By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand soccer chief Andrew Pragnell says their joint bid to host the 2023 Women's World Cup with Australia could be a template for cross FIFA confederation cooperation and that the event could transform the game in Oceania.
NZF Chief Executive Pragnell told Reuters the timing was right to launch a bid to host the World Cup, which has been expanded to 32 teams from 24 after the 2019 tournament in France drew massive television audiences and commercial interest.
The joint bid received the highest rating in a FIFA evaluation report earlier this month and was given another boost on Monday when Japan withdrew from contention, leaving Colombia as the only rival bidder.
"If you follow the growth of the event, it's only going one way," Pragnell said ahead of Thursday's vote. "It is growing exponentially.
"Certainly for New Zealand the timing was right ... to partner with Australia. It was for them also."
Pragnell added that the bid process had strengthened the relationship between the close neighbours, who play in different FIFA confederations -- New Zealand in Oceania and Australia in the Asia zone.
"We are a perfect example of where Asia and Oceania as two separate confederations should be working hand-in-hand on so many issues," he said, adding that one of FIFA's key goals was closer cooperation across confederations.
"When you look across the Asian federation, they really are a diverse and eclectic mix of nations, both small and big.
"There is a huge amount of cultural diversity so the opportunity for greater partnerships across both confederations is one of those uptakes we see happening as well."
Both countries have said a successful bid for the tournament would be a catalyst for the growth of the women's game.
NZF have 35,000 female players out of a total player pool of some 150,000 and Pragnell said they were targeting a 50-50 split by the end of 2027.
The legacy of hosting the tournament would also filter through to the smaller nations within Oceania, said Pragnell, with NZF planning programmes to increase the number of women coaches, officials and administrators throughout the region.
"There is a massive opportunity here ... for all of the 10 other Oceania members, to be able to fully participate in the event," he said.
"It has got the potential to be ... transformative."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)