By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australian government officials have scrambled to link themselves to the Matildas’ run to a maiden Women’s World Cup semi-finals.
Now they will need to make major investments to cater to an expected spike in grassroots participation inspired by the co-hosts’ performance.
“I don’t want to put numbers on the table but the gap that we’ve got – we need hundreds of millions of dollars,” Football Australia (FA) boss James Johnson told Reuters in an interview on Friday.
FA project that community soccer participation could leap 20% in coming years, putting a huge strain on infrastructure. Many existing facilities are not fit for purpose, lacking separate changing rooms for women.
The government ploughed some A$88 million ($56 million) into hosting the World Cup, building the Matildas a new training base in Melbourne and contributing to grassroots programmes.
Johnson said the Matildas had enjoyed great support from the federal government, which had shown on field.
But the funding is set to end this year.
After Australia’s 3-1 defeat to England on Wednesday, captain Sam Kerr called for more funding to ensure the World Cup is more than just a sugar rush for a sport that struggles in a market dominated by Australian Rules football and rugby league.
“Football (soccer) is the biggest participation sport in the country and this challenge is only going to get bigger post-Women’s World Cup,” said Johnson.
“There are many stories around the game where clubs are turning away parents who want (their kids) to play football.
“There is urgency about tackling this.”
Johnson said FA were impressed by the “ripple effects” for English soccer caused by the Lionesses’ run to the Euro 22 title.
In March, the British government pledged 600 million pounds ($765.36 million) over two years to ensure equal access to school sports for boys and girls.
The Lionesses will bid for a maiden World Cup title against Spain on Sunday.
“I think that’s a great learning,” said Johnson.
“We’re seeing with the growth of the Lionesses what the investments have done for that country.”
Without a strong local competition, women’s soccer in Australia will have to plot a different path compared to European markets where investments in top flight club football have acted as a magnet for global talent.
Australia will hope to keep the women’s game relevant by scheduling more international fixtures and with a successful bid for the 2026 Women’s Asian Cup, having hosted the 2015 men’s tournament.
Saudi Arabia have submitted a bid, while Australia and Uzbekistan have expressed interest.
Johnson said FA were working with the government to secure backing for the bid but were confident it would be compelling.
“What we bring to the table is direct experience, concrete evidence that we can host the best-ever competitions,” he said.
“We’ve just about finished hosting the best-ever Women’s World Cup in 2023 and you’ve seen the whole country has been behind it. I think we can replicate that.”
Longer term, FA are eyeing a bid for the 2034 men’s World Cup, possibly in partnership again with New Zealand, or other Asian countries.
Australia has huge stadiums with oval fields suited to cricket and Aussie Rules but relatively few rectangular stadiums with enough seating to meet FIFA requirements.
Johnson hopes the 2032 Olympics in Brisbane might provide impetus for boosting infrastructure that would help a World Cup bid.
“These conversations need to begin 10, 11 years out,” he said.
“When decisions are being made around the investment for the Games, we need to have in the back of our minds what hosting a men’s World Cup could look like.”
($1 = 1.5584 Australian dollars)
($1 = 0.7839 pounds)
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)
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