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Having finally come down from the high of being there when the Socceroos were crowned champions of Asia a couple of weeks ago I’m left with a warm afterglow and just three niggling questions.
1. How’s Eddie McGuire going with the XTC challenge of ‘trying to taste the difference ‘tween a lemon and a lime’?
2. Why on God’s earth was Tim Cahill speaking to John Laws anyway?
3. How do the Socceroos capitalise on the success of the tournament and continue their march toward becoming Australia’s most recognisable national sporting team here and on the world stage?
The first two questions I’ve filed in the ‘too hard basket’ for the moment – although anyone with suggested answers should feel free to submit them below.
The third I find provides more useful food for thought.
The crowds and atmosphere at games, the television ratings, and the support shown for teams other than Australia were all positives from the Asian Cup. The icing on the cake, of course, was the emergence of the new, positive, energetic, ‘Ange-ised’ Socceroos who were great to watch.
It’s all created momentum worth building on but while it’s good to leave the fans wanting more, it’d be good to have something more to look forward to than World Cup qualifying (for a World Cup that’s more than three years away) and a bunch of friendlies.
Yes, we’ve got the Matildas and their World Cup later this year and if they go deep into the tournament, as their ranking suggests they should, it will be another boon for football in this country and Australia’s standing on the world-game stage. But the Socceroos are now rivalling the Australian Cricket team and the Wallabies as Australia’s premier national sporting side so it’s important that we have a more immediate challenge for them to build towards and for the fans to look forward to.
One thing that both the Australian cricket team and the Wallabies have that keeps the fires stoked is old enemies.
In cricket, an Ashes series generates special passion and in rugby the Bledisloe Cup does similar. It’s partly the tradition and partly the ‘familiar opponents’ factor. We identify the opposition players we expect to worry us most, or the ones we especially look forward to inflicting defeat on. And there are even those in the opposition ranks that we hold a grudging admiration for. In the lead up to, or during, any series they are as familiar to us in face and name as if they were featured on “WANTED” posters all around the town square.
This is the only element that was missing from the Asian Cup – at least for the non-specialist football fan. And, let’s face it, they’re the ones you need to win over to achieve critical mass.
We weren’t really familiar with our opponents. We might’ve known Son Heung-min was South Korea’s danger man because he’s been influential playing in Germany for Bayer Leverkusen but he isn’t recognisable to us in appearance or style. We know nothing of his personality. He should’ve created the fear/loathing/excitement of a Kevin Pietersen or a Richie McCaw but most of us couldn’t have picked him out of a line-up of South Korean team members.
Maybe we still couldn’t – and that’s despite the fact he was the guy whose goal dragged us into an agonising extra thirty minutes of play in the final when we’d been just seconds from taking the Cup in regulation time.
But if we played against the same countries more often we’d get captivated more by the ‘who’s who’ of opposing teams. Ironically, the comparatively limited number of nations playing cricket and rugby works for those sports in building fan recognition of stars of other nations. Soccer’s multitude of options is, in that sense, a drawback.
But wouldn’t it be great if we could try to schedule a regular series against one of our Asian neighbours and work towards a Bledisloe Cup or Ashes atmosphere? Our recent history against South Korea and Japan means there already is a solid foundation for an arch rivalry with both those nations, but I think the ideal candidate would be China.
To an extent neither South Korea or Japan would stand to gain much from entering into a series arrangement with Australia. They’ve both got reasonable claims to be more established forces in international football than Australia, Japan having twice made the round of 16 at World Cups and South Korea having reached the semis in 2002. They could be excused for thinking they have no reason to help the Socceroos get more established by offering them regular top level competition.
But China is a rising force with the impetus of big dollars and even bigger population behind it. Team Dragon have only once qualified for the World Cup so the case could be made that they would benefit from some regular hit outs against the Aussies and, unlike South Korea or Japan, they don’t seem to export as many of their individual stars to European leagues so we’d get a chance, as fans, to develop a relationship with them.
It surely would benefit Australia to form an allegiance with Chinese football by becoming special rivals. The media, marketing, business, cultural and geo-political possibilities are limitless. If you’ve watched English Premier League clubs court China for the past several years, you’ll know how seriously China is regarded in world football. We’ve got the advantage of being physically closer and playing games in friendlier time zones.
Imagine if between now and the next World Cup we could have a five match series, home and away, Beijing, Shanghai, Sydney, Melbourne and (lord knows whether this would be politically possible but let’s throw it in there while we’re reaching for the stars…) Hong Kong. Fit the games in when there are FIFA sanctioned international breaks. Create a trophy to play for. I don’t know, say we call it ‘The Free Trade Cup’. If the games are spread over the next three years we’d still have room in the schedule to play other friendlies and World Cup qualifiers. By January 2018 we could have the series decided, clearing the decks for whatever World Cup qualifying and preparation needs to be done from there.
Getting to know better the players from China could also have spill over benefits for the A-League (perhaps more Chinese interest from fans and players?) and the Asian Champions League clashes between Chinese and Australian clubs would be spiced up nicely.
Look, I’m sure my fantasy series would generate enough FIFA and AFC red tape to wrap around the Great Wall twice and then tie a great big bow, but I’m just brainstorming in the ‘anything’s possible’ afterglow of the Asian Cup.
And it is still easier than trying to figure out why Tim Cahill would do an interview with John Laws.