The evening of June 23 had already gone awry for New Zealand’s prime minister, her near-faultless record on Covid-19 threatened by breaking news that a quarantine bungle might yet mean cases surge.
That Jacinda Ardern even managed to squeeze in a late-night call to the Football Association between lockdown crisis briefings, was some feat. It had been her daughter Neve’s second birthday that week too, but she still found time for a last push to land New Zealand and Australia the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
Ardern had been parachuted in to help the bid as rumours were swirling that Uefa nations were being pressured by governing body president Aleksander Ceferin into a shock bloc vote for the other host candidate, Colombia, even though the South American nation had an inferior hosting rating by Fifa.
The theory in the bidding camp was that Ardern, polled as the most popular Kiwi leader in a century, could break up the apparent European power play by getting on the phone to FA chairman Greg Clarke.
But the call never happened, as the FA scrambled to tell Telegraph Sport. They said that a call was “logistically impossible” for Clarke because the 90-minute window was too short notice.
Ardern, it turned out, need not have bothered trying with Clarke and Europe, as New Zealand and Australia went on to win the bid 22-13 via overwhelming support elsewhere.
However, for Fifa president Gianni Infantino, the actions by Uefa leading to last week’s vote remain a source of annoyance. That bloc vote against the recommendations were new battle lines being drawn by the men in suits at Uefa against their counterparts at Fifa. For some, the women’s game had been cast as a bargaining chip.
Uefa’s determination to vote en masse for Colombia had been all-but-guaranteed since February when Ceferin and his Conmebol counterpart Alejandro Dominguez signed a “memorandum of understanding” to enhance co-operation. The memorandum document details how it “was agreed to jointly work on development strategy for women’s football in individual national associations, and to cooperate in the creation of commercial concepts and networks”.
Rival federations see the agreement in an altogether different light.
“Ceferin and Alejandro Dominguez made an alliance and their most common interest is to be against Fifa,” said one senior figure. “It’s a disgrace that the Women’s World Cup almost paid a price for that. I know there are council members in Europe who are not comfortable.”
Clarke, it seems, had subsequently been caught in the middle. One inter-national federation, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “Who knows what the cost of this will be for future World Cup bids? Greg Clarke has shown loyalty to Ceferin but he has alienated Australasia and possibly Asia.”
Colombia had scored a 2.8 technical rating out of 5, compared to the Australasians’ 4.1, and, on the eve of the vote, Fifa’s European Council members met via Zoom for a pre-meeting to get their ducks in a row.
One source with knowledge of the meeting said: “There’s nine of them logged in, and two of the members, when they reached this agenda item, said ‘the Fifa reports are rubbish – this is a development tournament, so it should go to a developing nation, a place where it will make development accelerate’.” Another source confirmed that version of events, adding: “It was a foregone conclusion.”
Infantino has said, after last week’s vote, that he was “surprised” at the willingness of council members to rally behind Ceferin instead of following the technical bid reports, which, he says, “have to mean something”. Bloc voting was symptomatic of the “old Fifa”, he added.
For Clarke, there is a sense, from some quarters, that he would have personally preferred to vote for Australasia. “We heard that actually England and France were pretty unhappy about the Uefa position,” one figure close to the talks said.
However, the FA said Clarke, elected to the six-figure role as Fifa vice president in 2019, had voted in an act of “solidarity” with Uefa. The price of that loyalty will soon become explicitly clear as the FA and home nations line up a potential bid for 2030 men’s World Cup hosting rights.
“Voting against the report sets a very strange precedent now for England and its neighbours because they will almost certainly have the highest rating for 2030,” said another national governing body. “If I was English I would have voted for Australia and New Zealand because the Europeans are bound to vote for England for 2030 regardless.”
Uefa vehemently deny its selection for the South Americans was as part of any political campaign against Infantino, but the explanation that it instead chose Colombia because it “represented a strategic opportunity for the development of women’s football” has angered the women’s game just as much, if not more.
To explain the decision-making behind the vote, both the European and English governing bodies quoted the same line: “Even though the Colombian bid was not the one rated highest, technically, by Fifa, European members of the Fifa Council felt that it represented a strategic opportunity for the development of women’s football thanks to the legacy and increase of attention for the women’s game that the tournament would bring to the continent.”
Women’s football has been here before, having been guinea pigs for artificial surfaces in 2015 and then with the extensive use of the video assistant referees in 2019, which led to goalkeepers being penalised unfairly during penalty shoot-outs.
Fifa declined to comment, but a senior Australian figure said: “This is the pinnacle tournament of world football for women – how dare anybody talk about it as a development tournament that should be passed out as a development tool? How are we ever going to progress to where we should be if you treat it like some kind of a junior tournament?
I"t was so disrespectful to the competition and to the women’s game to govern it in that way. This is an ongoing, debilitating governance flaw in football, that women’s football should be governed by people who find something else much more important. No wonder we’ve been in the slow lane for 100 years.”