Socceroos exploring multiple venues for China World Cup qualifier after Sydney dreams dashed

After believing as recently as last week that the Socceroos would be able to play their coming World Cup fixture against China in a Sydney bubble, Football Australia has been forced to explore Hong Kong, Singapore, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as potential hosts for the September fixture after Sydney’s outbreak scuppered their plans. The Federation does, however, remain confident in its ability to secure agreements that would allow it to stage international matches in Australia by the end of the year — calling on government to focus on “facts” and not “optics” in allowing it to happen.

Following an undefeated start to their quest to secure qualification for the 2022 World Cup, the Socceroos are set to resume their journey in the second phase of qualification when they play China on September 2, followed by a fixture away to Vietnam on September 7. 

But while the latter fixture will take place in Hanoi’s My Dinh National Stadium, Football Australia CEO James Johnson confirmed this week that his organisation had been unable to come to an agreement with Federal and State authorities that would have allowed the former to be staged in Sydney. 

Instead, efforts are now underway to find a backup venue that can host the fixture in either East or West Asia, with it understood that the Middle East is the preferred option of the federation. 

“We have good relationships both with our fellow football associations and also at [a national] level,” Johnson said. “We will be able to play somewhere but it is extremely unfortunate that we’re having to go abroad to find a new home away from home. 

See Also: Australia men at crossroads after Tokyo Olympics disappointment, Graham Arnold exit

“That’s something that will be difficult for us. It will be more difficult for us to qualify because the numbers don’t lie and the numbers say that we have better opportunities when we’re playing at home on a sporting level.”

Australia’s winning percentage significantly greater in their home matches than away, Johnson said his organisation had been negotiating with the Federal and New South Wales’ Governments to bring the Socceroos and Chinese sides to Sydney in a ‘bubble’ that would have eliminated any contact with the community and allowed them to avoid Australia’s 14-day quarantine regulations surrounding international arrivals. 

But with NSW battling to contain an outbreak of the Delta variant of COVID in Sydney and, increasingly, the surrounding regions, word came that that would no longer be possible last week. 

“We were very confident until almost the last minute that we would be playing in Sydney,” Johnson said. 

“Even as [recently] as the start of last week, we thought we were playing here despite the lift in COVID cases. The New South Wales Government had notionally supported this, but couldn’t justify the allocation of police and security required to make the bubble happen. That’s really it.

“We were informed only last week that this was not possible for September. So, look, we’ve always had a plan B and a plan C.”

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Although Sydney’s lockdown has been in effect since late June, the executive was quick to clarify during a call with Australian journalists that the talks to stage the game with China had been in motion for a number of months and that, despite a number of other states in Australia being out of lockdown, there had been little scope to hold the event outside Sydney. 

“We were effectively changing Australian immigration policy and COVID policy,” Johnson explained.

“This has been in the pipeline for four or five months. It’s not something that we started six or eight weeks ago. It’s a four or five months process. 

“At the very start of that process we reached out to all parts of Australia, we spoke with Federal Government and spoke with State Governments that we thought would be more open than not to hosting an Australia game. NSW has been the most open to holding matches. 

“In our code it’s not like cricket; where the governing body contracts the players. The clubs contract the players and it’s only nine days that the clubs are required to release players during international windows. And the nine days simply doesn’t fit into the 14-day quarantine rules.

“What we’re actually asking and what we need the government to change is that we need them to allow the Socceroos to play within a bubble against another national team within a four day period where they would come in, play against the opposition in a bubble — they wouldn’t touch the community so the transmission possibility is zero to very low — and then they would need to let the teams depart. 

“We principally had that with NSW but we’ve since been advised that that’s not possible.

“We want to do everything we can to make this happen [in subsequent FIFA windows]. We want the government at both Federal and State levels to really act on facts and figures and logic. What we don’t want is Governments to act on optics, because we have evidence — we have medical evidence — that says the risk of us playing at home is zero to almost none. There’s almost no community risk in transmission. 

“There are optics around athletes getting exceptions but this is something that’s very specific to Australia. Because if you look around the world and in our group — Oman, Vietnam, Japan — each of these countries’ governments are celebrating the return of their national teams to play in their own countries. They’re finding ways to make the community safe on one hand but that they’re able to play at home on the other. 

“This is a step we’re hoping we can work through with the government and breakthrough as early as October. We were almost at the finish line for September but we’re not able to do that now. 

“Am I confident? Yes, I think we are confident that we will be playing at home by the end of this calendar year.”

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The challenges of COVID are also hitting Australia’s domestic football scene. 

The A-League season is nominally set to commence on October 30 and the W-League season on November 13 — both dates now the subject of conjecture due to the ongoing spread of the Delta variant. 

Those competitions now under the control of the Australian Professional Leagues, Johnson said he wasn’t sure what the plans were for those competitions surrounding possible hubs or postponements. For their part, Football Australia has the issue of the FFA Cup to deal with. 

The competition’s national Round of 32 had been scheduled to commence on Wednesday evening, only for lockdowns across the Eastern seaboard to force fixtures to be postponed to a later, unknown date. Further complicating matters in fixturing, the NPL NSW competition — which sends the largest allocation of non-A-League clubs to the knockout stages — officially cancelled its seasons on Thursday. 

See also: After ‘effectively doubling’ revenue, Football Australia eyes more growth

“The FFA Cup is really close to my own heart, I absolutely love this competition — it’s a priority for me personally and the organisation,” Johnson said. 

“We took a lot of steps leading up to the kickoff but now we have a lot of challenges ahead of us. I don’t have the exact answer [on the competition’s status]. What I can tell you is that we’re looking at every way we can to get the competition playing again. We want to finish the season. 

“We have to finish the season because we allocated an ACL slot to the FFA Cup. We don’t want to lose an opportunity for an Australian club to play in Asia. We’re looking at different models, we’re looking at starting later, we’re looking at different formats for different rounds of the competition. 

“But it really has to be a living conversation because the COVID situation is changing on a daily basis. But the goal is to start and to finish. The last case scenario is to quit — that’s not what we’re about.”

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Header Image Credit: Football Australia

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