FILE - In this June 25, 2019, file photo, Japan players embrace ahead of the Women's World Cup round of 16 soccer match between the Netherlands and Japan at Roazhon Park, in Rennes, France. The Japan Football Association is expected to pull out of bidding for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, according to a report by Japanese news agency Kyodo on Monday, June 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, File)

Japan out of 2023 Women's WCup; Australia-NZ bid favored

June 22, 2020 - 6:17 am

TOKYO (AP) — Japan pulled out of bidding to host soccer's 2023 Women’s World Cup on Monday, leaving the top-rated joint bid by Australia and New Zealand a clear favorite in the FIFA vote.

Japan and Australia are both members of the Asian Football Confederation and were likely to split the region's support in a vote Thursday by members of FIFA's ruling council.

Colombia is now the only rival to Australia and New Zealand, which scored 4.1 points from a maximum five in a FIFA evaulation this month when the South American candidate got 2.8. Japan scored 3.9.

The Japan Football Association announced the withdrawal at an online news conference in Tokyo.

“Today, we decided to withdraw our bid to host the 2023 Women's World Cup,” JFA President Kozo Tashima said, speaking in Japanese. “I could not be more disappointed to have to make this very difficult decision.”

Japan’s exit should clear Tashima to vote on Thursday and likely unite all seven AFC delegates on the 37-member FIFA Council behind Australia. New Zealand is part of the Oceania soccer body that has three FIFA Council members though only two eligible voters at the online meeting hosted in Zurich.

Praising Japan's decision as “another impressive show of Asian football unity,” AFC President Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain also hailed the “historic cross-confederation bid.”

"(M)ost importantly, this is the most technically impressive of the bids," Sheikh Salman said in an AFC statement, adding, “we must be guided by the experts.”

Colombia's chances were hit by the lowest score in the FIFA inspection that rated stadiums, national security, hotels and other infrastructure.

FIFA said Colombia's plan needed “significant amount of investment and support,” while Australia and New Zealand was the “most commercially favorable” bid.

That prompted a complaint last week by South American soccer body CONMEBOL, which has had strained relations with FIFA in recent months.

CONMEBOL, which has five council members though only four eligible voters Thursday, has worked to build closer ties with European soccer body UEFA, which has the biggest voting bloc with nine.

FIFA has promised to publish the voting preferences to continue a policy of transparency started with the men's 2026 World Cup vote by more than 200 member federations. The joint bid by the United States, Canada and Mexico beat Morocco two years ago.

The policy was introduced under new FIFA President Gianni Infantino after long-standing criticism of secret votes by executive committee members in 2010 to pick Russia and Qatar as hosts for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Those hosting campaigns have been investigated by FIFA and prosecutors in the U.S., France and Switzerland.

None of Japan, Australia, New Zealand or Colombia has hosted a Women's World Cup, which was first played in 1991 and has also never been held in South America.

The best national teams in women's soccer are due in Japan next year for the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Japan is also bidding to host the 2030 Winter Olympics in Sapporo.

Japan won the Women's World Cup in 2011 and was runner-up in 2015. The United States has won it four times including in France last year. Australia and New Zealand have never finished in the top four.

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AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in Geneva contributed to this report

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