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A year on from Australia-New Zealand confirmed as Women’s World Cup hosts

Not many people recognise the name Jane Fernandez. She is not the type of person to draw attention to herself or to boast about her successes. But if you are an Australian football fan, you almost certainly know who Jane Fernandez is.

In fact, you have probably seen that photo of her. You know the one: it was taken inside Football Australia headquarters in the early hours of June 26, 2020, when FIFA president Gianni Infantino announced that Australia and New Zealand were the co-hosts for the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

Snapped a split second after the announcement, the photo captures the reaction of those lucky enough to be in the room: Fists clenched, arms flung in the air, faces wide with joy. And there, right in the middle, jumping higher than anyone else, was the architect of it all: Jane Fernandez.

“I’m still claiming I out-jumped Alanna Kennedy,” Fernandez laughed while speaking to ESPN’s The Far Post podcast. “We’ll have to have a jump-off when she gets back to Australia at some point.

“The Matildas were phenomenal. Lydia [Williams], oh my goodness, the look on her face.

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“The day was very stressful. There was this energy around all of us — this anticipation — because we had a feeling of where we may be positioned amongst all of those that got to vote… but we had no idea, and you never know until the votes are cast.

“Relief is a really good word to use. It took a while for it to sink in; it was a sort of mixture of joy and relief because we’d just worked so hard and for so long on it.

“I also worked on the men’s [2022 World Cup] bid, so I’ve lived the experience of that, and so this was sort of like: ‘Finally, we’ve worked so hard and we’ve actually won the gold medal.’

“That’s what we were saying: it was like we won gold. You train so hard, if you like, and you put so much into it, and then you come away with gold.”

It’s now been exactly a year since that iconic moment, and while there has not been much publicly announced yet, Fernandez and her team have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to put the foundations in place for the next two years.

That includes a new role for Fernandez herself, who moved from an employee of Football Australia to now working for FIFA as the Chief Operating Officer of Australia for the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

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“I’m responsible for majority of all the key functional areas across the tournament, ensuring that all the building blocks are in place, ensuring that we’re delivering to the standards and the requirements that are contained in millions of agreements,” Fernandez said.

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“Everyone who’s working on the tournament will be employed by the local entity, which is owned by FIFA… so, really, we’re all part of FIFA; we’re sort of one team. So I think that also helps, knowing we’re all on the same team, we’re all building together.

“But this is bigger than just 64 first-class football matches. We want to capture hearts and minds; we want to make this tournament a cultural celebration. We want to make sure we’re involving all the different festivals that take place in winter across Australia, it’s making sure that everyone is buying into the vision, delivering against the vision, and delivering the best-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup. That’s why we’re here.”

So, what does a day in the life of Fernandez now look like?

“A lot of meetings, and especially because it’s all [Microsoft] Teams or Zoom,” she said. “A lot of late-night calls — although I must say it’s worse for my colleagues in NZ based on the time zones.

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“What we’ve been focused on in the last year — the first real priority — was getting this local entity set up. So that was sort of helping provide advice, being the point-person between governments, between the lawyers, between FIFA Zurich team, and just really coordinating the response to that.

“The other key thing that was going on at the same time was the selection of the host cities and the selection of the stadiums. In the bid, we put forward 13 venues, but 10 have been selected across nine host cities across Australia and New Zealand. But there was a lot of work that went into preparing and presenting to FIFA because they couldn’t be here to select.

“And then, following on from that, the recruitment drive. We’re like a start-up, really; this is all around setting up the team, appointing the heads of departments, which we’re halfway through. I reckon I’ve done about 70 interviews, easily. So that’s taken up a lot of time. It really is a start-up, so setting the foundations to make sure that we’re set up for success. That’s what this phase has been about.”

The other major milestone for Fernandez and her team is organising FIFA’s first post-win inspection tour, scheduled to take place next week. But, as has happened everywhere over the past 18 months, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a spanner in the works.

“FIFA would normally have been to Australia and New Zealand a couple of times by now in this last year,” Fernandez said. “We are about to embark on our FIFA inspection tour, so the FIFA team are currently inspecting New Zealand; they flew from Zurich to New Zealand, quarantined them for 14 days, and they’re currently inspecting [there].

“And just as of yesterday, we had to totally rebuild our itinerary for FIFA because of the most recent COVID outbreaks and the border implications to that.

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“So we’re now on a watching brief, making sure that we can get the FIFA crew to every city they need to get to. We’re confident — fingers crossed — that we’ve done that, but we have to be flexible and agile. It means that some of us can’t go to all the cities just based on what the requirements are.

“Before this most recent COVID outbreak, we had hoped to be able to show them a number of the host cities and what they have to offer. There’s not much time, though, I must say: it’s pretty much get on a plane, land, go to the hotel, then the next day go to the stadium, go to the training sites, get on a plane, go to the next city.

“However, in some of the cities — like now, we’ll be finishing in Sydney — there will be an opportunity to show them some more of the sights.”

Once the FIFA inspection is over, Fernandez and her team will move into the next stage of operational planning. That, she says, is when fans will start to see the tournament coming to life.

“There will be a lot of milestones — deliverables — that will all be coming together at the same time,” she said. “That’s why it’s really important to get the right players in the right positions [and] building trust with the team; they know what they have to deliver.

“So we’re moving to the operational phase, really, where we start developing the concept of operations, how we’re going to deliver the tournament in Australia and New Zealand, ensuring that we deliver a tournament where there’s a consistent look and feel.

“One of the other key things that FIFA is focused on at the moment with us is the building of the brand for the tournament. The work behind the scenes around that has started, which is exciting. It’s in its infancy at the moment, but these types of things — these important milestones — will come sooner than we think. Hopefully we can start promoting that backend of this year and then, from that, these milestones are really going to come thick and fast.

“There’s a lot of work to do and we want to make sure that we can start telling the story of the Women’s World Cup and start building on that, to ensure that the awareness is there.

“The gates are gonna open on time on the 20th of July [2023]. There’s no procrastination at all.”

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