Until the 2010 qualifying series, Australia’s road to the World Cup was a twisted, teasing and torturous one. Stuck in a Confederation with only one credible opponent and too far away for anyone else to fly out for friendlies, Australia would dominate its neighbours and be forced to play the also-rans of a stronger Confederation, with Australia knocked by far flung teams such as Scotland, Israel and more recently, Uruguay.
In 2006 FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation agreed to allow Australia to join with Asia following the 2006 World Cup. Australia was faced with a longer qualifying period as well as regular competition with higher ranked teams who had experienced success in previous World Cups (such as South Korea and Japan). It could be argued that qualification for the World Cup is harder than ever before, even if the team now has the chance to win one of 4.5 slots in Asia instead of 0.5 slots in Oceania (5th placed in Asia will play the winner of Oceania, most likely to be New Zealand). Even if the competition is too strong and Australia does not qualify in 2010, there are 6 very good reasons why moving into the Asian Football Confederation is the best thing to ever happen to Australian football:
1. The Asia Cup
Played every 4 years and alternating with the World Cup, the Asia Cup gives the Australian team something to do to keep them sharp between World Cup campaigns. While it can be difficult to get international players to return from Europe for qualifiers, the Cup gives plenty of international opportunities for players in the A-League to press their claims for regular international selection.
2. A larger stage
With member countries including China and India, the Asian Football Confederation provides a potential audience for Australian football rivaled only by the World Cup itself. Which would you prefer – playing in packed Tuodong or Seoul World Cup stadiums, or Blatter Stadium, Samoa? The larger television audience also provides greater sponsorship opportunities for individual players, domestic teams and the Socceroos.
3. Better competition
Australia holds the world record for inflicting the largest defeat with a 31-0 humiliation of the American Samoa in the 2002 qualifying series. In the 2006 round of games, the Socceroos were undefeated from 5 games with a 21-3 record against Pacific heavyweights like Vanuatu, Tahiti and the Solomon Islands (who to their credit finished ahead of New Zealand and played off against Australia for the right to beat Uruguay and qualify for 2006). Contrast this with the recent 3-0 defeat of Qatar and a grinding 0-0 draw against China with a squad ravaged by injury. The 3 highest ranked countries from Australia’s Group in 2006 were New Zealand (91), Solomon Islands (123) and Vanuatu (141). Australia (38) is currently pitting its wits against Iraq (68 and winner of the 2008 Asia Cup), China (80) and Qatar (99). It doesn’t take a genius to work out which is the better preparation for a World Cup.
4. Foreign-based players take games more seriously
The Club vs Country debate has long been a bitter one in Australian football. Many European clubs have been reluctant to release players to fly 30+ hours half way around the world for a mid-week game and then have them fly 30+ hours back and be recovered in time for the club game on the weekend. Add to the that the risk of injury and its not hard to see why clubs would rather the players didn’t travel. Players have also been reluctant to push the issue – who wants to risk first team selection for the sake of an Australia – Fiji game? Now that they are playing in Asia and the stakes are higher, more of the foreign-based Socceroos are prepared to risk the fury of their club coach and insist they be released for international duty. Players nursing niggling injuries are still unlikely to travel though due to the risk of the long plane flights making something worse. Some coaches are still unwilling to come to the party. However, for every manager like Celtic’s Gordon Strachan lying about an injury to striker Scott McDonald, there’s a Rafa encouraging an out-of-form Harry Kewell to play for his country to get some much needed time on the ball.
5. Asian Champions League
The domestic competition might be improving every year but new Socceroo coach Pim Verbeek was right when he said squad training with a Bundesliga team was still better than being out on the park every week in the A -League. The Asian Champions League provides local players with some desperately needed international experience against different styles of play in different conditions. It gives the best teams each season the chance to play out of their comfort zone. Without this opportunity, the best a local player could hope for is another lacklustre encounter with a woeful New Zealand club team in wet and miserable Wellington.
6. More football for everyone
The Asia Cup. The Asian Champions League. Longer qualification process. Higher profile in Asia and globally. All of these add up to more football being played by the Socceroos and Australian players. The Socceroos win because they keep their match fitness and are able to develop and play together as a squad. Australian football wins because we have a better chance of consistently qualifying for the World Cup (the ultimate prize!). The players win because they are testing themselves against a better quality opposition playing styles of football radically different to what they are used to. The biggest winners of all are us – the fans.
We have more world class football to watch than ever before, and in the end, isn’t that what we all want?