Australia’s Socceroos have just won their first Asian Cup, beating South Korea 2-1 on Saturday and becoming national heroes in the process. It has been a long road for football in Australia.
The Socceroos played their first Asia Cup in 2007. It was against Japan and held in Hanoi. They lost on penalties and were not particularly edifying losers. The match attracted little interest in Australia. This time, however, winning the tournament on home turf has given both the team and the game the boost in Australia many commentators have argued for years that it needs and deserves.
In 2006, the Socceroos beat Japan in their first World Cup match since 1974 before going on to draw with Croatia; both good outcomes only undone by a somewhat controversial 0-1 loss in the knockout stage to Italy. It wasn’t much, but getting to the World Cup at all was exciting for a team whose sport had always taken a backseat to rugby, AFL (Australia’s home-grown football league) and cricket. That the game had never fully taken off in Australia was always puzzling to many, given the legion of European migrants arriving on Australian shores over the decades and its status as such an international game. Soccer remained largely confined to the small, independent SBS television network and only during the World Cup did anyone really pay any attention. Thanks to its European connections and relative lack of violence it was simply not seen as a game that fit the nation’s macho ethos.
With an Asian Cup win this is on the way to changing. Australians do love anything that wins. The Oarsome Foursome, a four-man rowing squad who won Olympic gold, became so beloved they advertised canned fruit for years on Australian television. Black Caviar and Makybe Diva are Australian sporting heroines who grace fashion magazines, and they are horses. That Australian soccer – still, no one will call it “football” – has now come of age is a good thing and represents years of hard work and training.
Australia bid in 2010 to host the 2022 World Cup, although ultimately ended up receiving just one vote, with the final selection going – not without very considerable controversy – to Qatar. However, it also bid to host this year’s Asian Cup, and as the sole bidder, was successful. A 2013 parliamentary paper noted that the spin-off from hosting the event could be terrific: 45,000 international visitors and 1000 jobs created. It was also seen as useful given the Asian Century. (Then again, everything from trade with China to more Korean restaurants in major cities can be viewed through this prism when expedient.)
In fact attendance exceeded even optimistic predictions: 650,000 people in total attended the Cup, held across New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria. Given this is a busy time on the Australian sporting calendar – with the Australian Open in tennis and cricket season in full swing – those numbers are especially heartening for those who have spent decades pushing the game in Australia. According to Frank Lowy, chairman of Football Federation Australia, “I think (the victory) is going to lift the game to another level again.”
Craig Foster, an ex-Socceroo and SBS commentator (though national broadcaster ABC actually won the rights to this tournament), wrote, “Winning the Asian Cup does not mean winning the World Cup. With respect, this is not rugby union or cricket, it is the world’s largest and most competitive sport. This is why the ultimate goal is so worthy, the last great sporting frontier for Australia.”
It may be many decades before that particular frontier is crossed, but there is some hope: The same day Australia played and beat Korea FIFA President Sepp Blatter said that the nation deserved to host the World Cup owing to its 1956 and 2000 Olympic efforts. That it had not was an “omission in sporting history.” In the meantime, sports-mad Australia may well stop overlooking the most international of sports.
Helen Clark was based in Hanoi for six years as a reporter and magazine editor. She has written for two dozen publications including The Diplomat (as Bridget O’Flaherty), Time, The Economist, the Asia Times Online and the Australian Associated Press.