Wood, will be huddled by the fireplace on her Manawatū farm for the FIFA Council’s June meeting, held by video conference.

Agenda item No.9 is of particular importance: the selection of the hosts for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, for which New Zealand and Australia are jointly bidding. The 2023 edition is set to be the biggest yet.

New Zealand initially expressed interest in hosting the 2023 World Cup back in 2015. As time progressed so too did Australia, Argentina, South Africa and Bolivia, while North and South Korea proposed a joint bid.

But in the wake of the success of the 2019 tournament, FIFA then announced 2023 would involve 32 teams, rather than the previous 24-team format. Prizemoney would be doubled, and FIFA would commit US$1billion to be spent in the women's game over the 2019-23 cycle.

New Zealand and Australia formally launched their joint bid last December, naming it As One. FIFA also received bids from Colombia, Brazil and Japan. Brazil pulled out a fortnight ago, citing the economic impacts of Covid-19, and put their support behind Colombia.  

Now the Japanese have also withdrawn, believing its chances of hosting women's football's two biggest tournaments (the World Cup and the Olympics) were low. Japan have placed their backing behind As One. 

So As One is looking stronger by the hour. 

Fast forward through a whirlwind six-month campaign, rocked by a pandemic, and it all boils down to a three-hour FIFA Council meeting, and the will of the 35 eligible voters on the 37-strong council (as bidding nations, New Zealand and Colombia are ineligible to vote).

By around 4am on Friday, Wood and the rest of the world will know whether New Zealand and Australia are successful or not. Should the 2023 hosting rights be won, Wood says: “We’re going to put our mark in the history book.

“This is across the confederations. It's the first [full] Women’s World Cup in the Asia-Pacific, and in the Southern Hemisphere. That's pretty powerful,” she says.

For a semblance of perspective, the United States v Netherlands final in 2019 attracted an average live broadcast audience of 82.18 million (and a total viewership of 263.62 million for that game alone).

Just under a billion people tuned in to the tournament, up 30 percent from the 2015 Cup. In comparison, the 2019 men’s Rugby World Cup garnered an average live audience of 44.9 million (and a total viewership of 51.3 million) for the final between South Africa and England.

“It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to host a mega event that’s growing exponentially and that we may never get the chance to host again,” says New Zealand Football CEO Andrew Pragnell.

Megan Rapinoe scores for the US in their 2019 World Cup final victory over the Netherlands in France. Photo: Getty Images. 

The 2023 World Cup is set to take place in July-August. Should the As One bid win hosting rights, around 45 percent of the games will be played in New Zealand, including the tournament opener at Eden Park.

Group games, round of 16, quarters and semifinals will be split between New Zealand and Australia (with the third place playoff and the final played across the Tasman). Ticket prices begin at USD$5 ($7.80) and muc not exceed USD$90 ($140), with around 1.5 million projected to be sold. The draw for the World Cup would also take place in Auckland.

Walking the talk

Putting women’s leadership and development visibly at the heart of the bid is one of As One’s cornerstones. It’s the only bid to be spearheaded by a woman (Wood is quick to emphasise that the leadership duties have been shared by her and Football Federation Australia’s chair Chris Nikou, and that other bid teams do have women involved).

It’s epitomised by the confederation presentation to UEFA back in March, which Wood and Nikou were unable to attend. Wood insisted that a woman presented in her absence - so the Australia-based As One bid general manager Jane Fernandez took the reins.

“And that was noticed. There were other women around, but she was one who did the talking,” Wood says.

“We walk the talk. So when we talk about developing women and the game of football, it's about developing women from players and fans and administrators, coaches, match officials, volunteers - it’s all of us. And you're seeing that in terms of governance structures - in Australia, it's gone to 50 percent female on their board, and we've just gone to 40 percent on our board.”

Last month, the election of former Football Fern Sarah Gibbs and former New Zealand Rugby finance chief Janine Mountford to NZ Football’s executive committee reached the government’s target of a minimum 40 percent women on sports boards, a year ahead of the 2021 deadline.

It’s a salient milestone, irrespective of the context of the bid for the World Cup, says Wood - given the considerable, but often under-acknowledged, contribution made by women in sport, especially outside of the professional sphere.

