2020 looks perfect for Australia but Southeast Asia needs convincing

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There were officially just over 88,000 fans at the Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur for the first leg of the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup in December. No wonder that Football Federation Australia (FFA) wants to sink its teeth into this particular durian.

The AFF Suzuki Cup is a big deal in Southeast Asia, a part of the world that stretches from Myanmar in the west all the way to the Philippines and the eastern reaches of Indonesia.  

Australia have been a member of the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF), one of Asia’s sub-confederations, since 2013 yet have never participated in the biennial regional tournament that outranks others around the continent in importance.

That could be about to change if the FFA gets its way and joins the 2020 tournament. 

It is a logical step. In terms of trade, diplomacy, business and whatever field you care to mention, it all makes sense for Australia and especially so in terms of football. 

For an Australia coach, the chance to look at players in an increasingly competitive environment outside World Cup qualifiers and major continental and international tournaments would be invaluable.

A closer football relationship could lead to more ASEAN players heading to the A-League and vice-versa which can only be a good thing.

The presence of Australia would also add a different challenge for teams from Southeast Asia.

Yet the region will need some convincing. Reaction from fans in the region to Australian involvement in the past has been mostly negative even if supporters are rarely listened to.

There are also misgivings from the teams themselves. For one thing, the Socceroos have been too strong.

One of the reasons why the tournament has been such a big part of the regional calendar (perhaps too big) is that the participants rarely qualified for the Asian Cup and never got anywhere near the World Cup.

It meant that the AFF Cup has been a unique chance to get excited about a tournament and dream realistically of a trophy.

Inviting an Australia team that actually went to World Cups and could win Asian Cups did not seem to fit. That has changed a little.

The Socceroos were not exactly head and shoulders above Vietnam and Thailand at the Asian Cup (the sudden expression of desire in joining the Suzuki Cup a few days after elimination from the UAE has been greeted a little cynically) but, in football terms, this is still the biggest concern from some AFF members who see the arrival of Australia as severely denting their chances of silverware.

This may change. As Southeast Asian nations become more competitive in Asia, the AFF Suzuki Cup will decrease in importance as has already been seen a little in Thailand.

This could also help with the issue of whether A-League clubs would release players at a time when Socceroos from elsewhere would not be available. 

While there were concerns in the past that Australia would be too strong, conversely, the idea of the Socceroos bringing a severely weakened team north, also did not appeal.

The fact that the Cup has never been part of FIFA’s international calender has never been much of an issue until recently as Southeast Asian players stayed in Southeast Asia.

Yet in 2018 Thailand were without four of their best players due to outside club commitments and the Philippines also missed stars. There are only going to be more players leaving the region in the future and more teams that are not at full strength.

So with the competition and region evolving and changing, the timing seems more favourable for Australia than before, at least for a trial run, though there are still fundamental questions..

For example, would Australian involvement affect the feel of the tournament? The Asian Cup represents all Asia, a mish-mash of cultures, geography, history and plenty more besides. Adding Australia to that mix changed little.

Yet Southeast Asia has its own distinctive identity, influenced by China to the east and India to the west yet with a culture of its own. Tacking on Australia to that does seem a little awkward.

There is also the more practical issue of travel for players and costs for fans. It can take time to move around the region as it is and this was remarked upon by some teams in 2018. Australia obviously adds to the demands on bodies and wallets.

Ultimately, such concerns, both abstract and practical, can be overcome by the prospect of increased revenue that would result from Australia’s involvement. Money shouts in Southeast Asian football, almost as loudly as a full Bukit Jalil Stadium , as Australia may soon find out.