Dubious penalty aside, Australia lacks respect for Asian football

FOX Sports Australia’s Simon Hill gives his take on the 1-1 draw between Syria and Australia in Thursday’s 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying playoff first leg.

Perspective. It seems to be an ugly word among the Australian football fraternity at the moment – particularly when it comes to the national team.

The reaction to the 1-1 draw with Syria has been predictably brutal, and while it’s true the Socceroos would be disappointed with their second-half display in Melaka, these AFC playoffs have a history of being tight affairs, with the last seven such encounters all now ending in draws.

The first half, in particular, was an excellent display of controlled dominance by Australia, with Aaron Mooy again underlining why he is the ‘Roos most important player, with a range of sublime passes. Mathew Leckie and Robbie Kruse were the beneficiaries, both making some clever runs, with the former in particular looking much happier in his central role. The 3-2-4-1 system operated more efficiently, because, in my opinion, it contained a much better balance of personnel.

Yes, Syria still created a couple of chances, but by and large, Trent Sainsbury, Milos Degenek and Matt Jurman (very good on debut), were solid, and benefited from having the more defensively-minded Josh Risdon and Aziz Behich on the flanks.

Yet again, the failure to convert that dominance into a sizeable scoreboard advantage cost Australia dearly. When Tomi Juric hit the same post twice in the space of a few seconds, there was a creeping feeling of “déjà vu” that Syria were actually Thailand in disguise, and would pinch something.

So it proved. Ayman Al-Hakeem’s substitutions (like Ange Postecoglou’s) were attacking ones, and in Firas Al-Khatib they had the game changer they needed. In the final analysis, they probably deserved the draw for their second-half display.

But that moves us onto the contentious points.

Firstly, the accusation that Australia were again sub-standard. Sorry, but on this occasion, I don’t agree.

I’ve been happy to dish out criticism to the team (and Ange) when they have deserved it, and I stand by my belief that their recent refusal to even acknowledge there should BE discussions regarding their performances is not only wrong, but counter-productive. It smacked ever so slightly of arrogance, the sort of which I never thought I’d see from an Ange Postecoglou-led team.

But in Melaka, aside of failing to kill the game off, they didn’t do much wrong.

In pretty tough conditions, and with only one full training session with the entire squad together, they put in a display that on most days, would have been good enough to win.

That they didn’t, was down to an awful refereeing decision – Leckie’s contact on Omar Al-Somah was minimal, and ref Alireza Faghani shouldn’t have awarded a penalty.

Now, I am not advocating a conspiracy here, but I will say this on Faghani.

With Iran and Syria having close political ties, there is no way the AFC should have put an Iranian ref in charge of this first leg. It’s possible Faghani has made a mistake, or that he truly believes he made the right decision – and in fairness, he’s been a top ref in Asia for many years.

But by putting him in charge, the AFC have left their official open to a different interpretation – and he should never have been put in that position. Why fly an Iranian ref (and his assistants) halfway across Asia when you could have had a Korean, or Japanese, or South East Asian ref?

Aside of refereeing decisions, the other big problem for Australia is that we still pay lip service towards Asian football. Most people have little interest in, and even less respect for, any of the AFC nations (Japan and South Korea being the exceptions), and the pre & post-game commentary reflects this.

The proof? Many people were happily predicting a cricket score against Thailand, despite recent history suggesting a totally different outcome. It was the same before the game against Syria. Yet these nations live and breathe football, investing whatever money they have available in the game, and producing some terrific players.

In Melbourne, it was Chanathip Songkrasin that proved to be the thorn in Australia’s side. In Melaka, it was Al-Khatib, a player of true quality.

Yet the support crew wasn’t bad either. Left-back Moayad Al-Ajan plays for Zamalek, who along with Al-Ahly, is the biggest in Egypt. Omar Al-Soma and Omar Khribin operate under serious pressure for successful clubs in Saudi Arabia, where both have excelled. Yet the average Joe (or Joanna) remains oblivious to anything Asian – preferring instead to obsess over the Premier League or La Liga, or the other codes.

This disdain towards Asia extends to the A-League, where the only AFC-qualified player on show in the 2017/18 season (excluding the naturalised Aussie, Ali Abbas), will be Western Sydney Wanderers’ Jumpei Kusukami. That’s one out of 44 visa players, from ‘our’ continent – could there be a more damning indictment of our views on the region to which we belong? The clubs continue to fight tooth and nail against the AFC ‘plus one’ rule to bring us into line with the rest of Asia too – despite the fact our players benefit from it hugely going the other way!

Until we start giving Asian football the respect it deserves, we’ll keep getting frustrated and angry – and keep getting nasty surprises. Joining AFC was never about gaining ‘easier’ passage to the World Cup – it was about a fairer, and more consistently challenging path.

We’ve certainly got that. We should embrace it.