Awarding Saudi Arabia hosting rights for the 2034 FIFA World Cup will have wide-reaching impacts on Football Australia. But what, exactly?
Surprise, surprise; Saudi Arabia is set to host the 2034 FIFA World Cup.
For the second time in 12 years, the world’s most prestigious sporting tournament will head to the Middle East, following last December’s showing in Qatar.
Australia not bidding for the 2034 World Cup, never really stood a chance. The deadline for confirmed expressions of interest today. So Saudi Arabia will be the only one bidding in the Saudi Arabia-shaped bidding process announced by FIFA earlier this month. Saudi 2034 ✔️— tariq panja (@tariqpanja) October 31, 2023
Under the guiding hand of Gianni Infantino and FIFA, Saudi Arabia’s advancement into the sporting world will take its largest step. Its Public Investment Fund (PIF) has already acquired Newcastle United and has truly shaken up the golfing world. Plus, the nation is of course also hosting Formula One races.
And Australia is feeling the cost. Football Australia announced its withdrawal from bidding for the 2034 World Cup, confirmed on October 31 by the association’s top dog James Johnson.
Competing with Saudi Arabia for hosting rights would’ve been like a Nissan Cube going up against Max Verstappen’s Red Bull Racing car.
Former FIFA secretary general, Jerome Valcke, once said: “less democracy is sometimes better for organising a World Cup.”
With that in mind, and given what we know about FIFA; from the documentaries, long-form articles, and a quick glance at the tournament’s recent hosts, Australia never stood a chance.
The Saudi Arabia debacle provides another clear of example of all being fair in love and war, but not World Cup hosting rights.
James Johnson, much like the rest of Australia’s footballing community, has every right to feel deflated and disappointed.
But Football Australia’s chief executive officer said, “we’re adults and we’ve just tried to roll with it and deal with the cards we’ve been given.”
For Australian football, the wait to host a World Cup just grew longer. The repercussions of missing out on 2034 will be monumental for the game on these shores.
Why Football Australia’s decision to withdraw its 2034 FIFA World Cup bid will be a positive
Reason 1: Financial impacts
To put it plainly, it costs a lot to bid for a World Cup, let alone host one.
In attempting to secure the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which was later dubiously awarded to Qatar, the Australian government offered Football Australia, then known as the FFA, $46 million of taxpayer funding.
In the end, it would all prove futile.
Johnson acknowledged as much, stating ‘when I went through that process [weighing up a bid’s pros and cons], I realised that we could have a shot. But I think at the end, the outcome was not going to be favourable to Australia.’
For Football Australia, and the Albanese government, which has shown a keen interest in sporting investment, following a successful 2023 Women’s World Cup, any money that would otherwise have been funnelled into a World Cup bid can be better served investing in other aspects of the game.
The next 12 months are massive for Australian football, with the inaugural 10-to-16 team national second division targeting a launch sometime next year.
And the A-League Men’s and Women’s competitions will be looking to build, or rebuild, their status as top-level sports in a crowded domestic sporting landscape down under, dominated by AFL and the NRL.
Football Australia’s World Cup bid funding could, and in all seriousness, should be allocated into growing the game at a domestic level, prioritising successfully kicking off, advancing, and uplifting the national second division, a revolutionary endeavour in Australian sport with the potential to re-shape the footballing landscape and develop a deeper connection between club and fan.
According to reports, the FA expects the second division to be, at its launch, ‘primarily funded by an annual licence fee paid by its clubs, with the federation also picking up some of the tab.’
Looking away from the men’s professional game and diving deeper down the Australian footballing pyramid, more needs to be done in overhauling the junior systems and pathways for young players, both men and women. This takes time, but more crucially, money.
The cost of playing organised youth football, whether socially or more seriously, is exorbitant; the number of games is far from adequate for proper player development.
Money saved from investing in a World Cup bid could, and probably should, enter into football clubs around the country.
From a government perspective, the Australian Sports Commission, tasked with ‘investing in sport at all levels’, has allocated approximately $5.7 million for football in the 2023-24 Financial Year.
What is evident is that Football Australia needs to take the grassroots investment onus, even if the issue isn’t exclusively linked to the games governing body.
Speaking in 2020, Mark Schwarzer revealed that players in National Premier League youth teams, such as in the 13s and under 16s, “clubs can charge you up to $2650 per annum to play at the club. Of which, Australia’s official footballing body only receives $14 of that fee.”
"It's becoming a bit of an elitist sport."— Optus Sport (@OptusSport) April 19, 2020
Are Australia's expensive junior registration fees a part of the reason the Australian game, as Josip Skoko said, is "going nowhere?"
Watch the full Socceroos legends round-table 👉 https://t.co/OJ8jXLcFRH#StateofFootball pic.twitter.com/WAsqcOmCSX
On top of this, Football NSW, who he cited in his example, receive $38. “So, where is the rest?” The Socceroos’ most capped player asked.
“The issue is, no one knows 100% where the money goes,” he added.
His sentiments were echoed by former national teammate and 2005 Uruguay shootout hero, John Aloisi, who argued ‘the issue is when [the money] goes to senior NPL players.’
Whether this an issue which can be rectified by greater investment into the junior pathways, as well as a national second division, which professionalise former semi-professional National Premier League clubs and provide the financial incentive for clubs to move away from charging juniors to fund their seniors, remains to be seen.
