Australia’s Asian Adventure Faces Football Test

By: Tom Hines

With the 2015 Asian Cup set to kick off in in just two months time, a decision must be made on the eve of football’s big Aussie celebration – Australia’s football community must decide whether it will embrace its involvement with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) or remain the outsider at its own party.

Australia joined the AFC eight years ago but that relationship remains distant as the game struggles with some serious commitment issues.

The problem is not limited to Football Federation Australia (FFA) and the games administration but also to the media.

“I don’t think its hesitation [to integrate]”, says Scott McIntyre, a reporter for SBS’s The World Game, “I think its downright opposition, and again I simply don’t understand why.

“We’ve moved as one of the newest members into Asia and we’ve benefited so much from this process, it’s simply good neighbourly manners, if nothing else, to say ‘o.k. we’re working for the development and betterment of the [Asian] region as a whole’”.

McIntyre is Australia’s only expert on Asian football working in mainstream media, an embarrassing reality that reflects the opinion of an Australian population who remains largely indifferent to our closest sporting competitors.

In Australia, coverage of Asian football is generally limited to news involving the Socceroos.

This could be blamed both on a lack of interest from audiences as well as the refusal and/or failure of journalists and the media to produce content that inspires audiences to engage with the Asian football ‘narrative’.

Scott McIntyre hopes the Asian Cup will break down what he believes is a prevalent ‘us versus them mentality’ in Australia’s football administration and media.

McIntyre has spent his career travelling throughout Asia and the Middle East to cover football’s ‘new’ frontier, witnessing Asian football at both its very best and corrupt worst.

With football in Asia on the rise, McIntyre hopes the Asian Cup will be a watershed moment in Australia’s involvement with the AFC, fostering a sense of belonging in Australian’s and emphasising that we are all ‘on the same team’.

It’s a hope shared by many within Australia’s football community, including Socceroos midfielder Mark Milligan.

“I think we’re heading in the right direction and people are starting to see the benefit of us being involved in this confederation”, says Milligan.

“I’m looking forward to the Asian Cup because I think the Australian people will learn a lot more about the direction we’re heading in with the Asian Confederation”.

Socceroos take on Uzbekistan in Sydney.

The Socceroos take on Uzbekistan in Sydney in 2009. (Image courtesy of Flickr)

Milligan gained this confidence in the AFC after spending the formative years of his career playing throughout the region, representing foreign clubs and Australian representative teams.

Milligan’s footballing journey has been somewhat unconventional as he turned from the traditional European career pathway in 2009, instead choosing to continue his development as a footballer in China and Japan.

Milligan’s first overseas move was to Shanghai Shenhua in 2009 before moving to Japanese club JEF United Chiba between 2010 and 2012.

At the time many thought it was a step in the wrong direction for a promising young Australian talent, but five years later Milligan is now a key member of Ange Postecoglou’s Socceroos, having represented his country at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

Milligan believes the 2015 Asian Cup is a great opportunity for Australian’s to look past the obvious differences and realise that we have plenty in common with our neighbours in the AFC.

“Like us, they are trying to build a style and create a football culture that they can aspire to and help grow through their younger ranks to the first team”, he said.

“A lot of these Asian countries are beginning to stamp their own technical and tactical brand on the game… there’s a lot of foreign influences, European and South American influences, through these countries now”.

But while we face the same challenges, Australia’s football administration have shown minimal willingness to engage with the AFC in this process, preferring instead to do things its own way – a stance that has only created divisions within the confederation.

Evidence of this can be seen in the FFA’s refusal to adopt the AFC’s 3+1 rule, which encourages national leagues to import foreign footballers from other AFC nations, in a bid to raise the standard of football across the confederation.

Every other AFC nation has adopted the 3+1 rule, to the benefit of Australian footballers like Milligan who are increasingly looking to further their careers in Asia.

In March 2006, soon after joining the AFC, only 5 Australians were playing in AFC nations. In March 2014 there were 48 Aussies plying their trade in leagues throughout Asia and the Middle East.

This growing number of Australian footballers in Asia is a positive sign for the national game, as players are exposed to new learning experiences, and in many cases to higher technical and tactical standards.

The number of Australians playing in Asia has increased rapidly in recent years.

The number of Australians playing in Asia has increased rapidly in recent years.

Unfortunately, without the implementation of the 3+1 rule here, Australian clubs have little incentive to sign players from the AFC, and so this exchange of players remains, for the most part, one way.

Scott McIntyre says the FFA’s stance on the matter is a source of constant criticism from the other members of the AFC.

“So many [Australian] players are benefiting from moves [to other AFC Leagues] yet the FFA, and in many ways they are backed by the Professional Footballers Association (players union), are so stubborn in reciprocating that right. How can we just take all the benefits of this shift into Asia and not give anything back by implementing the 3+1 here”.

