Despite some continued criticism, Australian football is taking its ASEAN status very seriously
When the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president, Sheikh Salman, was in Australia at that nation’s hosting of the 2015 Asian Cup, he turned to the organisers during a raucous group match between Iran and Qatar and remarked he couldn’t tell whether he was in Tehran or Sydney.
As much as there remains resistance – strong in some quarters – to Australia’s place in both the AFC more broadly and the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) more specifically, the hosting of that flagship tournament did much to cast off perceptions of the nation and its place in Asia.
Yet, more than a decade since the nation’s switch from Oceania to Asia, there remains much consternation over just where Australia ‘fits’ in the footballing landscape.
The chief gripes stretch from a perception that their various national teams are taking the place of more ‘traditional’ ones in continental and international tournaments all the way to questioning the very legitimacy of the country as an ‘Asian’ one – whatever that means.
We do value very much our membership of the AFF and the many benefits that flow to Australian football as a consequence
Football Federation Australia (FFA), to be fair, have often shot themselves in the foot by some of their interactions – or inactions – with the region, notably their reluctance to participate in the showpiece Suzuki Cup tournament.
But as one of the country’s senior football officials exclusively told FourFourTwo, they are more committed than ever to being an active AFF member.
Setting aside one of the more unwieldy job titles you’re likely to see, in his role as the FFA’s Head of Corporate Strategy, International and Government Relations, Mark Falvo is at the forefront of the nation’s interaction with Southeast Asia and was keen to stress the importance of that partnership.
“I want to say quite clearly that we do value very much our membership of the AFF and the many benefits that flow to Australian football as a consequence,” he said.
“But just as important are the relationships that we develop with other nations in the region and working together to see the region improve as much as we can.
“Those friendships have many benefits in both directions, including opportunities for young players and for us to be able to share our experience with the region.
“Also the competitive benefits are there for everybody to see as we haven’t been the shoe-ins that many expect us to be, as recent results have shown.”
We’re a full member of the ASEAN Football Federation ... and we participate in youth tournaments and with women at both senior and youth levels
That includes Australia's biggest struggles yet to reach the World Cup since joining the AFC. After a largely disappointing qualifying campaign, the Socceroos will face Honduras next month in the AFC-CONCACAF playoff for a spot at Russia 2018.
What may be lost on many fans and officials throughout the region who continue to question Australia’s place there is the work they are quietly doing behind the scenes in order to be a valued member of the AFF, as Falvo explains.
“We’re a full member of the ASEAN Football Federation, we attend all council meetings, and we participate in youth tournaments and with women at both senior and youth levels.
“Off the pitch we’re also committed to being real contributors to the region and I’ve made that a strong focus in my role.
“Recently, we’ve had three senior administrators from AFF nations visit Australia – one from Laos, one from the Philippines and another from Indonesia – and we’ve also had four female administrators visit and take workshops and look at how we run our W-League (women’s) tournament.
“We’re also looking to commit to hosting various AFF tournaments as well as council meetings and we are involved in those discussions as we speak.
“We’ve held workshops after our successful hosting of the AFC Asian Cup in numerous aspects including service delivery and technical requirements and we continue to share that knowledge with the region as well as our experience in running the A-League.
“As an example, I was in the Philippines on several occasions in the build-up to their launch of the country’s professional league and hosted a workshop on how the A-League was established and how marketing and commercial aspects could help inform the new league and I think we’ve seen that league start very well.”
The biggest bugbear for many in the region though was Australia’s participation in the 2013 East Asian Cup alongside the likes of Japan, China and South Korea, whilst at the same time electing not to enter the immensely popular Suzuki Cup.
There have been claims leveled at the FFA in the past that the Australians refused to enter that tournament unless they were able to send a youth team, but Falvo dispelled those while admitting the timing of the tournament is not ideal for Australia as it falls in the middle of the A-League season.
“Of course we would love to participate in the premier tournament in Southeast Asia and one that stirs such great passion and excitement,” he said.
“It wouldn’t be appropriate for us though to send our Olympic team or youth team as that would pay a great disservice to what is such a great competition.
“Like any AFF nation there are some tournaments you may choose to take part in and others not depending on various factors and considering scheduling and conflicts with domestic competitions or budget restraints and they are decisions we continue to make year in and year out.
“A lot of it comes down to the calendar and on that one occasion we participated in the EAFF Cup that fell in June during the A-League off-season, whereas the Suzuki Cup being in November/December falls in the middle of the A-League season and is also not in a FIFA window.
The Suzuki Cup being in November/December falls in the middle of the A-League season and is also not in a FIFA window
“That means that it’s challenging to make the logistics work in terms of player availability, with the European-based players not available and with the A-League in season, so they are all practical reasons that make it difficult to work.”
Although full participation in that tournament would go a long way towards ensuring greater acceptance for the FFA, taking a closer look at the modern make-up of Australia would also go a long way towards dispelling outdated notions that still persist of the country being a white, European outpost, as Falvo explained.
“Chinese is now the second most frequently spoken language after English in Australia and our society is rapidly changing and it’s not just the old European heritage alone that people may think.
“Asia is now having an increasing influence in many areas as a social force including cultural, linguistic and economic ones and even in terms of food and so on.
“The more we engage and the more our friends from across ASEAN and the AFC more broadly come and see things in Australia with their own eyes, the more the myths and old perceptions of Australia are being dispelled and completely redefined.”