The announcement from FIFA that the Australia-New Zealand bid had won selection for the 2023 women’s World Cup has sent the football community over the moon.
On Thursday night, the Socceroos made light work of Nepal in their World Cup qualifier, prevailing 5-0 courtesy of a Jamie Maclaren hat trick and a Harry Souttar brace.
A healthy crowd of over 18,500 turned out despite the threat of rain in the nation’s capital to support the national side.
It was our first home match on the long road to Qatar in 2022.
It’s only 2019. Because of the extreme heat in a Qatari summer, the 2022 World Cup will be held in November and December instead of the usual June-July window, leaving more than three years between now and when the tournament kicks off.
The Socceroos will enjoy strong support throughout the campaign like they did in Canberra, but do qualifiers featuring our boys wiping the floor with the likes of Nepal and Chinese Taipei properly engage the wider public?
After the 2022 World Cup, the Socceroos should simply go through the motions to qualify for 2026 with little difficulty. Asia’s number of spots in the 48-team tournament will increase to eight. Sure, we struggled to qualify in 2018, but with three and a half extra spots up for grabs, it should be a cakewalk.
If we qualify early, what sort of appeal will meaningless matches have to the wider public who are not always engaged in football?
Marquee matches against the likes of Iran, South Korea and Japan will always draw eyeballs and put bums on seats, but you cannot hope to host top-flight nations every international break. For every Iran match there will be a game against Cambodia, for every Japan there will be a Tajikistan.
Well chosen and well marketed friendlies against big opponents can satisfy the appetites of football fans outside of the World Cup and Asian Cup, but perhaps the AFC should look to Europe to keep the Socceroos in the public eye with big matches throughout the year.
The UEFA Nations League was created with the intention of making friendlies meaningful. After its first season last year, its existence has certainly been vindicated.
The Nations League had it all, from the top division all the way to League D. Think of France and the Netherlands battling it out on the final weekend for the chance to qualify for the finals out of Group 1, or Croatia and England’s clash, where England qualified at the death.
Football has always been a club game, with internationals only taking precedence during major tournaments, but the Nations League certainly spiced things up in Europe. An Asian Nations League could do the exact same thing on this side of the world.
Europe had 55 nations compete in their first go at the tournament. Asia has 46 nations – a similar amount that could work perfectly if the AFC take some initiative.
While Europe began with the higher leagues featuring 12 nations in four groups of three, next year League A will feature four groups of four before finals. Promotion and relegation will remain within leagues.
Leagues of eight nations would work better in Asia. Leagues A, B, C, D and E could each play host to eight sides in two pools of four, while League F could hold two groups of three.
If leagues were based on FIFA rankings, League A would hold Iran, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Qatar, UAE, China and Saudi Arabia.
Australia could then feature in a group alongside Japan, the UAE and China, with the top two after a double round robin playing in a finals series with South Korea and Iran.
Home Nations League ties in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane would generate more hype surrounding them than if we played simple friendlies, such as the games against Greece, South Korea and Lebanon in the past few years.
Free-to-air coverage in Australia would be essential to kick-start and maintain interest from not just the football community but also the general population. If Nine, Seven or Ten screened the matches on their primary channels, rather than the tournament being forgotten on 9Go, 7Mate, Ten Bold or ABC2, the Asian Nations League would certainly be a success in Australia.
The 2015 Asian Cup was a true showcase of Australian football and demonstrated the support the Socceroos have in this country. A brand new trophy that creates regular, meaningful international matches played across the nation would ensure the Socceroos are followed passionately outside of just the Asian and World Cups.
UEFA had vision when they designed their Nations League, and now it’s time for the AFC to follow suit with their own unique international competition that would be incredibly popular in Australia and all over Asia.
Most pundits agree that the golden era of the Socceroos centred around the 2006 World Cup, but when our next world-class team arrives, we need to make the most of it. More meaningful games against top Asian opponents in front of full houses around the nation will ensure the Socceroos stay in the public eye for years to come.