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Nikou: 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup will boost the whole region


Sydney: In a year where football itself has often been sidelined, it was a moment of celebration worthy of any Cup Final.

In the very early hours of Friday, June 26, members of Australia and New Zealand’s ‘As One’ bid team sat in silent anticipation at Football Federation Australia’s Sydney headquarters.

Silent anticipation became palpable tension as the wait went on, but it would soon be replaced with an outpouring of joy, thanks to a single sentence delivered half a world away by Gianni Infantino.

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“I can announce the host country of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023, which will be Australia and New Zealand. Congratulations,” said the FIFA President, via live stream from Zurich.

Sitting front and centre in Sydney was FFA Chairman and AFC Executive Committee member Chris Nikou, who is now tasked, alongside his Australian and New Zealand colleagues, with making sure the 2023 edition of the tournament will surpass those which have come before it.

In conversation with the-AFC.com, Nikou discusses the moment of victory, the lessons learned from Australia’s staging of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup and his desire to make the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup one which will boost an entire region.

First and foremost, congratulations on winning the right to co-host the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

It has now been a little over a week since Gianni Infantino revealed Australia and New Zealand as the successful 2023 co-hosts. Since the announcement, what has the past week entailed for you?

Chris Nikou: Thank you for your congratulations. We are honoured, alongside New Zealand, to have been awarded the right to host the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023. Following the announcement, we received a real surge in interest from many stakeholders, including the media, our various partners, participants of the game, and of course Australian football fans. Over the past week we have spent considerable time engaging with those key stakeholders not only to reflect on what was a watershed moment in Australian sport, but to begin the process of working towards hosting the tournament and considering how we can truly amplify the game in Australia over the coming years.

It has been back to business for FFA this week – on Thursday we released a discussion paper detailing 11 proposed principles to underpin the future development and growth of football in Australia. This discussion paper has been compiled over several months as FFA has navigated the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has been published as a ‘living document’ which will continue to be shaped by FFA as it uses it as a basis for engagement and consultation with the Australian football community.

The video footage of the delighted bid team’s reaction to the announcement has now made its way around the world, and it showed what hosting this tournament meant to everyone involved.

In football, moments like that usually belong to the matches themselves; what was it like to experience such a significant moment from your position at the front of the room?

Nikou: It was a real buzz, and an honour, to be in the room with so many people who had contributed in various ways to our bid since 2017. We had players, FFA board members, management, staff, as well as Government officials all with us as the announcement was made, and in the moments after Gianni Infantino announced that we were the winning bid the energy in the room was intense.

Several people have likened the feeling to Australia’s penalty shootout victory over Uruguay in 2005, which took the Socceroos to the FIFA World Cup Germany 2006 – so I think your comparison is apt. The impact of COVID-19 meant that the announcement, which was due to be held in Ethiopia in early June, couldn’t be held in person. FIFA did a great job in conducting the FIFA Council Meeting, vote, and announcement virtually.

The announcement appears to have come at a great time, not only in terms of delivering some much-needed good news in what has been a hugely challenging year in global sport, but also in the sense that women’s football has already been a real success story in Australia over the last decade.

In your view; how important was the existing growth and success of the Australian women’s game in winning support, both within Australia and externally, for the World Cup bid?

Nikou: Football Federation Australia has placed a real focus on women’s football for some time now. Our W-League has been in operation since 2008, we have introduced numerous initiatives to improve pay, conditions, and opportunities for female footballers, and we have publicly stated our target to achieve fifty-fifty in terms of gender participation by 2027. We believe that, supported by the strong performances of our women’s national team over the past few years, the world has recognised that Australia is a leader in this space – and that certainly helped Australia and New Zealand secure the hosting rights for 2023.

However, the exciting part is we believe we are only getting started. Our vision is for our W-League to become a top five league in women’s football across the globe and for our Matildas to enhance their status as one of Australia’s most successful and loved sporting teams. Hosting the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023 alongside New Zealand gives us a real chance to enhance the game overall, but there are clear benefits that women’s football will realise. It is an exciting time.

It’s the first time since 2007 that an AFC Member Association will host a senior FIFA Women’s World Cup, and you have personally expressed a strong desire to make the 2023 tournament a World Cup which benefits the Asia-Pacific region, and one which can help to unlock women’s football’s potential in the region.

