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