It wasn’t until I arrived at Al Ain's beautiful stadium for the Asian Cup semi-final between Iran and Japan that it hit me like a freight train.
The Iran fans were having an unbelievable time. Their bold, noisy demeanour is a trademark – but it’s just because they’re so passionate about the team. After so many barren years, nobody wants victory in Asia quite like they do.
The Japanese fans, quiet with expectation, arrived with the regal confidence that comes with being the pre-eminent Asian force. Rightfully so: they are chasing their fourth Asian Cup victory in the new millennium. It was a wonderful contrast to Iran.
This was Asian football, at its very best, brought to you in glorious Technicolor. And yet I had pang of sickness.
Looking at both sets of supporters, each sizing the other up, I was dead-set jealous.
For the first time in the past decade, Australia was not part of the semi-finals. We were not part of the discussion. Out of sight, out of mind. And out of the tournament.
It’s not like this moment hasn’t been coming. It’s been on the cards for a while; not least demonstrated through Australia’s battle to qualify for Russia 2018. But this is the first international bust since the 2007 Asian Cup. To me, that really hurts.
The media’s reaction to Australia’s exit surprised me. It was one of relative – how to say this – acceptance. Got through the group stage, won a knockout match, undone by a bad error. Could happen to anyone, right?
Well, yes. But there seemed to be a collective shrug of the shoulders. And before anyone points to Australia missing their best player, the UAE was missing an equal talent in Omar Abdulrahman.
I witnessed the UAE play on the opening night against Bahrain and they were dismal at best. They scored a lucky equaliser and looked as though they could be headed for a shock early exit from the tournament’s weakest group. They are not nearly as good as the team that toppled Japan four years ago on route to a semi-final defeat to Australia in Newcastle.
We should be incredibly envious of all four teams who made the semi-finals. Even more so of the chosen two who will make the final. But I didn’t get that vibe at all.
In fact, I got the feeling that most Australians tuned out of the Asian Cup the moment Australia were eliminated. That’s if they were even tuned in to begin with.
It never felt like Australia – from the team, to the public and the press – was genuinely “up” for this tournament. It seemed like the minor story of the summer, behind the cricket and the tennis. Early morning kick-offs played a part, naturally, but there was more to it.
Unfortunately, perhaps 2015 sated us in a way that continues to last. We loved every moment of every match, and, best of all, we won it. But maybe – just maybe – it satisfied us.
It should have been the start of an Asian love affair but it now looks like a box ticked on the national sporting laundry list. Been there, done that.
The embarrassment and humiliation of 2007 fuelled a much better campaign in 2011, which laid the platform for the victory on home soil – albeit with a squad that lacked the star power of previous years.
We simply must aim to mount a much fiercer campaign in 2023. Back in the East, where Australia tends to play much better, expectations should be that Australia will challenge for the title.
I hope every Socceroo watches the final on Friday. I hope they feel the burn inside when they see someone else lifting the trophy.
It should hurt. It should feel frustrating. We have to be better. Asia may be improving, but if we don’t get serious about keeping pace, this horrible, jealous feeling might be repeated.