MELBOURNE, May 14 (Reuters) - Australia's bid for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups has exposed the frailty of football's foothold in the country's saturated sports market, where more powerful football codes remain fiercely protective of their fans, broadcast minutes and talent.
While backed to the hilt by the federal government, the bid has proved controversial, its preparation clouded by bitter wrangling over scheduling and compensation for the dominant codes whose competitions would stand to face major disruptions.
A government-brokered deal fixing a formula for compensation was struck at the eleventh hour this week, allowing Australia to hand its bid book to FIFA by the deadline on Friday with a semblance of cooperation.
However, the Memorandum of Understanding merely papers over the cracks, and allows the rival codes to schedule matches in direct competition with the tournament, opening up the embarrassing possibility of half-empty stadiums as local fans vote with their feet.
"Not negotiable for us, if you wanted to articulate it as a deal-breaker, was that we had to have the ability for our season to play through," Gillon McLachlan, chief operating officer of the Australian Football League (AFL), told Reuters.
"We couldn't just switch off our season for 10 weeks."
The AFL, custodians of the popular indigenous game Australian Rules, along with the National Rugby League and Australian Rugby Union, have agreed to vacate key stadia for up to 10 weeks should the bid be successful.
Their asking price could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation from World Cup tournament organisers and the government, with the AFL alone claiming up to 90 of their season's games would be affected.
Despite the MOU, the acrimony that played out in the media in the lead-up to the bid's submission has prompted hand-wringing from supporters.
"It would be very unusual for FIFA to be hearing criticism of a World Cup coming to a country which seems hesitant of holding it," Gary van Egmond, men's head football coach at the elite Australian Institute of Sport, told Reuters.
"That would never happen in Europe and most other places in the world."
Football Federation Australia (FFA), football's governing body and architect of the bid, declined to be interviewed, but has shrugged off the attention.
"We have the unified support of the nation behind our bid and we are ready to host the biggest sporting event in the world," FFA chairman Frank Lowy said in a statement earlier this week.
Australia is competing for both World Cups with England, Russia, the United States, Japan and joint bids from the Netherlands/Belgium and Spain/Portugal. Qatar and South Korea, who co-hosted 2002 with Japan, are bidding for 2022.
Grand ambitions on the global stage stand in contrast to troubles on the home front, where the country's domestic soccer competition remains awash in red ink.
The A-League, launched in 2005 with government funding after its predecessor the National Soccer League collapsed under financial strain, is ranked last in local football's pecking order, behind Australian Rules, rugby league and rugby union.
A number of clubs in the 11-team competition remain on life support and the FFA had to bail out new franchise North Queensland Fury earlier this year after their owner walked away from the club after losing millions.
"It's actually really hard to establish a sport and a league, especially in a highly competitive environment such as Australia," David Rowe, a sports and media researcher at the University of Western Sydney, said.
Rowe cited the case of Australia's domestic basketball league, which appeared a bright prospect in the 1990s, but now struggles to keep teams afloat.
"It was going to wipe every sport off the face off the planet. And that didn't happen," Rowe added.
"In terms of long-term prospects, soccer has the best prospects of any code of football in Australia but obviously it's got a number of obstacles."
"Obviously the other codes aren't going to lie down and just be run over."
Despite football's uphill battle for respect and market share in Australia, the country's proven track record as a capable event manager lies in its favour, according to bid-watchers.
"Australia's very experienced and has a very high reputation in terms of hosting major events," said prominent football pundit Les Murray, who is on the board of FIFA's ethics committee.
"The Sydney Olympic Games remains the benchmark in terms of the organisation."
Australia's location also positions it in football's biggest growth area for fans and television audiences, Murray added. "Four of the top 10 countries ranked in terms of television audiences at the last World Cup were from Asia, only two were from Europe," he said.
Australia's internal dramas preparing the bid could, in any event, easily be cancelled out by smooth diplomacy, researcher Rowe said, a skill in which Australians had proven more than adept when bidding for the Sydney Olympics.
"The bid that prevails will be the one that balances the contending forces within FIFA and its member countries," he said.
Winning 2018 against the momentum heading in Europe's direction might be beyond Australia's lobbying skills, but 2022 would be a wide open field for the politically savvy.
"This is why of course the federal government has plied so much money, given it's going to take an awful lot of diplomacy, a lot of glad-handing and a lot of stroking people."comments