What does that potential look like to you, and what benefits do you envisage the Australia/New Zealand FIFA Women’s World Cup delivering for the region as a whole?

Nikou: Last week’s announcement was a win for Australia and New Zealand, but most certainly a win for AFC and OFC, too. We acknowledge and thank our friends across Asia and Oceania for their support of our bid, and trust that they are as excited as we are that the FIFA Women’s World Cup is coming back to Asia for the first time since 2007.

2023 will unlock many opportunities across our region. Included in our bid submission was a commitment for FFA and New Zealand Football to run a female leadership development programme as part of the tournament, which will enable emerging female football administrators from across Asia to work on the preparation for, and delivery of, the tournament.

Games in 2023 will be played at times that will correlate well to populous, football-loving nations of Asia, providing more young girls and boys access to television broadcasts of elite female football, inspiring them for years to come.

Australia and New Zealand have co-hosted several major sporting events in the past, and those events have a great track record of success.

For those who have not visited the region before, what can they expect in 2023, and what aspects of an Australia-New Zealand FIFA Women’s World Cup will be unique?

Nikou: Australia and New Zealand is home to millions of global citizens from 200 countries, speaking 300 languages. We believe that all the teams that qualify for the tournament, and their fans, will enjoy their time in our countries, and will leave with great memories having had great sporting and social experiences.

Uniquely, many of the base camps that we have proposed for the tournament across Australia and New Zealand are in regional areas. While our host cities are magnificent, and the match venues in those cities world-class, we believe players, officials, and fans alike will enjoy the chance to experience some parts of Australia and New Zealand that their lives may not have otherwise taken them to, too.

Places like Cessnock in New South Wales, where Japan’s men’s team trained prior to the AFC Asian Cup in 2015, will offer unique experiences to teams and fans alike in 2023. These towns and cities, and their people, will embrace the tournament and the teams and fans that visit their areas.

You were involved in the organising committee when Australia hosted, and won, a memorable men’s AFC Asian Cup in 2015.

Apart from the result of the final, what are the successful elements of that tournament that you would like to see repeated in 2023?

Nikou: Our bid to host 2023 was player-centric, and much like in 2015 with the AFC Asian Cup, I would like to ensure that we follow through, and then some, on our pledge to provide the best possible conditions and support to the players and teams to enable them to compete at their best – they are of course the stars of the show. We believe we are well-placed to do this, with three travel hubs set to ensure that group games are played in close proximity in adjacent host cities, ensuring a seamless travel experience for teams and fans.

We will also make the pricing for fans to attend games accessible and fair. Tickets will start from US$5, ensuring that as many people as possible can experience the tournament live in stadia, and be inspired by the best female footballers that the world has to offer.

Like in 2015 with the AFC, we will also pursue various community engagement and fan initiatives with FIFA for 2023. These initiatives will promote inclusion and multiculturalism and help to bring cultures and people together in a celebration of football.

A number of Matildas players have highlighted the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games being a source of inspiration early in their sporting careers, and the 2023 Women’s World Cup has great potential to do the same for a new generation.

How does the FFA make the most of that opportunity, not only to capture the hearts of minds of young Australians, but to ensure the event leaves an enduring legacy for the game?

Nikou: The Matildas are outstanding advocates for football and while they are elite on the pitch, they are equal parts humble and generous with their time off it.

I believe that over the next three years, and at the tournament, we need to seek to create as many possible opportunities for young girls and boys not only to see their great abilities on the football pitch, but forge genuine, deep bonds with the team on a human level. Be it in person, through social and digital media, or other innovative initiatives, the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 and its build up should excite and connect the public.

Authentic engagement can and will inspire Australians to develop a deeper passion and connectedness to football and the tournament and leave an enduring legacy.

Finally, we have discussed a number of potential benefits, but what excites you the most about having the opportunity to host the FIFA Women’s World Cup?

Nikou: I’m very excited about the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023. It is a wonderful opportunity for the whole Asia-Pacific region. The opportunity to showcase the wonderful cultures that live in Australia from our 200 nationalities and 300 languages, to our welcoming embrace and to a lasting legacy for women's football in our region.

I am very much looking forward to working with FIFA and the AFC to produce the best Women’s World Cup ever.

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