Opinion

How Australia stepped up in Asia after coronavirus outbreak

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A few years ago, a high-ranking FFA official headed to a major Asian Football Confederation Congress in the western reaches of the continent. His initial greeting to counterparts from fellow federations went along the lines of, “it’s 3am now in Australia. We are exhausted.”

Counterparts at fellow federations were a little nonplussed.

It may be true that the rest of Asia does not always appreciate how far away Australia is, but these rare meetings are a great opportunity to build relationships. 

It was often just shrugged off at the AFC House in Kuala Lumpur as Australia being Australia or FFA being FFA - an organisation that was unsure how to engage.

Back in 2006, when Oceania’s biggest member left to join Asia, the AFC were not certain whether Australia would be incredibly active from the get-go or take things quietly during the first months as it became familiar with the new neighbourhood. 

It was the latter but the expected energy never really came.

Then, in 2009 and 2010, the FFA tried to position itself as the Asia-Pacific bid ahead for the 2022 FIFA World Cup ahead of South Korea and Japan.

It ruffled some feathers.

Things are getting smoother. In recent years, FFA started to become more active in terms of coaching clinics and various administrator workshops in some parts of Asia but the new leadership is now setting a new tone.

James Johnson is the new CEO and, as well as his past experience at FIFA and the PFA, worked at the AFC.

More than most who have come before him, he has an appreciation of just how complex and difficult Asian football is.

And no more so than now.

Officials at the AFC were impressed with Australia when the FFA agreed to host its group of the Women’s Olympic qualifiers.

With the coronavirus spreading out of the epicentre of Wuhan, the games involving China, Thailand, Taiwan and Australia were moved first to the eastern city of Nanjing and then down to Sydney. Not only did Australia agree to step in as hosts but did so with speed and efficiency.

This can-do positive attitude went down very well in Kuala Lumpur.

The situation did not stop there. With the Chinese team arriving, they were put into quarantine which has made everything much more complex and then Canberra said that flights from mainland China would not be able to enter the country.

It meant that the AFC’s first countermeasure, having the four Chinese teams playing the first three group games away from home, was no longer viable. 

An emergency meeting was called in Kuala Lumpur. Greg O’Rourke attended from the FFA and once again, the body proved to be flexible, efficient and open-minded with the tournament facing its biggest ever crisis.

Postponing games involving Chinese teams is a pain in the backside for all involved but it had to be done.

Again, AFC officials were impressed with this more active and flexible side to the FFA.

The body has always had a big part to play in Asia.

The national team has been a powerhouse on the pitch by qualifying for every World Cup since joining the confederation and winning the Asian Cup in 2015, but the federation has struggled to match that kind of record.

Asia has waited and the opportunities have been there to take the lead but even the successes were not the springboards they should have been.

It was argued before Australia joined that the new member would take Asia’s ability to host international tournaments to the next level.

Yet Western Asian officials felt FFA could have done more to pass on their 2015 Asian Cup know-how to the next host, United Arab Emirates.

Such complaints may now be a thing of the past.

An energetic and positive Australia is good news for Asia. It makes everyone stronger.