Australia have thrown their hat into the ring to host the 2018 World Cup. Matthew Hall watches the bid process unfold

As 2008 eased into 2009, Frank Lowy’s luxury yacht nudged a course through the Caribbean toward Trinidad & Tobago. Lowy is the 78-year-old chairman of Football Federation Australia and probably the richest man in the country, mainly due to his vast Westfield shopping-centre empire, which reaches across the United States, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. But while Lowy no doubt enjoyed the Caribbean New Year sun, he had another reason for visiting the West Indies. After all, there are worse place to be in December than at home at his Sydney harbourside mansion in summer.

FIFA was keen to keep Lowy’s travel plans quiet, but Jack Warner, the controversial FIFA vice-president from Trinidad & Tobago who will have influence in where the 2018 World Cup will be held, was not so shy. “I know Frank Lowy very well and I am planning to have dinner with him as his yacht visits the Caribbean,” Warner explained. Let the lobbying begin.

Australia officially entered the 2018 World Cup equation in December when the government pledged AUS$45.6 million (£22m) to fund a lobbying campaign for the next two years. Australia’s pitch to win 13 of FIFA’s 24 executive committee votes hangs on what it considers to be, according to one insider, a “formidable management team” of Lowy and his chief executive officer, Ben Buckley, a former Australian rules footballer and an experienced sports administrator.

Part of FFA’s campaign will include the message that Australia, a member of the Asian Football Confederation, is geographically in the world’s fastest-growing football market and economy (pay attention: that’s Asia). FFA has done its numbers and, quietly, already counts nine votes in its corner – one from Oceania, four from Asia, and four from Africa, even though that region receives considerable funding from UEFA.

What is needed for 2018 to head down under, suggest sources, is a split from either UEFA, South America (likely to vote for Spain-Portugal), or Warner’s ­Concacaf. And here’s where it gets complicated and interesting. “Let me tell you this – Australia is now a member of the Asian Football Confederation and Asia just hosted the World Cup in 2002 in Japan and Korea,” Warner said before he met Lowy. “Normally, the World Cup must go to different Confederations, so why would it go back to Asia just 16 years after it has been held there? If Australia had stayed in Oceania then we could say that Oceania has never had the World Cup and then there could be no question that Australia deserves to host in 2018.”

As well as in Australia, Warner’s views would not have been well received in Japan, which is considering a 2018 bid, nor in Qatar, which is also keen to join the fray despite June and July not being the most pleasant months to be in the Middle East (all this as Mohamed Bin Hammam, the AFC’s president, said they would support only one Asian bid). But Warner’s voting bloc may not be Australia’s greatest obstacle. While the government’s financial support was celebrated in FFA’s Sydney headquarters, not everyone in the country was happy. Commentators in Australia’s mainstream media were in uproar. “The naive belief that they would ever grant the World Cup to an isolated nation of 20 million people that don’t much like soccer in the first place – all in the wrong time zone for prime time TV in Europe and America – is nothing short of crazy,” wrote one of the more measured pundits.

At the Murdoch-run News Limited, which has a large financial stake in Australia’s rugby league national competition, the attitude was more aggressive. “While other sports are bleeding and begging the Government for funding, soccer has been handed yet another golden egg,” said one columnist. “Staging a World Cup would give soccer bosses the right to trumpet to all of us that this is the only world game and that Australia has a real place in its upper echelons.”

Overlooked, or ignored, is that Australia’s government considers the AUS$45.6m a good investment when a World Cup bid allows a platform to engage with foreign governments and will also be used as a subtle opportunity to lobby for a place on the United Nations Security Council.

But big pictures are possibly too complicated, or too cumbersome, for a mainstream media that considers hyping the Nicole Kidman film Australia a national obligation. A movie that received AUS$45m in Australian government grants. And was a box-office bomb (except in Australia). It’s perhaps no wonder, then, that Lowy preferred the Caribbean dinner with Jack Warner over a holiday season at home.

From WSC 264 February 2009

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