“We’re saying that’s really important because [sport] can't operate without that,” she says. “But it’s also really important to have [women] at the top table making decisions that are going to affect us, our children and our families.”

Another notable strength is the government support for the bid, which is unequivocal on both sides of the Tasman.

Sport and Recreation minister Grant Robertson has reaffirmed our government’s backing, telling LockerRoom: “If we win, [the government] will play an active role in financially supporting the tournament.

“Sport events have always been an important part of who we are as a people. Covid-19 will not change that, so we remain just as committed.”

The combined government support from the two nations, according to the bid review report, is around US$75.7 million (around US$11 million from New Zealand and US$64 million from Australia). Neither Japan or Colombia’s governments, at the time of the technical evaluations, had committed government funding.

New Zealand Football president Johanna Wood

Irrespective of whether the As One bid is successful, Wood says there will be a stronger relationship and more activity between the two nations.

Nowhere will these stronger relationships be more vital than in securing a W-League licence for the Wellington Phoenix.

Globally, there have been fears as to the ramifications on commitment to women’s sport, so often seen through the prism of cost rather than investment. FIFPRO, the global footballers union, warned in March of the existential threat to the women’s game posed by the economic snowball effects of Covid-19.

Going against this global context, the Wellington Phoenix reaffirmed its desire for a team in the W-League after the technical evaluations were released - even while protracted negotiations around concluding the A-League were, at that point, entirely unresolved.

While there's a long way to go before it can become a reality, the Phoenix gaining a W-League licence would mean the first professional women’s football team not only representing New Zealand, but also the Oceania Confederation.

Moving into the professional space is imperative and long overdue for women’s football in New Zealand. It’s a key component for enabling girls and women to build careers in the game here as players, coaches and ultimately rendering the potential hosting of 2023 as something that goes beyond a well-executed, month-long tournament.

“We need to take a much longer-term view with respect to the development aspects of the women and girls game, and how the future Ferns coaches are integrated into that as well,” Pragnell says.

This encompasses preparing the Football Ferns for the 2023 World Cup and beyond, with the 2024 Olympics and 2027 World Cup also needing to be factored in. At this stage, current Ferns coach Tom Sermanni is contracted to August 2021, just after the rescheduled Olympic Games. A decision beyond that has yet to be made.

Football Ferns defender CJ Bott tackles Netherlands' Lieke Martens in their 2019 World Cup match in Le Havre. Photo: Getty Images.

The other aspect of preparing for a home World Cup is ensuring the Ferns get the games they need across the cycle. With the assumption of the bid being won, Pragnell says “in an ideal world we would fill most, if not all, of the [FIFA international] windows in the build-up.

“It's paramount, for the third biggest sporting event in the world, that the home team has adequate preparation and we'll be looking forward to engaging with government on that, to ensure there's adequate support for them to prepare, and prepare well.”

Decision day approaches

As decision day draws closer, the noise around the bids has become louder, precipitated by Brazil withdrawing its bid on June 9, and the FIFA technical evaluation reports of each bid being released the following day.

As One received the highest total score (412/500), ahead of Japan (392/500) and Colombia (280.5/500). As One was adjudged the "most commercially favourable" - while Colombia was "high risk" in the commercial element of the risk assessment. 

While the success in the bid evaluation reports are encouraging, it doesn’t mean that winning hosting rights on Friday is a fait accompli.

The awarding of the hosting rights for the 2018 and 2022 men’s World Cups back in 2010 loom large in the memory, ridden with corruption allegations for which legal proceedings are ongoing. And that’s not even mentioning the various political relationships and tensions to be navigated.

But the reality is that until the votes are lodged, the winners announced and the votes made public (shortly after the vote), it’s impossible to know, really, which way the vote will go.

What can be known, however, is that winning the joint hosting rights for the next FIFA Women’s World Cup offers the immense opportunity for girls and women's football not only in New Zealand and Australia, but also the wider Asia and Pacific regions.

It could all start with the results at 4 am on Friday. And it could mean that in 2023, New Zealanders won't have to get up in the middle of the night for some of football's biggest moments.

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