NZ Football chief executive Andrew Pragnell knows he is in for a busy six months once he returns from Rwanda, where he has been this week attending the Fifa Congress.
He said that walked away from the annual gathering of football leaders from around the world with a smile on his face, for several reasons.
One of them was confirmation that the Fifa Women’s World Cup New Zealand is co-hosting with Australia this year wouldn’t be tainted by sponsorship from Visit Saudi – the tourism board of a country that severely restricts the rights of women.
Another was the announcement that Fifa would significantly increase the prize money and financial support on offer to teams at Women’s World Cups – with a total of US$152 million [NZ$246m] on offer at this year’s event and a promise of parity with the 2026 men’s world Cup for the next event in 2027.
With the Football Ferns expected to continue to qualify out of Oceania with ease for years to come, and the All Whites’ chances of qualifying enhanced now the region has a guaranteed slot at men’s World Cups, which will feature 48 teams from 2026, there should be regular, substantial boosts to NZ Football’s coffers.
Another piece of good news was confirmation the 2026 men’s World Cup would feature four-team groups instead of three-team groups as originally planned. That means that if the All Whites do make it, they will be guaranteed an extra match, and with eight of the 12 third-placed teams in the group stage advancing to the knockout rounds, they will have plenty to play for.
The All Whites’ road to that tournament begins this week, kicking off a six-month stretch that could have far-reaching impacts on football in New Zealand, heading into an era where the financial and competitive landscape it finds itself in is changing for the better.
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Pragnell said he was “100% excited” by what lies in store between now and the end of September, including
– as many as four All Whites matches, starting with two against China this week in Auckland and Wellington;
– at least five Football Ferns matches, including a minimum of three at their home World Cup;
– the co-hosting of that tournament in a broader sense, which should be the highlight of the period;
– a men’s Under-20 World Cup campaign in Indonesia in May and June;
– the likely formation of an Auckland A-Leagues club, hoped to take place by June;
– the men’s qualification campaign for next year’s Paris Olympics, which will take place in New Zealand in August and September;
– and a domestic winter season where the 100th anniversary of the Chatham Cup knockout competition is set to be celebrated.
The permanent appointment of a new All Whites coach should come between their friendlies in March and the next ones in June, though it could be further delayed, while there will be plenty of focus on the Ferns as they try to find form ahead of their World Cup opener on July 20, against Norway at Eden Park in Auckland. They are next set to be in action in Turkey, though not against Turkey, in early April, with fixtures due to be confirme this week.
Away from NZ Football’s direct influence, there is a potential coaching vacancy looming for the Wellington Phoenix men, if Ufuk Talay leaves, while women’s coach Natalie Lawrence is also off contract, and that programme will soon fall entirely under the Phoenix’s control after the governing body played a significant role in its first two seasons.
In the meantime, there will be plenty of interest in whether the fifth-placed Phoenix men can make a finals run and whether the Phoenix women can avoid the dreaded wooden spoon, with three matches remaining in their second campaign.
“It is going to be a busy period, but these are all opportunities for development and growth and we benefit from having the best game in the world,” Pragnell said.
“Some of these things are a product of work and advocacy we’ve done in the past and some of them are products of simply the growth of football globally.
“There’s enormous opportunity for the game in this country. We’re about to go through another growth phase, both as an organisation, but also as a sport.
“There are some big challenges, there’s no hiding behind that, and I’m sure we’ll hit a few speed bumps along the way, but there’s nothing better than just walking straight into this stuff.”
Australian Professional Leagues chief Danny Townsend announced this week that it was looking to bring together local and foreign investors to form an Auckland A-Leagues club, with a view to handing over a licence in June and having teams enter A-League Men and A-League Women from the 2024-25 season, which begins in less than 18 months.
Having a second professional club in New Zealand would be another game changer, on top of the changes to Women’s World Cup prize money and men’s World Cup qualification. Townsend said he had been working closely with Pragnell and NZ Football in bringing APL’s plans to fruition and Pragnell said he was energised by the prospect.
“What’s exciting about the conversations I’ve had with Danny is that they’re really interested in putting deep foundations into this club. It’s not intended to be a fly-by-night venture.
“They want to do that with the football community. They want to do that in a way that excites everyone in the whole region and gets genuine buy-in from fans. I really like the intent that I’m hearing from them.”
With regard to where APL might find the financial backing for a new Auckland club, with a licence fee of $21–$27 million on the cards, Pragnell said his sense was that there was “there is real interest from global football investors in identifying places around the world that are untapped in terms of the football economy.
“Auckland’s a really natural site. We’re probably one of the biggest developed cities without a professional club in it.
“I think that it’s almost inevitable that this is going to need to be some kind of consortium and it’s highly probable that some of that investment would need to come from outside of New Zealand.
“I take some confidence from the work that the A-Leagues have put into identifying this as an expansion area. There’s a bit of wait and see – we’re all obviously watching that space – but some cautious optimism.”