The Olyroos may have reached Tokyo 2020 with all the finesse of Eric the Eel, but there’s no doubt their qualification is a huge achievement and a major boost for Australian football.
During the recent ASEAN Summit, the prime minister of Thailand made an announcement that a group of ten nations would be bidding to host the 2034 World Cup. The FFA need to seize the opportunity to get behind it.
With the World Cup expanding to 48 teams, Australia would be incapable of hosting the event by itself but we could still host some matches as part of a joint ASEAN bid.
FIFA’s requirement for stadiums to have 40,000 seats would make it difficult for a stand-alone Australia bid, with 16 venues being needed. In fact, Australia has just one existing rectangular stadium of this size – in Brisbane – with two more on the way in Sydney. It doesn’t look good compared to what ASEAN or China have to offer.
Of the ten nations that are members of ASEAN, seven already have stadiums with over 40,000 seats and they will have 15 years to build new ones if necessary. Sharing the burden by spreading the costs amongst the host nations makes the bid quite viable.
But with the 48 teams being spread among 16 different groups, there could still be room for Australia to host at least some of the matches.
The opportunity for Australia to take part in a joint ASEAN bid would be a perfect way for the FFA to demonstrate the full potential of football diplomacy. It’s not just about what it could do for football in Australia, but the bridge that it could help provide for Australia to gain entry into the ASEAN group itself.
You only have to look at the metrics to see why it would be in Australia’s interests to join and in ASEAN’s interest to accept us, boosting the economic strength of both entities.
As Paul Keating was keen to emphasise, Australia should seek security within Asia rather than from Asia, and the rise of ASEAN is central to Australia’s future in the Asian century.
Interestingly, there have been recent signs that the attitude from ASEAN is becoming more positive towards Australia joining and that old attitudes are changing. The FFA could also help create bridges when it comes to solving some of their remaining objections by engaging in social activism.
In the run up to the 2018 ASEAN Summit in Sydney last year, Indonesian president Joko Widodo said that Australia joining ASEAN would be a “good idea”, if only in principle.
But what really made Australian diplomats’ jaws drop was when former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad changed his combative view of Australia not belonging in Asia and said that we might one day earn the right or even be “entitled” to join.
Polls also indicate popular support for Australia’s entry, although the country’s British ties remain an objection.
The national flag, the date of Australia Day and the national anthem could all be holding us back. The FFA could throw its support behind campaigns for change on all of these issues as the AFL and NRL both prominently did with the Recognise campaign.
The biggest issues for Australia’s future identity, however, surround Indigenous reconciliation, specifically constitutional recognition, treaty, an Indigenous voice to parliament and a bill of rights.
If the FFA want to make an impact, they could even advocate for Australia to write a new constitution altogether as the French have done a number of times. If we did this, then instead of being a federation of just the original states, we could also include all of Australia’s First Peoples – a group who were left out the first time – to create a new foundation for a new Australia.
By recognising Aboriginal sovereignty in the nation’s constitution, we could then walk together as equals. Now that would be real reconciliation. Our image in Asia would be greatly improved as a result and the FFA could certainly play a big role in making it happen.
All of this is a lot to take in, but the opportunity that the ASEAN World Cup bid offers to Australia is something that FFA could take full advantage of by using football to build bridges with our neighbours in Asia, as well as to promote reconciliation.
Through football diplomacy and social activism, the FFA could significantly raise both its own profile and that of the sport in Australia. It’s something they should pursue.
But with such a big agenda they might need to officially appoint someone as head of football diplomacy, such as Craig Foster, who would be eminently qualified for the role.
With the reach that only the world game can provide, football diplomacy is something the FFA needs to embrace. No other sport can come close and it’s a big advantage that it has over the other codes.