Posted on 08 December 2009.
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s ambitious bid to host the soccer World Cup could be scuppered by an escalating row with rival football codes over access to the country’s biggest stadiums.
Long regarded as a soccer backwater, Australia is vying with some of the sport’s traditional powers from Europe, Asia and North America to stage the World Cup in either 2018 or 2022.
Australia have developed a strong bid, backed by the federal government and based around their experience in hosting other major international events as well as the fact the World Cup has never been held in Oceania before.
Their best laid plans are already facing opposition on the domestic front, however, following the Football Federation of Australia’s (FFA) demand for exclusive access to the nation’s largest venues, including Sydney’s Olympic stadium and the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
The FFA wants sole use of up to 12 of the country’s biggest stadiums for at least two months to comply with FIFA’s requirements to stage the tournament, causing major disruptions to Australia’s three most popular winter sports.
Officials from Australian Rules (AFL), rugby league (NRL) and rugby union (ARU), have all indicated they would agree to briefly suspend their leagues for the World Cup but fear the FFA are trying to shut down their entire seasons.
“We are not trying to stand in the way of the World Cup bid but we are not prepared to fall off the face of the planet either,” NRL boss David Gallop said in a statement on Monday.
Australia’s major football codes agreed to shorten their seasons by a month in 2000 to avoid clashing with the Sydney Olympics but AFL boss Andrew Demetriou said any extended disruption would be a financial disaster.
“It affects revenue, we’ve got broadcast agreements, we’ve got agreements with members, we’ve got agreements with corporate partners,” he said.
“The cost is a monumental cost, and I’m talking hundreds of millions of dollars.”
The issue is unique to Australia because it is the only major sporting nation where four professional football codes operate in the same market place and share the same stadiums.
Soccer struggles to attract as large crowds as the other codes so smaller grounds are used for their struggling domestic competition. A World Cup would need all of the biggest stadiums.
“We need to get access four weeks before the competition for preparation for pitches and preparation for overlay that are required by FIFA and the duration of the tournament,” FFA chief executive Ben Buckley said.
“In our estimation, that is six to eight weeks depending on where the finals are played.
“I am confident there is goodwill and all the other codes understand there is substantial benefits to Australia as a nation to host a great World Cup.”
While AFL, rugby league and rugby union have always enjoyed massive public support in Australia, soccer has long struggled for mainstream recognition.
The sport has had a minor resurgence since Australia ended a 32-year drought by qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.
The Socceroos have also qualified for next year’s World Cup in South Africa and FFA officials were at last week’s draw in Cape Town pushing their bid credentials.
The domestic game continues to struggle, however, despite the launch of a new professional league in 2005.
Earlier this year, expansion plans were postponed because of ongoing financial uncertainty and shrinking crowds so the FFA are pinning their hopes on the World Cup to give the sport a boost.
“We think the World Cup is bigger than any individual sport,” Buckley said.
“It is the biggest sporting event in the world, it has significant economic benefits to Australia and enhances our standing as a nation around the world and enormous social benefits.”