Tomorrow an Australian sports team will embark on a great new adventure. For the first time the Socceroos will take part in the Asian Cup, the championship of all the nations in the Asian Confederation which stretches from Iraq and Saudi Arabia in the west to Japan and Australia in the east. Lacking the prestige and perhaps the quality of its European equivalent, the Asian Cup is based on far larger populations, television audiences and markets. And here lies the significance for Australians, which reaches far beyond the boundaries of the playing fields.
When John Howard gave Frank Lowy, the new head of the Football Federation of Australia and the second richest man in the country, gave some $15 million of public money with no strings attached to pay off the debts of the old soccer organization and set up the new one, it was not because he had suddenly become a soccer nut. No, he realised that if Australia was to have a continuing sporting relationship with Asia to complement the countryâ€™s attempts to come to terms with its region, then the only hope was the World Game. The Beijing Olympics represented a superb linkage where some of Sydneyâ€™s experience in 2000 could be parlayed into assistance with Chinaâ€™s opening up of its economy and society to the world. But it was a single event in one country, whereas the transition of Australia from the moribund Oceania Confederation to the Asian one represented an ongoing connection and a much wider spread of influence.
It works at the level of the A-League as well where the top Australian clubs now qualify for the Asian Champions League. Just this week Melbourne Victory has been in China, playing the Chinese national side in its final warm-up match for Asian Cup and taking on Chinese Super League side Tianjin Teda in Melbourneâ€™s sister city for the Mayorsâ€™ Cup presented by John So and his opposite number. Victory chair Ron Lord was stressing before the team left that this was as much a trade mission as a football one.
In the longer run the significance of the Asian connection may be greater than the spectacular qualification for the World Cup in 2006 and the subsequent roller-coaster ride of the Socceroos and their supporters in Germany. It is not so long since Australia looked upon the countries to its north and north west as threatening strangers, a perception based as much as anything on lack of experience and knowledge, and historical enmity in some cases. Now young, and not so young, Australians will have a chance to experience the varied parts of Asia for themselves as players, administrators, fans and those who are alert enough to seize the business opportunities. This particular Asian Cup is being played in four countries, Thailand, where Australia is based for its group matches, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, which will host the final.
Some Melbourne and other Australian clubs pioneered the way in the days of old soccer. A Perth club actually played for a season and won the Singapore League. It would be nice to think that there were people in Geelong who might be examining the prospects for following in the footsteps of this new band of pioneers who will represent their country tomorrow.