Is Australia destined to be Asian football’s “poor, white trash”?

by Engelbert Schmidl on May 20, 2012

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A few things have got me thinking recently about Australia’s place in the future scheme of global football. Part of the foreground buzz has obviously been the ongoing problems we seem to have maintaining a sustainable national league; but there are some bigger, macro factors that have been as pertinent as these micro issues.

Three of our clubs are playing in the Asian Champions League, our national team will soon be embarking on the second stage of its second World Cup qualification campaign as a member of the Asian Football Confederation, and many of our players now ply their trade in Asian leagues such as China, Japan and South Korea.

Our engagement with Asia is well underway. We made the strategic move to become part of football’s fastest growing region and we are now gradually becoming enmeshed in the region.

One of the things that pricked up my ears a few weeks ago to the issue of our engagement with Asian football came from a perhaps unlikely source. Australia’s treasurer, Wayne Swan, speaking to the Australia China Business Council, once again reiterated the bleeding obvious to anyone with a passing interest in the global economy that Asia is important to Australia, and that we have much to gain from our economic ties to the region.

“The unprecedented opportunities on offer from the Asian century will extend far beyond the mining boom, which is only the first taste of Asia’s rise,” Swan said.

“Increasingly, it will be the growing prosperity of Asian populations that shape the opportunities and challenges facing Australia.”

One of those opportunities that Swan mentions is undoubtedly on the football fields of Asia and in the related economic and cultural benefits that flow from that engagement. The Asian Champions League might not yet be a huge draw for fans - especially Australian fans it seems - but its prestige and quality is almost guaranteed to rise in the next 10 years and beyond.

Put quite simply, we need to be there in the the thick of the action, not lurking on the fringe. Our national team has made great strides in this regard; our clubs - not helped by a dysfunctional league administration - not quite so.

An interesting trend in world football over the past five years has been the trickle of capital into what were once football backwaters. This is most obviously seen with the calibre of players being attracted to certain leagues.

Russia is an obvious example, with players like Samuel Eto’o moving to Anzhi Makhachkala (hardly a household name, but now coached by Guus Hiddink and also featuring highly regarded former Blackburn defender Christopher Samba), while Ukrainian clubs such as Shakhtar Donetsk have also risen to prominence on the back of big spending on foreign player recruitment.

Ukraine (about 46 million) and especially Russia (about 143 million) have large populations with burgeoning middle-classes. The appetite for football has always been strong and is now only strengthening thanks to higher levels of disposal income for many (though not all, poverty is still a massive issue in both countries).

These two countries are an example of a gradual easterly shift in resources in Europe.

That resource shift is also finding its way to China and, at this stage, to a lesser extent to countries such as India, which is in line to host the 2015 FIFA Club World Cup and the 2017 U17 World Cup — significant strides for a nation where football has always lagged far behind cricket.

As FIFA president Sepp Blatter said on a recent trip to the subcontinent:

“I had referred to India as a sleeping giant during my last visit to India in 2007. But I know the giant has started to wake up. I see a lot of improvement since 2007, although a lot more still needs to be done.”

In China, the likes of veteran French star Nicolas Anelka, along with top Argentinian Dario Conca (on a salary of about $10.5 million a year with Guangzhou Evergrande), are being lured to the Chinese Super League.

And, of course, the A-League lost one of its top drawcards when Adelaide United playmaker Marcos Flores moved to Henan Jianye to earn more than twice the amount he would have been on at Adelaide.

Going back to Wayne Swan’s recent speech, the Treasurer also mentioned Thailand and Indonesia as significant emerging players in Asia: “As incomes rise, the growing cities of the Asian century will be populated by an increasingly prosperous and ambitious Asian middle class.”

Add to these the likes of Malaysia, Vietnam and central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan and the tidal wave of potential football growth in the region is immense.

An illuminating debate took place recently between SBS football doyen Les Murray and football writer Mike Tuckerman, one of our foremost experts on Asian football (and a pundit whose knowledge of the topic far outstrips my own).

While Murray has lost some of his sheen and sparkle in recent times due to a number of matters, his knowledge of European football is still beyond reproach.

He made an argument in his blog at The World Game that Australian footballers might be better off in terms of development heading to Europe to play - in many cases in second-tier leagues - rather than play in something somewhere like the Chinese Super League.

“The J-League apart, it is probable that all of the leagues in Asia to which these players gravitate are inferior not superior to the A-League,” Murray said.

Tuckerman countered Murray’s argument by saying the SBS broadcaster was employing a double standard that turned a blind eye to the many Australian players that end up with less than stellar European clubs in very average leagues.

“It’s time we take the blinkers off and start trying to analyse Asian football. Because we’re being left behind on a technical level by Asian sides, as our media pines for the nostalgic days of yore when any half-decent Australian player had no other choice but to move to Europe,” Tuckerman said in his blog at The Roar.

I have sympathy for what Murray says. I think even just the exposure many Australian players get to the culture of European football - the history, passion, knowledge - can be beneficial not only to their playing career but also as transferred knowledge and passion when that player returns home and passes that knowledge on to fellow players and youngsters.

But Tuckerman has economics, history and time on his argument’s side.

Back to Swan again:

“Our choice will rest on the equally important decisions you and I need to make that
flow from two threshold questions: Do we have the courage and the wherewithal to
ensure we are not just on the right side of the world in the Asian Century, but also on
the right side of history? And can we make this the Australian Century in Asia, rather
than Australia hitching a ride as a passenger in the Asian Century?”

These questions are as pertinent to the FFA as they are to Australian businesses. By extension, as Australian football fans, they are important questions to us all.

To its credit, FFA recently outlined its approach to the issue in a 30-page submission titled ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ to the Federal Government.

The submission is an extended pitch for continued government funding to football, more particularly the FFA, on the basis of football’s popularity and potential in Asia and its capacity to foster cultural and trade relations between Australia and other Asian nations.

Of course, there is emphasis placed on the upcoming 2015 AFC Asian Cup to be hosted by Australia:

“Whilst a certain level of engagement is already occurring through football, it is clear that unless proactive steps are taken to establish new structures or processes, Australia will miss the opportunity to fully exploit the engagement possibilities provided through football in Asia.”

While the FFA appears to be working at this issue, having successfully entered the Asian fray on playing terms and now deepening that engagement by hosting an AFC Asian Cup tournament, the question has to be asked about how we plan to assert our place “on the right side” of the Asian century when our domestic game appears to be so sickly?

Will this window of opportunity presented by Asia pass us by, only to leave us once again at the periphery of world football? Will we end up as bit-players, surpassed in playing terms over the next 20 years by Asian countries riding the wave of population and middle-class wealth growth, football passion and cashed up domestic leagues?

In national team terms, we are now positioned in the top rank of Asian nations. But will this still be the case when the likes of India, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Iran, China and Uzbekistan catch up? Remember that it wasn’t really that long ago that Scotland and Hungary were regarded as strong football nations in Europe.

If we’re not engaged and vigilant, the words of another Labor treasurer, former PM Paul Keating, might better describe our situation: We could well become the “poor, white trash of Asia.”