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FIFA Struggling To Fill Stadiums In Remote Soccer-Indifferent Country With Nobody In It

Dunedin Stadium is pictured ahead of the FIFA World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 on July 11, 2023 in Dunedin, New Zealand.
Joe Allison/Getty Images

In the least surprising turn of events ever, FIFA has bungled ticket sales for the New Zealand matches of the Women’s World Cup this summer. This morning, Reuters reported that the perennial enemy of all women in soccer will give away 20,000 free tickets to matches in the tournament's four New Zealand venues. 

Apparently the fact that the Kiwis’ women’s team, the Football Ferns, hasn’t won a single one of the 15 World Cup matches in its history is a factor for lagging ticket sales. On first consideration you could think that’s a fair enough excuse, until you remember that a similar dynamic didn’t seem to call for mass ticket giveaways during the 2022 men’s World Cup in Qatar, a repressive autocracy whose dreadful men’s team had never even qualified for any previous World Cup (and which promptly became the first Cup host ever to take zero points from the group stage). 

But FIFA loves rewarding failure in men’s soccer almost as much as it loves penalizing the women’s game for anything shy of perfection. So while this news is frustrating for me, it is anything but surprising.  

In my blog about Kristie Mewis, I mentioned that when I traveled to Europe a couple months ago, I spoke with some lovely Australians who talked my ear off about how excited they were to host the tournament. That made me feel great about the state of the stadiums Down Under. But on the same trip, I spoke to some people from New Zealand, and when I asked them if they were going to any World Cup matches this summer, they quite literally responded—I kid you not—“Oh, what sport is that?” That made me feel less good. 

This was just a fun anecdote until today's news transformed it into something more cautionary. Maybe New Zealand has struggled to sell tickets for the same reason the Football Ferns aren't very good: Soccer simply is not a big deal in New Zealand. The question is: Before today, did anybody at FIFA know this? Or anything else about New Zealand?

FIFA big man Gianni Infantino (a.k.a. John Baby) and his staff lack some pretty basic Oceania knowledge. An excellent paragraph from a Thursday Sydney Morning Herald article demonstrated this in a manner that makes the whole thing hard to deny:

Meanwhile, the boss had hoped to leave next Thursday’s tournament opener in Wellington in time to see the Matildas play Ireland in Sydney three hours later, with FIFA at one point looking into hiring a private jet. Those close to the decision say the idea was canned after realising that even FIFA, an organisation that never fails to get its way, cannot bend the rules of space and time.

If FIFA's brass are only just now learning where New Zealand and Australia are on the globe, how can we really expect them to know that soccer isn’t a very popular sport in the former? Our standards for the rulers of the game are just too high, I guess. 

Here are some other New Zealand facts for them to learn! Its population density ranks around 212th in the world—just ahead of Algeria, roughly 80 percent of which is the Sahara desert. Its self-reported total population as of 2022, 5,199,100, is smaller than that of South Carolina. It is home to five times as many sheep as people.

I’m all for "growing the game" to areas where it’s not popular, as is said in every other sentence uttered about women’s soccer, but the mere fact of New Zealand’s sparse population makes the choice to make it a host country—for not just, like, one group, but for 29 different matches—more than a little questionable. If FIFA wants to fill stadiums, I recommend hosting its premier event in a place that has some people. 

In all seriousness, the fact that THE BEST SOCCER PLAYERS IN THE WORLD are congregating to play each other in a wildly exciting tournament and tickets aren’t flying off the shelves is sad. I sincerely wish more people wanted to see Ali Riley and Jun Endo and Thembi Kgatlana play soccer. Unless they fill the stadiums with a whole lot of sheep (which would give me a different kind of joy), the matches in New Zealand might just feel deflated. It’s really too baaaaaad.

Jon G. Fuller/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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