Fifa has confirmed the vote to award hosting rights for the 2023 Women’s World Cup will take place on 25 June. Between now and then, the four bidding teams must compile a 10-minute presentation that will be delivered to the Fifa council; a final closing argument for why their bid should be chosen.
Just one of those bids is being led by a woman.
This may appear, at first, an arbitrary detail, and one with little bearing on the outcome (especially given the history of the organisation in question). But the visibility and contribution of women in the halls of power – not just in sport, but in all areas of our lives – is something that has been particularly resonant lately, and makes the outcome of the June vote all the more important.
As the coronavirus has brought the world to its knees, nations led by women – and with women in key decision-making positions – are emerging from the crisis in better shape than many nations led by men. There have been repeated studies into the positive outcomes of diverse boards, while the past three months have thrown into sharp relief the industries that actually are “essential” to society; industries traditionally described as ‘women’s work’ such as health, education, retail and social work.
In other words, our culture is beginning to recognise the fundamental role women play – and have always played – in modern life. In the world of sport, while women have been largely invisible in public-facing positions, they have nonetheless formed the backbone of the industry for generations, whether as athletes or as those who fed, clothed, drove, cleaned and cheered them from the sideline.
It is these women that Australia’s historic joint bid with New Zealand to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup acknowledges. That is why the presence of Johanna Wood, president of New Zealand Football and the only woman leader of any of the nominating bids, matters; by spotlighting the private contributions women have made to public life, the “As One” bid embodies the shift that both the sporting and cultural world is currently experiencing.
Of all four bids at the final stage – Brazil, Colombia, Japan, and Australia/New Zealand – it is the latter that embraces the momentum women’s football in particular has generated in recent years; a momentum captured in the chants of “equal pay” that roared around the stadium during the 2019 Women’s World Cup final, and acted upon two months later when Fifa announced $1bn for women’s football over the next four years.
“It’s more than the game, isn’t it?” Wood tells Guardian Australia. “It’s the legacy we can leave. We’re modelling gender equality.
“New Zealand was one of the first football member associations that gave pay parity to the Ferns – that was March of 2018 – followed by Australia in November, 2019. And in terms of gender equality, New Zealand has led the way for a century, because we were also the first country to give women the vote.
“It’s about football both on the pitch and off the pitch. Players are at the centre of our bid, but it’s also about the leadership of the game, the governance of the game, the coaching of the game, the match officials, the administrators, the volunteers; there are a lot of women who’ve given time to the game. So it’s about creating that legacy and supporting and recognising women for what they do.”
In metaphorical terms, the joint-bid has taken on unexpected significance over the past three months. The international collaboration between the two nations’ governments – particularly when it comes to travel arrangements for sporting teams – shows that As One isn’t a superfluous catch-phrase. In a world that feels more fractured than ever, the appeal of such a sentiment strikes a much-needed tone; a reminder of the power of co-operation and togetherness.
“Fifa is really big on collaboration,” Wood says. “So here you’ve got collaboration between nations and between confederations, which is huge. We all know that Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the world, so there will be information [in the pre-vote presentation] around how we manage Covid as two countries and as a region.
“Both governments in Australia and New Zealand are committed to the bid. They see it as a ground-breaking tournament. In terms of the impact of Covid, the prospect of hosting the World Cup brings huge economic and social benefits, from employment to tourism. It’s going to bring a positive to both communities across our countries.”
The Australian government agrees. In a statement, the federal minister for sport, Richard Colbeck, said: “The government […] recognises the significant additional benefits of hosting the Fifa Women’s World Cup – including improving attitudes towards gender equality in sport and strengthening Australia’s reputation as a world leader in the promotion of women’s sport and as a premier host of major international sporting events.
“The government also acknowledges the important role sport, in particular major sporting events, will play in reactivating the Australian economy as we transition to a Covid-safe environment. We remain committed to bringing major sporting events to Australia and the economic benefits they bring with them.”
There is also a growing feeling the As One bid has moved into pole position after Japan was forced to delay the Tokyo Olympics – a decision with far heftier economic consequences for the country than can perhaps be appreciated at this stage – while Brazil and Colombia continue to see huge surges in coronavirus cases.
However, even in the pre-pandemic world, none of these three bids emphasised the cultural shifts taking place in global football regarding gender equality.
Over the past five years, the women’s game has seen an unprecedented surge of interest and corporate investment, culminating in over one billion people watching the 2019 Women’s World Cup tournament. The growth potential of women’s football is unparalleled in modern sport because it includes not just rusted-on fans of the men’s game, but also an entirely new community of women and girls not yet included under football’s ever-growing umbrella. “The current growth trajectory of women’s football worldwide is extraordinary,” the As One bid book introduction states.
“We are nations who are champions of gender equality and the empowerment of women with exemplary records of commitment to the structural foundations that will ensure equality can be achieved.
“We will change the face of society through football by positioning Australia and New Zealand as global hubs for advancing women’s sport, leading system-wide regional women’s leadership, professional development and social-participation programs, and building on the structural foundations already in place in our countries to drive gender equality, diversity and inclusion.”
Despite Fifpro’s warning in April that women’s football faced an “existential crisis” from the shutdown, there is no denying that the sport has reached a point of no return when it comes to recognising the importance of its women. What matters now – and what will shape football’s long-term future – is whether Fifa recognises it, too.