Humiliating backdown or extraordinary coup? Australia has withdrawn its bid to host the World Cup in 2018 but did so after a week of key meetings and months of frenzied lobbying that look almost certain to deliver key support from European delegates for the nation’s bid in 2022.
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This was a day in which you had to read between the lines to ascertain the real story.

What appeared at first a backdown – FFA Chairman Frank Lowy has long resisted pressure to depart the 2018 field and leave that tournament for Europe to fight over – ended as potentially the most important day in the two-year year history of Australia’s bid.

A clue to the political intrigue behind the decision came with its delivery. In an extraordinary move, governing body FIFA and the FFA put out a joint statement announcing Australia’s withdrawal and featuring glowing praise for the 2022 bid from FIFA president Sepp Blatter and chief executive Jerome Valcke.

The statement makes clear that the decision was reached ’’after several months of negotiation’’ including lengthy talks with European members of the 24-strong FIFA Executive Committee that will vote to award hosting rights in December.

“The FFA and my office as well as the FIFA president have been in constant dialogue about Australia’s bidding intentions since last autumn,” Valcke said.

“The FFA have displayed an exemplary level of solidarity with Europe and the European bidding nations and were among the very first to enter into an open and constructive dialogue with me after it became apparent that there was a growing movement to stage the 2018 World Cup in Europe.

“Their announcement of today therefore, to henceforth focus solely on bidding for the 2022 World Cup, is a welcome gesture that is much appreciated by FIFA’s leadership and Executive Committee.”

Europe has eight members on the executive committee. A total of thirteen votes are required to win hosting rights. Lowy made clear yesterday that negotiations for the 2018 exit have been ongoing since last October, and yet the FFA chairman has repeatedly refused to pull out in recent months, reiterating those comments as recently as Wednesday.

In reality, Australia – and much of the rest of the world – has long known the 2018 event would go to Europe. Lowy and bid chief Ben Buckley stayed in the race for both events in order to give themselves a bargaining chip. Now they have bargained.

They were determined not to do Europe’s bidding in exchange for nothing. Now they have done Europe’s bidding and are being roundly praised for it by very important men. It would be naive to believe that nothing was their price.

Lowy would say only that the decision had been taken “after careful consideration and analysis”. He did not say analysis of what.

While Lowy and Buckley both refuted talk of any vote-swapping deal there was a new sense of confidence coming from Australian headquarters, where there is a growing belief that Australia’s bid has never been in a stronger position.

The new spirit of bonhommie is entirely unofficial. Vote trading is strictly prohibited by FIFA. Officially every bid process is a good clean fight. And football’s canny politicians have never been above pledging support and not quite delivering it. But if proof were needed that relations have taken a turn for the better it was provided by one of the most influential Europeans of all.

Franz Beckenbauer – the World Cup winning player and coach known as “the Kaiser” declared earlier this week that Australia had a good chance of success and described the bid team as “extremely strong and extremely well prepared”.

As rival nations wooed the Executive Committee delegates at a closed “bid expo”, Beckenbauer, extremely influential among the European establishment and one of the eight executive committee members from that continent, was enthusiastically posing for photographs at the Australian stand with Sports Minister Kate Ellis.

Australia’s decision to pull out effectively sidelines its biggest rival for 2022, the United States – which is now left as the only non European bidder in a race including Spain/Portugal, England, The Netherlands/Belgium and Russia. With too many of the game’s decision makers determined to annex the 2018 tournament for Europe, the Americans have been left with diminished bargaining power.

The deal was finalised only in recent days as the 24 delegates gathered in Johannesburg for the FIFA congress and were subjected to frenzied hotel diplomacy and backroom lobbying of the eight European delegates in particular.

A key player was Peter Hargitay, the Europe-based consultant who operates on an exorbitant retainer from Australia but is considered an unrivalled networker among FIFA’s top layers. Hargitay and Lowy have both been prominent in meetings this week – including several with FIFA CEO and powerbroker Valcke.

Hargitay has also been lobbying European voting delegates for months, trying to win support for Australia over chief 2022 rivals Qatar and the USA. The recent turmoil in England’s bid has been extremely helpul for Australia’s cause.

Hargitay was previously an influential back room operator for England’s bid and was hired for that role by Geoff Thompson, England’s member on the FIFA Executive Committee and an old friend. When others, including Lord Treisman, were brought in to run the English bid, questions were raised about Hargitay’s colourful past and methods and the Hungarian-born gun for hire was sacked.

Relations were strained with England after Australia employed Hargitay but Triesman and several of his allies have departed the English bid after recently accusing the Spanish bid team of bribery and corruption.

Thompson – Hargitay’s original ally – has been newly installed as English bid chief. Suddenly, as Australia hopes realistically for strong European support, England is a key potential ally.

Australia has effectively ruled out the possibility of getting votes from three of the FIFA committee members, those from Qatar, Japan and Korea – all rival bidders. A single vote from Oceania has already been secured and much energy and attention has been put into wooing African delegates.

Focus will now shift to South America’s votes. That continent’s voters do not have a home bid to back as Brazil’s hosting of the 2014 Cup rules out a bid from that continent. South American committee members are widely expected to back the Spanish bid for 2018 but Australia will now woo them for 2022 – competing hard with their regional neighbour, the USA.

It could just be coincidence but word yesterday was that Lowy will soon visit several South American nations to press Australia’s case anew. After a flagging few months of stadium squabbles and lost momentum Australia is back in the game.