Football Australia CEO James Johnson. (Pictures: Football Australia, Design by Madeline Irwin)

Three years ago to the day, Australia woke up to the remarkable news that they had won the 2023 World Cup hosting rights alongside New Zealand in what was an unprecedented moment in the history of Australian Football.

In spite of the large amounts of excitement and hype leading into the tournament, in just under four weeks away from kick-off, for many, the realisation of the enormity surrounding the event might not have quite sunk in until it materialises in front of our eyes.

Competing against Colombia for the right to host the biggest event in Women’s Sport, Australia and New Zealand got the better of the South American nation by a margin of nine votes during a complicated period in the midst of the pandemic.

One person who understands the stress, challenges, and euphoria of piecing together a World Cup bid is Football Australia CEO James Johnson, who spoke exclusively to The Inner Sanctum to discuss the preparations for next month’s showpiece.

Johnson provided insight behind the scenes regarding the hard work accomplished to create the most appealing bid possible within the months leading up to the announcement.

“I look at it like a football match in two halves. The first half was all about putting the bid together, including the bid book, branding, messaging around it, working with the government to get the funding and requirements in place,” Johnson told The Inner Sanctum.

“The second half was more complex, which involved the lobbying and the strategy on how to shape people’s thinking and align certain parts of the world to get a favourable vote.

“That second half period [between March and June 2020], happened during Covid, which meant we couldn’t get on planes and fly around the world, which is what we planned to do [to] speak in Europe, the Americas, and Africa.

“That didn’t happen and I think that actually benefited us more so than Colombia, we had better networks and better contacts, which meant that we could engage via Zoom, text message, and phone calls and I think that played into our hands.”

An unsuccessful bid for the 2022 Men’s World Cup over a decade ago was a bitterly disappointing pill for Aussies to swallow, given the potential it had to provide the sport with a massive boost around the country.

At long last, Australia has finally been handed the opportunity to showcase its incredible offerings on the world stage.

When asked about his initial thoughts when Australia and New Zealand were revealed from the envelope, Johnson remained positive from the very beginning.

“I wasn’t surprised at all. Only five or six months before that vote, I’d come straight out of Manchester City and a year before that FIFA as well, so I’m well aware of what these tournaments do [in terms of] not just for sport but for football in general,” he said.

“I knew if we won the bid that it would really help set probably the next decade up for the sport and it’s only going to get bigger leading into the next three weeks for the Women’s World Cup.”

The 41-year-old touched on the stress over the past three years around organising and preparing every single detail to ensure Australia would be ready to welcome the world onto its shores.

“It has been stressful, but it’s a good stress because you see good outcomes and some of those include government interests, overall interests in the code, interests in the Matildas and also the Socceroos,” Johnson said.

“We’re also seeing more interest in the community. We’re seeing participation numbers soar through the roof, big commercial partners come on board, and we’re seeing people who don’t traditionally follow the sport follow it.

“It’s not just about putting on the event, it’s also ensuring the event is used to drive the sport forward. What’s important is that it’s not just a one-month thing and everyone forgets about football and moves on, but a platform for the future growth of the game.”

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The enthusiasm and passion around the tournament, which has been echoed by the Australian public has been brilliant, but it’s also important to recognise those who have voiced their concerns about the financial cost of hosting the World Cup, especially in times of economic uncertainty due to the pandemic.

A sum of $230 million was granted in government funding to host the event, with Football Australia projecting a $460 million economic benefit to boost the economy and exposure for the country.

Taking the opportunity to reassure those who remain sceptical, Johnson spoke in depth about the range of benefits the tournament will provide for Australia.

“We need to start off by looking at the magnitude of the tournament. There are going to be 1.5 million people that attend games across Australia and New Zealand,” he said.

“They won’t all be local people, so that is going to boost tourism and that’s normal when you have large-scale competitions in any country. That’s healthy particularly at this point as we’re just coming out of Covid.

“You then have broadcast numbers. For example, the AFL attracts 3 million viewers for the final [in comparison to] the 2019 Women’s World Cup final was 240 million, and it’s probably going to be closer to 400 million when they play in Sydney on August 20.

“There’s also going to be 2 billion people who watch the tournament all over the world, and these are eyeballs on our community. In terms of putting our country in the shop window, there’s really no better way to do it than hosting World Cups or the Olympics, so I think the money spent is well spent and it’s something that’s great for football but also great for our country.”

On the field, the Matildas have been adored by the nation for quite some time and have proven to be inspiring role models for young girls and boys hoping to become the next football superstar.

For Johnson, what will this upcoming tournament, particularly the Matildas’ showing, mean for the next generation coming through?

“The Matildas’ brand as a collective and as individuals have skyrocketed over the past few years and I think everyone knows that,” Johnson explained.

“I think they can move from being a great team and great individuals to legend status, and by legend status I mean they’re already heroes, but legends actually never get forgotten about and these sorts of platforms provide that opportunity.

“Cathy Freeman is a great example. 2000 was the year in which the country all came together for the Sydney Olympics, but they came together when Cathy won gold.

“I’m not suggesting that our girls need to win a World Cup to make those moments, but they’re going to have many opportunities throughout the World Cup to do that.”

When the time comes to close the curtain on the ninth edition of the women’s World Cup, it will allow Football Australia the chance to sit back and reflect on it all.

As for the goals that are hoped to be achieved after the tournament, there are many objectives that Johnson is eager to fulfil.

“What we know is that after every major tournament, there is a spike in participation. Following the Women’s World Cup, realistically we’re looking at a 20% increase with the majority being girls, so participation will definitely rise,” he concluded.

“You’re going to see infrastructure and investment continue, especially in the community space where the councils and state governments have invested, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales, in community infrastructure as a result of the participation that we’re seeing. What that means is more fields, better change rooms, more lights, and more clubhouses.

“These are all the things that we’re going to look back on over the years where it’s not just the fantastic month of football, but also the investment in the community and the growth of participation that I think will make me most proud.”

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