8 January ~ Some snags in World Cup bidding come out of nowhere – such as idiosyncratic Oceania delegates whose crucial vote goes the wrong way. Others are, or should be, entirely foreseeable. Australia's bid for 2018 or, more likely, 2022, recently hit one of the second kind. FIFA has lots of strict rules that mean stadiums are often built or modified to ridiculously elaborate specifications – they require nearly 1000 parking spots, plus huge internal facilities and helipad space. These are problems for everyone, especially in poorer or smaller countries. But Australia has an almost unique challenge, since it would be the first country to stage the World Cup during domestic seasons for other football codes.

FIFA officially decrees that no other major sporting event can take place in any host city during the tournament or for several weeks before and after. Naturally this is a problem, since June is the middle of the southern hemisphere winter, when the Australian rules (AFL) and rugby league seasons are well under way. And before any smartarse questions whether these deserve to be categorised as "major events", bear in mind that the average crowd for AFL matches last season was nearly 38,000 – with rugby league you may have a point.

It's even more of a problem because the World Cup needs not just the same cities as the other sports, but the same stadiums – above all the Melbourne Cricket Ground, which is one of only two stadiums in Melbourne proper that now hosts AFL. The new rectangular stadium in Melbourne that was supposed to be capable of upgrading to World Cup size and standards, turns out to be useless. Its foundations are designed to support a 55,000 seat stadium, but the fancy "geodesic dome" roof cannot be moved without making a big mess. As a result, the second-biggest stadium in Melbourne, currently known as Etihad Stadium, has also become a World Cup target.

Not surprisingly, the AFL is unhappy at the prospect of losing its two key stadiums for such a long period. Last month its chief executive, Andrew Demetriou, launched a brazen scare campaign to secure a better deal for his code, warning that the AFL would have to sacrifice its whole season in 2022, possibly leading to the demise of some of its clubs.

Demetriou complained bitterly about a lack of information from Football Federation Australia (FFA) about its intentions and about FIFA's requirements, which seem to vary depending on who is talking. His FFA counterpart Ben Buckley (a former team-mate at the AFL club North Melbourne) responded by effectively ignoring Demetriou and going instead to the politicians in Canberra – who banged enough heads together in the various states for the FFA to present its initial bid documents with a convincing show of political backing.

The bid also has broad popular support, but for the first time the December row drove a wedge between supposedly "die-hard" fans of football and the other codes – though in fact there is a huge crossover and relatively few fans who cling only to their first love.

More details are due with FIFA in May, including a definitive list of stadiums. At stake is not just the possibility of Australia hosting the tournament, but the shape of its sporting landscape. While the AFL has made the most noise (and has greater problems with stadiums), it is the much weaker rugby league and rugby union that should probably fear a successful World Cup more. Until now the assumption has been that the four codes could co-exist, as long as football remained the ugly, underachieving sister. The venom in the fight over World Cup venues illustrates that some believe – and fear – those days are gone. Mike Ticher

Comments (3)
Comment by colliedogg 2010-01-08 13:21:20

"And before any smartarse questions whether these deserve to be categorised as "major events", bear in mind that the average crowd for AFL matches last season was nearly 38,000 – with rugby league you may have a point."

And according to wikipedia this avg. crowd was higher than that of the Premier League last season. Similar in a way to the position of gridiron in the US, in that hardly anyone else in the world plays the sport.

'Code wars' are a big deal in Aus, with league desperate to expand beyond NSW and QLD, and AFL keen to increase its presence in those same heartland league states. And all the time football's profile grows and grows. The stadium announcement looks crucial to the bid's chances, it would be a great shame if the WC didn't arrive due to insularity on the part of other football codes, and I write this as an avid fan of all Aus codes!

Comment by hullabaloo 2010-01-10 08:32:25

Will be interesting to see how this pans out. As per previous post - the 4 'football' codes in Aus have long battled for supremecy, market share and a foothold across the country.

Buckley's done a great job at FFA, but Demetriou has a long record of fighting the AFL's corner very well.

As for the stadiums... not seen the new one in Melbourne but whilst the MCG is an iconic arena, a good place to watch football it ain't. A football pitch would be too far away from the stands at an 'oval. At least at the Etihad there's the option of moving the side seating in by 20m or so. It then becomes a quite compact 53,000 seat stadium - and would create a great atmosphere, especially with the roof closed.

Comment by NiceOneCenturian 2010-01-11 03:10:56

The domestic league in Australia is badly supported and crowds have been declining this season. The national team might be able to play in front of sold out venues (while they're relatively decent) but the A-League clubs will continue to struggle with a clearly inferior product.

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