Asian Cup can bring Australia closer to the continent

Socceroos warm up, during the team training session at Melbourne Rectangular stadium in Melbourne, Thursday, Jan. 8, 2014. Australia will play Kuwait in the AFC Asian Cup tournament opening match, in Melbourne tomorrow night. (AAP Image/Joe Castro) NO ARCHIVING

As Australia gears up to host Asian football's showpiece event for the first time, a window of opportunity exists to connect with the continent and fundamentally change perceptions in the host nation, which will leave a lasting legacy.

Two days ago I spoke with Jaka Ihbeisheh, a midfielder for the Palestine side who was raised in Slovenia.

His family separated when he was three and it wasn’t until 18 years later, via Facebook, that he ‘found’ his father.

The 28 year old flew to Jordan and travelled the tortourous road from Amman to Ramallah where a five-hour ‘customs wait’ ensued before they could finally meet.

Eighteen months later he is at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, ready to face the defending champion in his side’s opening match – it’s just one of many wonderful and rich stories this tournament presents.

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An Oman goalkeeper who grew up as a firefighter at an international airport, a Kuwait side whose best attacking weapon was not selected because he’s unable to get a passport because he is a Bedouin, a Palestine defender who teaches in a school in Israel not yet sure if he’ll be allowed to travel and an Iraq forward who has retired from club football to focus on the nation of which he has a tattoo on his shoulder.

What other sporting event, the FIFA World Cup aside, has such a rich narrative - a tournament that draws teams and players from such diverse cultural, social and religious backgrounds?

From some of the wealthiest nations on the planet to those suffering under the burden of internal unrest and occupation, those with cutting edge medical and sport science teams and those who’ve snuck out of team hotels to plough through some fast food over the past week.

Those who curtain off their training sessions from prying eyes and those who allow fans to set up picnic chairs on the sidelines.

This is the Asian Cup in all its glory and it’s why football fans here are in for such a treat over the next three-and-a-bit weeks.

Never before - and in most people’s lifetimes probably never again - will we bear witness to such a rainbow of football styles, ideologies and desires.

For some the only thing that matters is winning, for others just being here is an achievement, some have established grandiose youth academies and others are fighting for statehood.

Football in much of Asia can act as way of engaging political discussion, of being a balm for social issues and universally as a way of bringing joy to all fans whether at the stadium or gathered wherever a TV or radio is available to follow the games.

To realise just how much it means you should see the emotion on the face or hear the voices of the many people who have contacted me saying their visa was rejected by the Australian government, which includes the leader of the Iraq supporters' group and even some journalists.

People I know, passionate football people, have had their application summarily rejected. This stands as a black mark for this country and the organisation of this tournament.

Moreover, the bizarre decision to allow the A-League to continue while the Asian Cup is running makes a mockery of the tournament and shows a small-minded mentality, which has and will hamper coverage of the tournament and our place in the region.

To be completely clear, there remains a group of nations within the AFC who never wanted Australia, never accepted Australia and who continue to agitate to send it back to the OFC.

This is a chance to ‘get it right’ and show Australia is a gracious host, interested not only in its own team but those of others in our new family.

Despite this start let’s hope that those who do travel and those amongst our vast football community here turn out and watch the games.

Let’s hope our media report the wonderful and rich stories from all nations with integrity and not just focus on the Socceroos.

Let’s hope we understand just how wonderful an opportunity this is to increase our footballing literacy of our region that, despite a decade long involvement with the AFC, remains woefully poor.

Let’s hope the FFA finally wakes up and realises it must adopt the 3+1 policy that has enabled so many Australians to have the benefit of playing in Asia.

Let’s hope the vast majority of A-League clubs - whose scouting of Asian players amounts to meeting waiters at a Japanese or Korean restaurant - watch these games and become aware of the incredible pool of talent within our own region, who are not all, as the lazy stereotype persists, on huge wages that make any move unlikely.

This is the world’s largest continent turning out for its largest footballing gathering.

It’s finally arrived.