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FIFA 2023 Women's World Cup vote to go down to the wire - sources

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Australia and New Zealand's hopes of hosting their first ever senior World Cup -- men's or women's -- appear to be in the hands of Africa's voting bloc, sources have told ESPN.

The combined Antipodean bid would seem a strong favourite ahead of Colombia, particularly after Japan withdrew less than a week from the vote itself.

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But a closer inspection of the voting structure -- either bid needs at least 18 votes out of the 35 on offer to win -- suggests the final decision will go down to the wire on Thursday night. As many as 12 votes are still being fought over, an unusually high number so close to the deadline.

Sources close to the process have told ESPN that the final vote "will be much closer than people think and could easily go either way."

"It's the closest bidding for a major tournament I can remember, probably since Germany won the 2006 Men's World Cup bid [where they edged out South Africa]," a source added. "The next 24 hours will be pivotal."

Sources have told ESPN that the decisive battleground for victory will be the votes held by the FIFA Council's seven African representatives and North America's five representatives.

CAF's (Africa) representatives may yet vote as a bloc, or could also split their votes across both sides -- and it is thought they may not decide until the hours before the vote takes place.

Indeed, there are not many obvious reasons for the Africans to vote in favour of Colombia or Australia-New Zealand, given the limited political, cultural and commercial ties.

Colombia's FIFA Council member Ramon Jesurun is excluded from the vote but he will have undoubtedly used his position to remind his fellow council representatives from Africa of the need to help the developing world, not least in the women's game.

Still, Australia's bid has been around for longer (New Zealand were added to the bid in recent months), and the arrival of Football Federation Australia chief executive James Johnson -- who has only been in the chair six months -- has enabled the bid to tap his global contact list.

As the ex-Head of Professional Football at FIFA, it is Johnson's presence that has accelerated Australia's prospects of victory, and seen Australia quietly manage the menagerie of Asian football politics.

It is how they were able to outlast Japan, whose unconvincing bid seemed more about riding on the zeitgeist of Japan's major event spree -- following the 2019 World Cup and the now-delayed 2020 Olympics -- than it did about advancing women's football.

In Australia, the Japanese withdrawal was seen as a tipping point that assured victory, but that's far too simplistic. Having Asia's total support merely gets Australia-New Zealand the backing of their respective confederations, worth a total of nine votes.

And if their bid does not secure a majority of African votes, the possibility of victory would seem remote.

The bulk of UEFA's nine votes are expected to go Colombia's way, with the exception of England. Barring a last second chance of heart, relations between football's dominant football continents are projected to remain as fraternal as ever.

But if Africa is the true unknown, the volatile relationship between CONCACAF (North America) and CONMEBOL (South America) presents Colombia's biggest risk.

Believing they had the majority of UEFA tied up, added to CONMEBOL's four eligible votes, the Colombian bid team internally predicted that securing CONCACAF's five available votes put them in pole position to claim victory.

But Johnson's long-standing relationship with ex-US Soccer boss Sunil Galati and close ties with CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani has broken Colombia's dream of a clean sweep. If Australia can acquire any other votes from CONCACAF, it could mark an unexpected blow.

Finally, there is FIFA President Gianni Infantino. The eternal statesman, Infantino is torn over his stated desire to grow women's football in Latin America and to reward Australia's bid, which secured a much higher score (4.1 to 2.8) during the evaluation process.

As much as Infantino would love to transform Latin America's male-dominated football landscape in his crusade for gender equality, it will be extremely difficult to vote against the recommendations from FIFA's own technical report.

But just like many others heading to the vote, he may not decide until the final hour. In a race this close, every vote counts.

ESPN Voting Analysis:

AFC (Asia) - 7 votes for Australia/NZ

OFC (Oceania) - 2 votes for Australia/NZ

UEFA (Europe) - 8 votes for Colombia, 1 vote for Australia/NZ

CONCACAF (North America) - 5 votes undecided

CONMEBOL (South America) - 4 votes for Colombia

CAF (Africa) - 7 votes undecided Gianni Infantino - 1 vote for Australia

Totals:

Australia/NZ - 11 votes

Colombia - 12 votes

Undecided - 12 votes