Winning the rights to host the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup wouldn’t just revolutionise women’s football in Australia - it could be the entire sport’s saving grace.
The coronavirus shutdown has been an almost welcome interruption for Australian football: a chance to step outside the room that has developed a stale funk in recent years.
The appointment of James Johnson as Football Federation Australia CEO in January was the unbolting of the door, signalling – at the very least – the desire to let some fresh air in.
The resignation of FFA Technical Director Rob Sherman in March, whose parting gift was a widely-shared manifesto on what he believed Australian football ought to do next, pointed out the rot that had festered under the carpet.
And in the absence of live sport, media outlets organising multiple 'State of Football' panels and podcasts – alongside FFA’s creation of the 'Starting XI' committee in April – were the invitations the neighbours had been waiting for to address the bad smell directly with the owner of the house.
In less metaphorical terms, this extended pause has seen a shift in Australian football’s cultural mindset; the beginnings of a long-overdue, community-focused assessment of the game from the bottom to the top of the pyramid, like a crowd-sourced Crawford Report.
But despite the various suggestions that have been made in these forums, from abolishing salary caps to adjusting visa spots, introducing a transfer system, a national second division, and promotion and relegation, football’s golden question – how to convert the sport’s massive grassroots numbers into fans of the professional game – remains trickier to answer.
Perhaps, as so many media organisations have done recently, looking at our own history could point a way forward.
2005 is widely regarded as a critical year for Australian football with the A-League emerging from the ashes of the National Soccer League, which had been plagued by politics and mismanagement for years.
However, what lit the fire under the A-League in its nascent season was not the shiny new league itself (developed, in part, to appeal to a mass market instead of the historic clubs that made up its predecessor) so much as what happened on the international stage.
Three months after the A-League kicked off, the Socceroos qualified for their first World Cup in 32 years.
That nail-biting play-off against Uruguay ricocheted around the country, and despite the fact that all but three of the qualifying players were based overseas, domestic interest in the sport and the new competition soared.
The following decade saw the A-League flourish, the W-League begin, and Australia climb up Asian football’s ranks – culminating in the first Australian club to win the AFC Champions League and an Asian Cup title for both the Matildas (2010) and Socceroos (2015).
2005 is a year that many in the football community (including this writer) cite as their gateway into the game; their “footballing moment” which saw them become life-long fans.
Now, as Australian football finds itself at similar existential cross-roads, there is a moment approaching that could light a second fire and create a new generation of fans.
Last week, FIFA released its evaluation report of the 2023 Women’s World Cup bids.
According to FIFA’s own technical guidelines, Australia’s joint-bid with New Zealand ranked highest of the three remaining bidders, scoring 4.1 out of a possible 5, while Japan scored 3.9 and Colombia 2.8.
It’s the clearest indication yet that the Tasman bid is in pole position to win the hosting rights, as the team that compiled the report is the same team that established the guidelines that all World Cup bids must follow in order to be eligible.
This report will now be sent to all FIFA Council members, providing them with the most comprehensive assessment yet of all bidding nations before the decisive vote later this month.
And as FIFA looks to rebuild its image and re-establish trust with the global football community – the first moves of which included making World Cup voting public and awarding the 2026 men’s World Cup hosting rights to the “United” bid (Canada, Mexico, USA), which outranked its competitor in every way – it’s safe to say the FIFA Council members will not want a repeat of the PR disaster that was Russia and Qatar, when voters went against FIFA’s own scathing findings.
Winning the rights to host a Women’s World Cup tournament – let alone potentially win one on home soil – could be another “2005” moment for Australian football.
It would supercharge interest in the game at the grassroots level, and that enthusiasm could then be channelled into greater engagement with Australia’s top leagues – not just the A-League and the under-utilised W-League, but also the state-based National Premier Leagues that will form the backbone of national second divisions.
Setting aside the amount of money generated through tourism, sponsorships, broadcasting, and ticket sales during the World Cup itself, the visibility and accessibility of the world’s greatest athletes in Australia and New Zealand could create an entirely new generation of football fans whose interest and investment in the game would stretch well beyond the parameters of the tournament.
On June 25, when the FIFA Council hand down their 2023 decision, Australia will have a much clearer idea of its footballing future.
Let’s hope the game’s decision-makers capitalise on the unprecedented interest such a tournament would receive, or else we could find ourselves back here in ten years’ time, wondering why the room still smells.