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Australia’s Tim Cahill scores during the Socceroos’ Asian Cup quarter-final win over China in Brisbane. Photograph: Edgar Su/REUTERS
Asian Cup winners last year and clear beneficiaries of cross-cultural exchange, Australia now celebrates 10 years in the Asian Football Confederation
January marks one year since the 2015 Asian Cup, and — although it has passed with little fanfare — the 10th anniversary of Australia’s entry into the Asian Football Confederation. The report card is pretty good: both men’s and women’s national teams have won the Asian Cup, Adelaide United made the Asian Champions League final in 2008 and Western Sydney Wanderers won it in 2014. Late last year Ange Postecoglou and the Socceroos won Asian coach and team of the year.
More than simply hosting tournaments or beating Asian opposition, however, the hope was that joining the AFC would be the harbinger for a shift in attitude – for Australia to truly become an Asian football nation.
Far more memorable than the Socceroos winning the Asian Cup was the vibe of the tournament. Every country found support from local immigrant communities; for the Palestinians it was a chance to raise the flag in defiance of Australia’s denial of their statehood; for the Iranians it was an opportunity to enjoy football free of gender discrimination; the tiny Uzbek community gained unprecedented national coverage; even the mysterious North Koreans were greeted in Melbourne by some enthusiastic Korean re-unificationists. The quarter-final between Iran and Iraq in the nation’s capital was one of the most exciting matches ever held in Australia.
It was football as it should be in this country — a messy, unpredictable and inclusive space for communities to celebrate their heritage free of the pressures of assimilation. There was politics and protest but there was also spontaneous joy and and genuine cross-cultural exchange. Being Australian while supporting the Iraq national team, for example, is something that we should value, not fear.
Mark Falvo, Football Federation Australia’s head of international affairs and government relations, believes Australian football is now far better placed to engage with Asia. “There was one [Asian Cup] match, I think Iran versus Qatar, where I sat next to the AFC president Sheikh Salman, ” says Falvo. “He turned to me and said, ‘I can’t tell whether I’m in Tehran or in Sydney’.”
Iran’s Morteza Pouraliganji is mobbed by fans and teammates after scoring during their Asian Cup quarter-final soccer match against Iraq in Canberra. Photograph: Tim Wimborne/REUTERS
Falvo was one of the few staff to transition from the Asian Cup local organising committee to a role at FFA. With him he has brought a wealth of cultural fluency, a useful list of contacts and a desire to maintain the project of integrating Australia into the AFC. Indeed the attitude shift that underpins the creation of his role is encouraging.
The Australian government and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are now actively engaged with FFA, and is seeing the potential of football to provide a common language in Asia. In March, FFA will be involved in Mikta — a forum of middle power nations Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia. FFA have also developed a memorandum of understanding with the Iran Football Federation, in the hope of bringing Iranian club giant Persepolis to Australia in the near future.
“That’s off the back of the Asian Cup, ” says Falvo. “The Iranian federation were surprised at the level of support they had in Australia. There’s a huge opportunity there, we’ve developed an MoU that just needs to be signed.”
Yet for these diplomatic achievements, at club level football in Australia does not feel appreciably more Asian. Some of this can be put down to a lack of forward planning and vision from both A-League clubs and FFA.
Just two days before the Asian Cup final, for example, FFA said that the mooted “4+1 policy” – which would allow A-League clubs four visa players plus one from the Asian region – was “not part of the discussion”. One very tangible way to engage with the region and reciprocate a ruling that allows Australian players to prosper abroad was stillborn.
Just after the Asian Cup Sydney FC chief executive Tony Pignata blamed falling crowds on a “football overload”, while Western Sydney Wanderers did not continue their successful mini-Asian Cup tournament from November 2014. Thankfully, Melbourne Victory still support a similar tournament hosted by the Melbourne Chinese Soccer Association. Curiously, there was only brief mention of Asia in FFA’s Whole of Football Plan.
“I think as a means of growing interest in the A-League abroad, and also Asian communities here, it [the 4+1 policy] would be a good thing, ” Falvo says. He admits programs targeting Asian communities in Australia have been lacking, attributing it to a lack of funding.
“One of the great successes of the Asian Cup was the multicultural community program, ” says Falvo. “There was hundreds of ambassadors and events organised, the result of that was really engaged communities and great atmosphere in the stadiums. I think the ambassadors are all just waiting to do more, because obviously they all love and support the game, and they all want to play a part. It’s just a matter of resources.”
The encouraging sign is that FFA seem to have recognised the enormous potential to engage with Asia at both diplomatic and grassroots level. Bringing an Iranian club side to harness the support of the local Iranian community would have been unthinkable before the Asian Cup. Finding the requisite funding remains the biggest challenge, but a proper Asian strategy could have benefits that transcend football.
Last century football played a vital, if under-appreciated, role in the development of multicultural Australia. As diplomatic relations normalise with Iran, trade continues to grow with China, Japan, Korea and Singapore, and thousands of new migrants continue to arrive from all over Asia and the Middle East, football is better placed than any other sport to carry Australia into the Asian century.
“The Asian Cup was the first time, perhaps, that on a quite significant scale many AFC people visited Australia and saw what Australia in 2015 was, ” Falvo says. “In some respects you can say that we’re most representative of the diversity of the AFC. They know that they can come here and be welcomed by Australians of all backgrounds.”