It was a night four years in the making, one anticipated not only by the 76,000-strong who packed Sydney’s Stadium Australia but by football fans across the Asian Football Confederation’s 46 member nations.
Much has been made over the last few days over an alleged effort by West Asian countries to expel Australia, who joined the AFC in 2006 after decades as a big fish in the small Oceania pond, from the confederation.
Those stories inevitably faded from the headlines as denials were issued and the final drew near, but the questions remained the same: have Australia, after roughly nine years of AFC membership, earned their place in Asian football?
After a 120-minute slugfest which saw Australia crowned champions of a confederation they did not belong to a decade ago, that answer is undoubtedly “yes.”
There is little that needs to be said about Australia’s success on the pitch since joining the AFC: the Socceroos have qualified for two World Cups as representatives of Asia and reached two Asian Cup finals. Their rivalry with Japan, who with four Asian Cup titles and five straight World Cup appearances are still a force to be reckoned with, has benefited both country’s footballing cultures.
At the club level, two A-League teams have reached the AFC Champions League finals. One of those, Western Sydney Wanderers, are the current holders after their stunning defensive stand against Al Hilal.
Let’s not forget the country’s growing women’s football scene either: the Matildas have reached the last three Asian Cup finals, winning in 2010, and will be appearing in their sixth straight Women’s World Cup later this year.
While there has been plenty of debate over whether or not Australia is geographically a part of Asia (with several notable websites indicating that this year’s Asian Cup was the first to be held “outside of Asia”), there can be no doubt that the country is a veritable melting pot of Asian cultures.
This was reflected in fantastic attendance throughout the Cup. Not just for Socceroos games, or popular teams such as Japan or South Korea, but across all 32 fixtures. Perhaps only in Australia could countries as disparate as Palestine, Uzbekistan, Iran, and even North Korea be represented in the stands as colourfully, loudly, and positively as they were in this Asian Cup.
The sight of men and women cheering together for West Asian sides was especially remarkable, considering that they would likely not be allowed to do so when their countries play on home soil. Scenes from this tournament stood in stark contrast to the often half-empty stadiums of Qatar 2011, and likely 2019 hosts UAE will have a massive challenge on their hands if they hope to match the atmosphere of the last month.
With all of this praise, it should undoubtedly be said that Australia still have much they can offer to Asian football. The A-League’s reluctance to adopt an AFC player slot is short-sighted, but the recent arrival of three talented Asians in Yojiro Takahagi, Yusuke Tanaka, and Safuwan Baharudin should open the FFA’s eyes to the competitive and commercial potential of having more Asian players in the league.
Then there is the question of Australia’s role as a member of the Southeast Asian sub-region. In the last few years, the J-League and JFA have made great strides in establishing cooperative deals with leagues and FAs across the region, moves they hope will pay great dividends to Japanese football’s commercial prospects as the J.League soldiers through its third decade. As a member of the AFF, Australia should look to follow Japan’s lead and establish deeper ties with their neighbours in what is possibly football’s biggest untapped commercial market.
In the end, if there are any serious doubts as to Australia’s place in the AFC, they should focus on why West Asian countries haven’t stepped up their game in order to compete with their new rivals on the pitch. For all the political and financial power wielded by the region, last night’s showdown between South Korea and Australia shows that as far as footballing talent is concerned, the sun still rises in the East.
And now, perhaps, Down Under as well.