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  • Writer's pictureHarry Bailey

Will Australia ever host a men's World Cup?

Over a year removed from the Socceroos' successful 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar and only four months after hosting the biggest Women's World Cup in history, Australian football fans have recently had quite a fortune. Through its flagship national teams, many Australian football fans are transitioning into a new era of belief. But Football Australia announced last month that it would not pursue bidding for the 2034 World Cup. It was a move that stirred both disappointment and relief among the nation's football enthusiasts, with Football Australia's decision all but sending the hosting rights to Saudi Arabia. The news undoubtedly evoked a complex mix of reactions, ranging from melancholy to a bittersweet reflection on what might have been.

For Australian football fans, Football Australia's decision has dealt a blow towards their collective optimism and aspirations of hosting a men's World Cup, meaning reaching this significant landmark is still merely a dream. The heightened hopes, particularly following the resounding success of the 2023 Women's World Cup, now seem to be hanging in the balance. The record-breaking viewership numbers, attendance, and revenue from the women's tournament stands as a compelling testament to Australia's undeniable capability to host a football event on the global stage. Thus, not pursuing a men's World Cup bid feels like a setback.

However, there is a strong belief Australia's chances of hosting a World Cup had already hit the ocean floor long ago. The persistent favourability towards a Saudi Arabia World Cup for 2034 from both FIFA and the AFC, coupled with lingering memories of Australia's ill-fated 2022 World Cup bid, has left an unforgettable mark on many minds. As the decision to abstain from a 2034 bid settles, Australians grapple with a complex mix of emotions. Relief, perhaps, but also lingering uncertainty.

Questions now arise. Should Australian football fans have resentment? Is Football Australia's decision a potential positive? Will another window appear to host a World Cup, or is the dream of bringing the tournament down under now permanently shattered?

In this piece, we delve into the factors that led to this decision, analysing the broader landscape to determine whether the prospect of a men's World Cup coming to Australian soil remains a realistic aspiration or has slipped away into the realm of improbable dreams.

To help better understand the topic, Front Page Football  recently spoke to former Football Federation Australia senior executive Bonita Mersiades, who was heavily involved in the process behind Australia’s 2022 World Cup bid. She provided an insight into the bidding process to explain why the organisation has decided to withdraw from competing for the hosting rights this time.

Saudi Arabia's promotional image for their 2034 World Cup bid. (Ministry of Sport)

Regardless of Australia's hopes and dreams, the stark reality is the country's likelihood of hosting the 2034 World Cup was slim from the outset. The predominant reasons lay in the undeniable favouritism towards Saudi Arabia, which emerged as the formidable frontrunner. The Guardian  specifically outlined the numerous factors highlighting this favouritism in a piece back in October, which included:

  • Yasser Al Misehal, the President of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, secured a FIFA Council seat and thus elevated Saudi Arabia's influence within the governing body.

  • The strategic sponsorship of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar showcased Saudi Arabia's commitment to investing in global football.

  • Saudi Arabia hosted the 2023 FIFA Club World Cup, and AFC backing is strengthening their bid.

  • The Saudi Pro League's growing popularity enhances the nation's football appeal.

  • The impact of the country's Public Investment Fund, through the ownership of Newcastle United in the English Premier League, brings increased attention and financial influence.

  • The recent relaxation of FIFA's standards for stadium requirements, which favoured Saudi Arabia, allowed them to submit a bid with only four existing arenas.

Unfortunately, these factors derailed the chances of a men's World Cup down under. Football Australia required substantial financial support from the Albanese government for a competitive bid. Despite the government's lack of public engagement in football, the organisation needs full backing to succeed. Even with financial support, it appeared almost inevitable the Saudi Arabian bid was dominant. Therefore, deciding not to bid has been viewed as a logical and realistic response to this challenging landscape.

Under these circumstances, many Australian football enthusiasts found themselves setting aside their passion for the game to critically assess the possibility of a World Cup bid. Most understand there are more efficient uses of taxpayers' money. The lingering memory of Football Australia's $46 million bid for the 2022 World Cup, which garnered only one vote from the FIFA committee, still looms large in fans' minds.

While the inability to host the 2034 World Cup is disheartening, it redirects attention and financial commitment towards more attainable goals, such as hosting the 2029 FIFA Club World Cup and the 2026 AFC Women's Asian Cup. Although these tournaments may not attract the global attention of a World Cup, it is now considerably more feasible for Australia to host one or both. Football Australia considered whether it was prudent to invest more money into a bid with such a low chance of success and whether they should reallocate resources more judiciously and bid for two other tournaments with a greater chance of being accepted.

“My view was that it would’ve been silly to try to bid for it. The writings were on the wall that Saudi Arabia would win the bid,” Mersiades said on the decision by Football Australia, speaking to FPF.

“The major issue is the fact that the FIFA President and [the] AFC made it clear they want Saudi Arabia to get it.”

What about the opportunities granted from successful bids for other tournaments?

“The consolation prize, which is an important prize, is the Club World Cup. That is as big as what a World Cup was anyway,” Mersiades said.

Mersiades was a senior executive at Football Federation Australia until 2010. (ABC News/Niall Lenihan)

Mersiades was a part of Australia's 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids. For a deeper understanding of the process behind each bid, her 2018 book 'Whatever It Takes: The Inside Story of the FIFA Way’, explores the complexities and issues surrounding Australia’s campaigns and the alleged corruption that followed.

Fresh off hosting the biggest Women's World Cup in history, Australia basked in the glow of success. The resounding accomplishment down under has left many convinced the decision to bring a global football spectacle to Australia for the first time was a masterstroke. This success suggests that hosting a men's World Cup, either solely in Australia or in collaboration with New Zealand or another country, may still be viable.

