By Michael Burgess*
In the early hours of Friday morning, New Zealand was confirmed as a co-host of the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2023. The FIFA council vote was conclusive (22-13) but getting to this point has been far from straightforward, as Michael Burgess explains.
New Zealand's bid to host a FIFA Women's World Cup has been years in the making, with plenty of twists and turns along the way. The idea was first floated in 2010, as a way to capitalise on the burgeoning interest in football, following the All Whites' success in South Africa.
After canvassing stakeholders and gathering information, New Zealand Football (NZF) formally expressed their interest in April 2014, one of five countries angling for the 2019 women's tournament. However later that year NZF withdrew their bid.
"After making a detailed financial assessment regarding the impact of hosting this major event on the football calendar, we concluded that the 2019 event will come too soon for us," said then NZF chief executive Andy Martin.
"We remain keen to consider hosting the Women's World Cup in the future while we continue our significant investment in the development of the women's game."
Files were tucked away, with the intention to re-focus on 2023.
However, two major crises threatened to damage New Zealand's prospects.
In July 2015 the Oly-Whites were sensationally disqualified from the Olympic qualifying tournament, after defender Deklan Wynne was declared ineligible. NZF fought the decision - at considerable expense - but an Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) appeals committee upheld the original judgement.
Several other players, who had represented New Zealand at different levels, were caught up in the mess. NZF relies on OFC support and backing for any tournament bids, but this affair severely damaged a relationship that was already strained.
The second setback was the Football Ferns' apparent mutiny in June 2018 against their coach, Andreas Heraf, which had seismic implications. Heraf resigned a few weeks later, before Martin departed soon afterwards. Long serving NZF chairman Deryck Shaw was ultimately another casualty of the Muir report.
NZF was in crisis, which was hardly a platform for a successful bid of any kind, while OFC also endured major problems around the same time, with President David Chung and Secretary-General Tai Nicholas eventually banned from the sport by FIFA last year, after a corruption scandal.
After being an interim NZF chief executive for ten months, Andrew Pragnell was confirmed in the permanent role in May 2019. As the organisation got back on its feet, Pragnell had been focussed on rebuilding and strengthening relationships, with OFC and also - crucially - Australia.
The Women's World Cup project was also revived, though New Zealand's formal expression of interest was barely noticed in March last year, with eight other bids on the radar, including heavyweights like Brazil, Japan, a proposed joint Korean bid and Australia.
But Pragnell and his team went to work, initiating conversations with government and potential host cities and stadia.
However Australia's bid, which was much further down the track, was an obvious elephant in the room, and would have been hard to trump.
But two episodes changed the dynamic.
It's understood that Australia received intelligence - through informal channels - that a joint bid would have a greater chance of success, given the appeal to FIFA of a cross confederation project, aligning to their mantra of global cooperation.
And in July last year FIFA, basking in the glow of the record breaking event in France, ratified the expansion of the women's tournament from 24 to 32 teams.
The die was cast.
The enlarged tournament was now much too big for New Zealand, while an Anzac bid began to make more sense for Australia. Negotiations were far from straightforward - and some involved on the Australia side still wanted to go it alone - but a joint agreement was reached last November, with the As One tagline officially announced a month later.
But the work had just begun. Some host cities were intimidated by the potential liabilities and compliance issues around such a huge event, which necessitated further discussions.
NZF also did all of the bid work in house, on a fraction of the budget of some other contenders.
It meant working through the night and entire weekends for Pragnell and general manager of football Daniel Farrow, while other NZF staff members had to 'drop everything' at different times.
Government involvement from an early stage was vital, with Jacinda Ardern taking a personal interest and Grant Robertson committing substantial funding. That was a major factor in the trans-Tasman bid being judged top of the pile by FIFA's technical evaluation team, as Japan and Colombia had failed to demonstrate specific levels of state support and investment.
The final phase was the lobbying of council members ahead of the vote, requiring calls at all hours of the night by senior figures from both organisations, as well as key members of OFC.
Japan's late withdrawal guaranteed unanimous support from Asia, while encouraging promises were also gained from North America and Africa.
But Colombia had some considerable aces to play, including offers of their popular men's team to play fixtures around the world, and the weight of the powerful South American bloc behind them. That helped to secure the European votes, but wasn't enough to change the ultimate result on Friday morning (NZT).
The ramifications are enormous.
Moves to have a New Zealand team in the Australian W-League will be fast tracked, while the sport's participation numbers nationwide should be boosted.
The Football Ferns will have their best chance of success at a World Cup, while the economic impact will be massive, characterised by Pragnell as "like a Lions tour on steroids", given the travelling armies that follow many teams.
Michael Burgess has covered football in New Zealand since 2006, and also reported from two FIFA World Cups.