Australia and New Zealand’s joint bid to host the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup is believed to be jousting for outright favouritism ahead of the deciding vote later this month.
A raft of factors have played in favour of the Trans-Tasman collaboration, not least how adeptly both nations have dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, the strength of their economies and deep commitment to women’s sport.
Well-placed sources are growing in confidence that the bid is well-positioned to push Brazil, considered to be another leading contender, all the way when the verdict is handed down on June 25.
Colombia and Japan are the others in the race, with FIFA scheduled to release their evaluation report cards on the merits of each bid early next week.
While the contents of each may provide some pointers, the final say will come down to the 37-strong FIFA Council, which will include the voice of president Gianni Infantino.
The Swiss has a strong bond with FFA chief executive James Johnson, whom he worked alongside for six years in Zurich.
Queenslander, Johnson was an influential and collaborative figure as FIFA’s Head of Professional Football where he oversaw the relations with the world’s top clubs, leagues and player unions.
And it’s clear Infantino, and FIFA Council’s decision makers, will at the very least acknowledge him as a safe pair of hands to deliver a smooth and efficiently run show in an uncertain post COVID-19 football environment.
Whilst the Asian vote on the Council may be split, Johnson’s history as a respected former director of international relations and development at the AFC is another plus.
The tournament has never previously been staged in the Southern Hemisphere, or awarded to a joint bid, however it’s known that the FIFA delegation - which visited Australia and New Zealand in February to evaluate infrastructure - were suitably impressed.
Infantino is on a personal pilgrimage to grow the sport in emerging regions, not previously known for their football fanaticism, and Australia and New Zealand are both fertile territories for that expansionist approach.
The fact FFA were able to pick up the ball at short notice to host Women’s World Cup qualifiers in the same month FIFA were in town - switching from coronavirus-hit China - was another feather in the cap.
Sydney, Newcastle, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Launceston are the likely Australian sites, whilst Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Hamilton and Dunedin would be host cities across the ditch.
Whilst taking the temperature of FIFA officials ahead of previous ballots has been notoriously unreliable, the prevailing wisdom is that the joint bid may attract enough “swing” voters in the open ballot to get across the line.
The FIFA Council includes 17 members from Europe and Africa and with no bids from either confederation, they are the ones who must be convinced to back the Trans-Tasman duo.
FIFA has dubbed the contest the “most competitive bidding process” in the event’s 29-year history, with the tournament to feature 32 teams for the first time.