Are Australia an unstoppable force in Asia?

Australia’s dominance at the ongoing AFF U15 tournament has restarted talk about whether the Aussies truly belong in Asia, but it’s not as straightforward as it looks.

A couple of years before they were admitted to the Asian Football Confederation in 2005, then AFC General Secretary, Malaysian Peter Velappan, told me that Australia would only be allowed to join the organisation over his ‘dead body.’

Not only did the nation swell the AFC’s membership but I’m happy to report that Velappan is still alive and healthy although it’s fair to say that the relationship between both parties has been far from a smooth one.

There remains to this day a strong wave of resentment towards Australia’s place in the AFC and in truth Football Federation Australia has often enhanced that feeling through the conduct and decisions of some of their leading officials.

The distrust over Australia’s place in Asia stems from several factors and whilst many will point to the belief that Australia is not an ‘Asian’ nation the chief concern is that the country has upset the competitive balance with the perception that they are continually qualifying for leading tournaments at the expense of other more ‘genuine’ Asian nations.

Let’s start by addressing the first issue over just what qualifies a nation to be classified as part of the AFC.

The notion of defining a region or social and cultural traits is a bigger one than just football but I think you’d find most people struggling to identify common strands between say Singapore and Lebanon, or Guam and Pakistan, or Japan and Turkmenistan, Bhutan and Jordan, or the Northern Mariana Islands and Saudi Arabia and on and on.

A vast swathe of land and water that encompasses a myriad of linguistic, cultural, social, religious, historical and behavioural norms there simply is not an overarching definition of what it means to be ‘Asian.’

As the recently released government census data from Australia also shows more than a quarter of that nation’s population are foreign-born and the majority of those are from ‘Asian’, not ‘European’ backgrounds.

The nation’s major cities are awash with a range of sounds, sights and tastes from all corners of the continent so Australia is well on the way, if not already there as I would contend, to being an ‘Asian’ nation despite what those elsewhere in Asia may think is stereotypically true.

If that’s the case then clearly Australia ‘belongs’ in the AFC but is their presence a help or a hindrance for both parties in terms of the football side of things?

Although nowhere in the realm of what multiple GCC nations or the big powers of East Asia can offer there are financial benefits to the continent but most prefer to look at how things are playing out on the pitch with the perception being that Australia is sweeping aside all comers.

Setting aside women’s football where Australia is a leading global force, it we look at men’s and youth football it’s clear that perception is not always reality.

Yes, Australia won the AFC Cup that they hosted in 2015 and Western Sydney lifted the ACL trophy a year earlier but at youth level the move has arguably been a disastrous one for Australia.

Prior to joining the AFC, Australia had qualified for every edition of the FIFA U17 World Cup bar one, since the switch they’ve done so just twice; neither has the U20 side reached either of the past two editions of that World Cup whilst the Olympic team also failed to qualify for the Brazilian Games last year.

So concerning was that in some quarters that the suggestion was even raised as to whether Australia might consider a switch back to Oceania.

The final issue then is just where does Australia belong at regional level and how serious are they about that responsibility?

Although the youth teams (U16 & U19) have been competing in AFF tournaments since they joined the AFC they have not done so consistently, declining to enter the 2010 & 2011 editions of the U16 championships and withdrawing from both the 2013 and 2015 Under 19 events, often with flimsy reasoning as to why.

The biggest snub of all though has been at senior level where Australia firstly accepted an ‘invitation’ to compete at the EAFF Championships in 2013 and has continued to avoid entering the region’s flagship competition, the Suzuki Cup, for the entirety of their AFC membership.

Speaking with FOX Sports Asia at last year’s Suzuki Cup in Myanmar, the AFF General-Secretary Sri Azzuddin Ahmad said this was a decision taken solely by the Australians.

“As much as we would like to have a world-class team participating, which is good for marketing and better value, it’s left up to the individual member association.

“On the first day of Australia coming to ASEAN they put it up front that they will not be participating in the Suzuki Cup but we sincerely hope they will review this stance because there have been suggestions and proposals by member countries to get Australia involved so I hope they will change their mind to come.”

Much of that debate around their involvement centred on Australia’s preference to send their Olympic team to compete in the tournament – a proposal that not only was extremely arrogant but also correctly rejected.

As recent matches against Thailand have shown and as those at youth level too have, there is no divine right or expectation that Australia will simply brush aside all comers in Southeast Asia.

One only has to look at the development work that is being done across the region – and less so in Australia – to realise that the balance of power is slowly but surely tilting.

That Australia’s U15 side progressed fairly casually through to the semifinals of the ongoing AFF U15 tournament has caused the usual hand wringing about their place in the region, but again it’s worth looking closer at the situation.

First, the fact that the team lost their opening match to group winners Thailand has been largely overlooked, and now they face a tricky match against a rapidly rising Vietnamese side.

The result of that match will show just how powerful or otherwise these young Australian teams actually are.

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