What is clear is that missing out on the 2034 FIFA World Cup will free funds up to invest in areas of the game crying out for love and improvement. This is, truthfully, just about every faction of the game under the FA’s control; from bottom to top.
Money needs to target areas of football that will develop our domestic game, enhance the product and entice fans back into their seats. But most importantly, emphasise proper and considerate development of our nation’s youth players.
Nothing is more exciting in this season’s A-League Men’s than seeing young Socceroo, Nestory Irankunda, fire in a free-kick for Adelaide United, or a 15-year-old make his debut for Brisbane Roar. These moments capture the imagination of football fans young and old.
Australian domestic football must embark on a journey to come to terms with the fact that, unlike the NRL and AFL, it will likely never boast the greatest players in its sport.
Instead, it must embrace the fact it has the potential to produce future Socceroos and Matildas and leverage off the back of these players’ promise and potential, which speak to the millions of young kids playing football in this country.
Reason 2: Chance to host additional tournaments
In the statement announcing its withdrawal from the 2034 FIFA World Cup hosting race, Football Australia shared some equally exciting news.
‘We believe we are in a strong position to host the oldest women’s international competition in the world, the AFC Women’s Asian Cup 2026, and then welcome the greatest teams in world football for the 2029 FIFA Club World Cup,’ it explained.
Are these tournaments a potential thank you for withdrawing from the race? We’ll never know, but we can assume.
What we do know, however, is that hosting these tournaments, while unlikely to exceed the resounding benefits of a Men’s World Cup, will be overwhelmingly positive for Australian football.
The 2026 Women’s Asian Cup will be barely three years removed from a record-shattering 2023 Women’s World Cup, jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand, which saw nearly 2 million fans attend games in person.
In the short time since their valiant and nation-uniting fourth place finish at the tournament, the Matildas‘ popularity has skyrocketed. They’ve become mainstream; 60 minutes did a feature on them, Sam Kerr came second in Ballon D’Or, and the Matildas sold out three consecutive games in AFL heartland, Perth, including their 8-0 drubbing of the Philippines at the 60,000 seat Optus Stadium.
Moreover, the opening round of the 2023-24 A League Women’s season attracted record crowds, including 11,500 fans getting to Allianz stadium for the Sydney derby.
Continuing this momentum, as the Women’s World Cup advances further and further into the collective national rearview mirror will require serious effort.
But given the current stature of the Matildas’ brand in Australia, and Matildas stars in international leagues, as well as planned investment into women’s sport potentially facilitating the creation of the next Sam Kerr or Hayley Raso, the world is the girls’ oyster.
Three years is the perfect gap to allow the women’s game to grow, under the watchful guidance of the game’s governing bodies and through the support of fervent crowds. There is untapped potential in women’s sport, with the growth of the game globally a fair indication of what it could be like down under, if all goes to plan.
Losing the Men’s 2034 FIFA World Cup to gain the Women’s Asian Cup might not be an overwhelming net positive, but nonetheless, it is certainly still positive.
Away from the international game, bringing some of the world’s best and brightest sides for the 2029 FIFA Club World Cup means yet another festival of football will arrive on our shores.
Rather than the current edition of the Club World Cup, which features seven teams, the one arriving in 2029 will be the revamped 32-team version announced by FIFA’s supreme leader, Gianni Infantino, at the end of 2022.
The revamped tournament invites 32 of the world’s best club sides; good news for the hundreds of thousands of Australian football fans who support sides outside of those competing in the A-Leagues or NSD.
In the first instalment of this new Club World Cup, set to kick off in the USA in two years time, UEFA will have 12 clubs competing in the 2029 edition, including the four previous Champions League winners (excluding the year of the CWC).
For example, the 2025 edition welcomes the UCL winners from 2021 to 2024. Conceivably, this leaves the winners from 2025-2028 for the 2029 tournament, in addition to a flurry of other champion sides from all corners of the globe.
While not directly linked to the development of any facet of Australian football, bringing a festival of club football like the controversially revamped Club World Cup is a small positive from missing out on 2034.
We now play the waiting game
The greatest downside of Australia missing out on the 2034 FIFA World Cup to Saudi Arabia is the lengthy wait for another chance to bid.
Under FIFA’s rules (not that they seem to respect them greatly), a World Cup cannot be held in the same federation for at least 12 years, according to a report from The Athletic. In a nutshell, this means Football Australia must wait for the 2046 World Cup (!) bidding process to open before throwing their hat in the ring.
That’s a ridiculously long wait for a nation evidently capable of successfully hosting major sporting tournaments.
Who’s to say that by 2046, the World Cup will still be open to a bidding process and not instead sold to the highest bidder or held in one permanent location, or even awarded to the least democratic, rather than most feasible, bidder, a la Jerome Valcke’s words mentioned further up this story?
What has been the arrow to the heart of many Australian football fans is the realisation that each passing year without winning World Cup hosting rights sends the tournament further and further from the nation’s grip.
Recent years has seen the globe’s largest sporting event awarded not to the best host nation, albeit the 2026 World Cup can argue against this statement, but rather to the bidder with the deepest pockets and loosest ethical guidelines.
Australia hasn’t got the monetary capacity to compete with the likes of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. There is now no guarantee Australia will ever host a World Cup, and that’s the deepest cut.
Do football fans in this nation still hold out hope, or do we allow the forceful powers that be crush us into uncaring submission, resigned to minnow status and perpetually subjected to travelling on lengthy international flights to watch our Socceroos battle with the best?
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