Authorities continue to pay scant regard to the role football plays in forging deeper ties with our Asian neighbours.
Two weeks ago I visited a market near the city of Erbil in northern Iraq looking for a replica shirt of the local club side that I’d spent the previous days covering for SBS.
Nestled in amongst the yellow strip – yellow of different hues, to be fair – of Erbil and the ever-present Real Madrid and Barcelona fakes I stumbled across, of all things, an Adelaide United shirt.
It was an AFC Champions League strip complete with a giant Coopers advert (a product that may struggle to crack the tricky Iraq market) and the No. 10 on the front.
Looking at the reverse side, expecting to see Vidosic, there was another surprise as "Podolski" was emblazoned below the collar, but despite the "No. 10 identity crisis" the very fact there was a shirt from Adelaide in Iraq at all was a demonstration of the power of football throughout the continent.
I’ve travelled extensively throughout Asia during the past decade and since the switch to the AFC in 2006 there are two, perhaps three, clubs that are familiar to a broad Asian audience.
Adelaide and Melbourne Victory. In some cases also Central Coast.
The reason, of course, is simple – they are the clubs which have been mainstays in the Asian Champions League.
If Sydney FC, for example, suddenly think "Asia" is going to embrace it just because it signed an ageing Italian star, it is seriously misjudging the region.
Qualification for – and success in – the ACL will do far more for your “brand” than a hotchpotch series of circus matches the likes of which David Beckham and his merry men have even managed to exhaust.
If you need any proof that the ACL is one of the great bridges between Asia and Australia just ask any Australian football supporter to name two or three Japanese or Korean clubs. Chances are those recalled will be that country’s Champions League sides.
The ACL and the Socceroos involvement in Asia – not to mention the impact of the 2015 Asian Cup – have been genuine facilitators of a deeper understanding between Australia and its Asian neighbours.
Players are, as one Olyroos player famously said a couple of years ago, going to places that “normal people” don’t … and fans are following.
Amman, Kunming, Doha and Kuwait City wouldn’t have been on the hit-lists of many young Australians prior to 2006 but they are just some of the cities that have been taken over by an ever-increasing number of travelling Australian football fans.
I’ve met supporters and players alike during this time who have been motivated to study an Asian language as a result of their travels, to move to the region to work, who have started websites devoted to Asian football and even those who have fallen in love and married along the journey.
Not to mention those from other nations who have been inspired to visit and learn about Australia as a result of those same encounters.
Football is a powerful tool for cross-cultural understanding and the various national teams, FFA and Australian diplomatic missions abroad are all doing their part in helping to build these “bridges of understanding”.
In short, football represents one of the most direct and lasting relationships that Australians can build with their Asian brethren – a region in which literally tens of millions of people play, watch and live the sport.
Which makes this week’s release of the long-awaited white paper Australia in the Asian Century all the more confusing.
Becoming an “Asia-literate nation”, developing “collaborative relationships” and forging greater “economic links” all feature prominently as ambitions for Australia over the coming decades, yet the role of sport in enhancing these links is virtually overlooked.
Of the 25 “national objectives” listed, only one mentioned the role that sport can play.
Adding to the disappointment was the fact that football was one of only a handful of sporting organisations (hello netball and racing!) amongst the 273 submissions the authors received.
FFA’s submission was one of the most comprehensive, running to 30 pages and stacked with detail of the important work football has already done in integrating Australia into the broader Asian continent and suggestions for how the sport can be used to further these links.
Amongst the key points were:
*Australia’s involvement in football and development work throughout Asia, specifically in Goa, Timor-Leste and Indonesia
*The role of Australian players – including the unlikely ambassadorial role played by Joel Griffiths – in working to improve Australia’s image in Asia
*The opportunities presented by the 2015 AFC Asian Cup
*The proposed establishment of a “Football Asia Council” to “coordinate commercial, cultural and public diplomacy programs”.
*A push for greater development funding for football throughout Asia
*The opportunities presented by targeting tourism campaigns around the Asian Cup
Yet from this comprehensive submission, what was featured in the report?
Of the 320 pages just three paragraphs – and one break-out box – mentioned football in the “Asian Century”.
Yet other “cultural and educational institutions” (valuable as they are) received page after page of positive reviews around the role they can play.
In a broad sense perhaps football was a victim of its own inclusiveness.
The White Paper used a very narrow definition of Asia – and with scant explanation as to why those boundaries were drawn – as being from India across through Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia and pointedly excluded Australia from this grouping.
Football in Australia belongs to a broad region of 47 permanent members stretching from Lebanon to Launceston meaning, as it noted in its submission, that FFA is “one of the few Australian organisations to enjoy full membership of an Asian supranational body”.
It is important to highlight again some of the positive work Australia is doing in Asia, and not just at an administrative level.
There are now almost 50 Australians playing in Asia and many of them are wonderful ambassadors, including the likes of Aleks Vrteski and particularly Robbie Gaspar, who are working with the Players Association in Indonesia to fight for the rights of their fellow professionals and for structural change in one of the most important football regions in Asia.
However while Australia has, in many cases quietly, been doing development and diplomatic work in Asia for many years and a vast number of Australian players enjoy the rewards of playing in Asian competitions, there remain some glaring problems within the relationship.
As I’ve argued for many years, the exchange of players has been stacked predominantly in favour of Australia exporting to Asia.
Almost 100 Australians have played in an Asian league since the move to the AFC in 2006, yet barely a dozen have featured in the A-League over the same time.
This current season alone there are, at latest count, 49 Australians playing in an AFC competition with a grand total of five (only one of whom is regularly playing) in the A-League.
The sheer imbalance of these numbers is something FFA should be working to remedy, yet the national body continues to ignore the obvious solution.
It’s quite simple – the time for Australia to adopt the AFC’s 3+1 rule (or variants thereof) has well and truly arrived.
When that happens then FFA can truly say it is part of the Asian football family.
The next step is to educate certain agents, promoters and club officials that Asia is a vast region home to myriad languages, cultures and social customs that present opportunities for exchange rather than the “cashed-up market” they prefer to see.
Maybe then even the government will start to see the power of football in bringing people and groups together for mutual benefit across this broad continent in which Australia sits in the south-eastern corner.
As the White Paper notes, this century will see the “tyranny of distance replaced by prospects of proximity”.
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