Despite the optimism in this respect, discontent simmers that the decision not to bid this time may extinguish any chance of seeing a men's World Cup on Australian shores. FIFA’s decision to expand the World Cup to 48 nations from 2026 and beyond has further diminished this hope. Whilst this move helps boost Australia’s chances of continued regular qualification for the tournament, it will unfortunately create further challenges for future hosting bids.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino. (Reuters)

“The notion of Australia hosting a 48-team World Cup would be challenging, simply because we would have to go in a bidding contest with multiple nations,” Mersiades said.

Another prominent concern repeatedly faced by Football Australia revolves around combatting time zones. Disadvantaged by its location, hosting the world's most-watched sporting event down under could lead to a significant drop in global viewership.

While the outstanding success of the Women's World Cup may seem a counterargument, various factors contributed to its soaring viewership numbers, mainly the general global surge in women's football interest. Nevertheless, the challenge of accommodating diverse time zones remains a formidable one. European critics have previously expressed concerns about the suitability of an Australian World Cup by underscoring the complexity of this multifaceted issue.

Reflecting on the last men's World Cup in Qatar, European fans were fortunate that the host nation's Western-Asian location provided more favourable game times than Eastern or Southern alternatives. Qatar, only two hours ahead of British Standard Time, often facilitated a 6 pm kick-off time for prime-time matches, thus converting to a convenient 4 pm kick-off in a city such as London. While some argue this aspect favours Western-Asian hosts like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, it is not a consistent trend. Despite concerns about Australian time zones, this hurdle is only minor. In reality, Australia's time zones align reasonably with other Asian nations that successfully hosted the tournament previously.

The 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan is compelling evidence that concerns over incompatible time zones are insignificant. Despite initial speculation of potential issues before the tournament, the host nation defied expectations, putting on the second-most viewed World Cup at the time, only behind the 1994 World Cup in the United States. With Japanese and Korean Standard Time only two hours behind Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST), hosting a World Cup in Australia wouldn't significantly diminish global viewership.

South Korean fans celebrate in Seoul at the 2002 World Cup. (FreeQration)

With the adaptability shown throughout the 2023 Women's World Cup, Australia could seamlessly adjust prime-time fixtures for global compatibility. For example, an 8 pm kick-off in Sydney (AEST), akin to the Women's World Cup Final, corresponds to an 11 am kick-off time for a fan based in a big European city like London. It is an adjustment well within reasonable bounds.

Consequently, it is clear that while a more compatible time zone with prominent viewership areas is advantageous, it is not decisive in deeming Australia unworthy of hosting a World Cup. A more plausible explanation lies in FIFA's seeming prioritisation of relations with rivalling bid nations rather than any inherent unsuitability on Australia's part.

The heartbreak for some football fans around Football Australia's decision extends beyond the immediate disappointment of not hosting the 2034 World Cup. It also encompasses the realisation that the wait to bid for a hosting opportunity will be prolonged. Per FIFA guidelines, a nation within the same confederation as the host country cannot submit a bid for two World Cups. With Saudi Arabia - an AFC nation - likely hosting the 2034 World Cup, Australia's next chance will not be until the 2042 World Cup bidding process begins, meaning there are at least another 19 years to wait before Australia could host a men's World Cup.

Given FIFA's historical challenges with the bidding process and seeming political agendas, which have negatively impacted Australia's previous bids, securing financial and AFC support for a competitive 2042 bid is essential. Should Football Australia submit a bid and fail again, the prospect of not hosting a men's World Cup until at least 2046 or beyond looms, potentially marking a daunting minimum 23-year gap before Australia can become the home of world football again, as we saw earlier this year.

Fans wait outside Stadium Australia to watch the Matildas at the Women's World Cup. (The Sydney Morning Herald)

“I don’t think it’s realistic in the lifetime of the people reading this article (for Australia to host a men's World Cup). Currently, we don’t have the capacity to host a 48-team World Cup. It’s not just about the grounds, but also the infrastructure, training facilities, hotels, you name it,” Mersiades shared on whether Australia will ever host the men's spectacle.

She added to this point by questioning whether hosting major tournaments is what Football Australia should be focusing on to improve the sport's development.

“I think the broader issue is whether hosting events and having that sugar hit is helping football from the grassroots up. I’m not entirely convinced it does. We’re now four to five months after the Women’s World Cup Final, and we haven’t seen much improvement (in the development of football)."

While Australians may wear their doomsday hats and have concerns about the possibility of a men's World Cup gracing their shores, it is essential to bask in the achievement of what we witnessed earlier this year. Hosting the Women's World Cup was a triumph. It marked a pivotal turning point in Australian football history, with the tournament poised to inspire the next generation of female and male footballers. That process is already underway.

Football's trajectory in Australia appears promising in parts, and successful bids for the 2026 Women's Asian Cup and 2029 FIFA Club World Cup would be two fantastic opportunities to spotlight the country as a footballing nation.



The Matildas celebrate their exhilarating World Cup quarter-final win against France. (CommBank Matildas Twitter)

Despite the need for additional funding and the growth of Australia's domestic leagues, football still holds a significant place in the Australian sports landscape. The Matildas' World Cup Semi-Final against England, the most-watched event in Australian television history, underscored the nation's ability to attract football fans. It should be inevitable that Australia one day welcomes the FIFA Men's World Cup to its shores. The question should not be if but when.

Whether it comes in the next 30 years or for generations beyond that, one thing for sure is that football, perhaps less regularly than hoped, continues to carve its place at the heart of Australian sports culture. Hosting a men's World Cup will only highlight this fact, and the countdown to experiencing the world's most coveted tournament should not be indefinite.

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