In the absence of any A-League scouting networks in Asia, McIntyre has at times recommended players from Asia or the Middle East to coaches in Australia but he says those recommendations were often met with outright opposition and varying amounts of ignorance.

“When I was making these comments back at the start of the A-League some of the things that would be said were just outrageous.

“To their credit the current crop of coaches are a bit more open to the idea… and now I think you’ve got the situation where clubs would like to bring [Asian players] in but they’re not sure about it because it hasn’t really happened before.

“I just cannot understand for the life of me why we can’t have the 3+1. What’s the issue?”

But the 3+1 rule is not the only issue the FFA and AFC have butted heads over.

A variety of other topics are equally contentious, including the use of promotion and relegation in Asian football leagues.

The AFC believe that promotion and relegation is a crucial part of football’s global tradition, allowing aspirational clubs to rise up through the divisions to replace other struggling teams.

While all other major governing bodies in the region have implemented this AFC directive, the FFA has so far been steadfast in its refusal to adopt the system.

McIntyre believes concerns regarding long distance travel and financial risk are blown out of proportion by the Australian administration, citing Korea’s introduction of promotion and relegation in 2013 as an example of what Australia must do to raise the standard of competition domestically.

“The Koreans had the same arguments as Australia – ‘we don’t have the clubs at the second level, no one wants to invest’, but Korea were forced, and they forced themselves, to adopt promotion and relegation… at the same time, Australia was thumbing their noses and saying ‘no we can’t do it because we are a unique situation’.

“Are you telling me that [Australia] is bigger than China, which has promotion and relegation? Are you telling me that [Australia] is bigger than India, which has promotion and relegation and a far more dire financial situation?

“Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, all these countries with horrific roads and airports, with airlines that are falling out of the sky, all of these countries can do it. They can do it with no money… and here you’ve got wonderful airlines, fantastic connections between city and stadiums as well as great hotels. I simply don’t buy the excuse that Australia is in a unique situation”.

This continued belief that Australia is in a unique situation has only served to alienate many of our Asian counterparts who question our commitment to the cause.

“There is still a lot of opposition within pockets of Asia to Australia’s involvement in the region”, McIntyre says.

“In the discussions that I have with Football Association presidents, with club coaches, with Federation officials, time and time again I hear this thing… ‘What’s happening with Australia, do they belong or not belong?’”.

The FFA’s failure to act on the AFC’s various mandates has impacted on Australia’s results in annual technical reports conducted by the confederation.

Australia scores lower on governance, league structure, and development compared to the other leading football nations in the confederation.

The net result of this is that Australia receives fewer places in the Asian Champions League.

Australia currently receives 2 automatic positions and 1 play off place, but still there is a perception of unfair treatment among many football supporters in Australia.

If the FFA want to attain more places in the competition they must enact changes and no victim mentality will change that.

A form of Australian sporting exceptionalism continues to hold us back and while we seem prepared to reap the rewards of our inclusion in the AFC, more must be done to integrate.

One player agent, Tony Rallis, who co-hosts the Soccer Stoppage Time radio program, is confident that the Asian Cup will have a positive impact on Australia’s perception of the AFC.

Rallis has a long history of doing business within the AFC – he has secured transfers for six Australian players to Asian Leagues and convinced the wealthy Indonesian Bakrie family to buy a stake in the Brisbane Roar football club.

Rallis says it is “arrogance” which has held Australia back in its relationship with Asia, but he see’s the Asian Cup as an opportunity to break down that attitude.

With the Socceroos in transition, Rallis believes winning the tournament may be an unrealistic expectation but he expects that the most important role of the Asian Cup will be educational.

Palestinians celebrate in the West Bank after qualifying for their maiden Asian Cup appearance in 2014, with a 1-0 win over injury-hit Philippines. AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI

Palestinians celebrate in the West Bank after qualifying for their maiden Asian Cup appearance in 2014, with a 1-0 win over injury-hit Philippines. AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI

Hearing about the hardships faced by teams like Palestine, who will be participating in the tournament for the first time, will provide local audiences with a new perspective into the role football plays in giving hope to people living through immense suffering.

The 2014 Asian Champions League may have marked the dawn of a new era for football in this county, with the Western Sydney Wanderers beating giant clubs like Guangzhou Evergrande and Al Hilal to be the first Australian club to win the title.

Fans and officials throughout Asia are treating Australian football with a new level of respect, but that should go both ways.

As the opening match of the Asian Cup kicks off in Melbourne between Australia and Kuwait on the 9th of January, an equally significant battle will take place off the field – in the hearts and minds of Australian audiences.

The eyes of the global sports media will be watching on, waiting to see how the Australian football community responds.

 

Thumbnail Image Courtesy of Sebastian Giunta (flickr)

 

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