During the week your blogger flew to Kuala Lumpur as a guest of the Asian Football Confederation, ostensibly to attend the AFC Annual Awards. But it was also an opportunity for me to see how Asian football actually works and I came home convinced Australia has Buckley’s chance of getting the 2018 or 2022 World Cup.
Les Murray, who was also with me in KL, assures me otherwise and believes Australia has a very good chance to get 2022, and he’s probably in a better position to judge, being involved with FIFA’s ethics commission and serving as chairman of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union Sports Group (ABU).
For me, though, what struck me instantly about the gathering of dignitaries, special guests and heavy hitters at the AFC awards was the power that resides in the western and eastern blocs of the confederation: namely Saudi Arabia/the Gulf states and South Korea/Japan.
More than three-quarters of the awards went to Korea and Japan alone (FIFA vice-president Chung Mong-joon shouldn’t have bothered sitting down) and Mohamed bin Hammam, the AFC president, was conspicuously pally with Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Khalifa Al-Thani, the son of the Emir of Qatar, and his enormous retinue of hangers-on, including Hassan Al-Thawadi, the chief executive of the Qatar 2022 bid committee.
Though Frank Lowy was appropriately seated three or four seats away from the president, Ben Buckley and the rest of the FFA delegation was squirreled away on a table against the far wall. Even Les, in his capacity as ABU chairman, had a better seat.
During an interminable traditional Malay dance performance, Lowy got up and started walking around, looking lost. I walked over to him and asked him if he needed help. “I’m trying to find my people,” he said, referring to Buckley, and I pointed him in the right direction.
Australia was nominated in five awards out of a possible 18, and only Matthew Cream, as AFC Assistant Referee of the Year, took home a statuette. As we all well know, no Australian players were nominated in any of the categories.
It was a fairly underwhelming evening from a parochial perspective, especially at a time when the FFA is trying to put its best foot forward in the race for 2018 or 2022.
Meanwhile Qatar 2022 was pulling out all stops and sparing no expense, setting up a booth in the lower lobby of the Shangri-La Hotel where the awards took place, giving away T-shirts, stickers and ornamental glass footballs and flying in their star spruiker, Sami Al-Jaber, the Saudi Arabian World Cup legend, for photo-ops and interviews.
Australia had no such presence.
So in, many respects, apart from Lowy’s perfunctory address to the International Football Arena conference in the same hotel on the Tuesday , I would consider it an opportunity lost.
The FFA chairman talks of Asia being “the centre of the future of world football”, and I would agree, but from what I’ve seen Australia is just a peripheral player in the region, far from where the action is. The sales pitch needs to change.
Talking incessantly about Asia is only drawing attention to the strengths of the other bidding nations – Qatar, Japan, Korea and Indonesia – which are better placed to maximise the benefits Lowy talks about.
What would be a better strategy is for Australia and Indonesia to forge closer ties, and there was gossip during the week in KL that Indonesia had urged a meeting of ASEAN football leaders to admit Australia to the South-East Asian zone of the AFC as a full member.
While an Australia-Indonesia joint bid is something far off, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.
As Lowy and Co know only too well, being a force in Asia is not about the size of your country but the quality of your relationships. The Australia–Indonesia one must now be a priority.