Australia still can’t get no AFF respect

John Duerden John Duerden

John Duerden takes a look at why, despite their relative success, Australia continue to get no respect from their fellow AFF members.

There was pride and some excitement – and plenty of jealousy – in the ASEAN region last year when Thailand made it to the last dozen of the Asian World Cup qualification. It was a representative team from Southeast Asia ready to do battle with the best on the continent.

There was a team playing at the AFF Suzuki Cup one minute against the likes of Myanmar and then taking on Japan in front of 60,000 at Saitama Stadium the next. It gave the whole area a lift. If Thailand can do it, why can’t Malaysia, Vietnam or the Philippines? And if those teams can beat the team drawing with continental champions Australia in a major World Cup qualifier, then it really does give confidence and encouragement.

Yet there is an ASEAN team that has come much closer to Russia 2018 than Thailand. One that is just 270 minutes away from heading to the biggest competition in sport. One that was playing in Malaysia on Thursday evening and getting a good result, a 1-1 draw in the first leg of the two-leg showdown.

Yet while Australia have been a member of the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) since 2013, their World Cup play-off against Syria went almost unnoticed in the region. There were no special reports by local press in Vietnam or Cambodia backing the Socceroos in their quest and wondering what it all meant for ASEAN football. There were no major messages of support from prominent regional football figures who would love to see one of their own on the biggest stage of all.

There was pretty much nothing. The game was covered as an important game in its own right but little ASEAN slant was given to the clash.

Speak to people in the region and there are different attitudes to Australia being part of the federation.

Many simply are unaware. Australia’s youth teams have participated at various youth tournaments in the region but the senior side have not appeared in the senior competition – the AFF Suzuki Cup. This biennial meet is a big deal partly because of regional pride and also because it gives nations that struggle to qualify for Asian Cups, let alone win such prizes, an attainable trophy.

There are reasons why Australia has never participated. Inviting a team that likes to win Asian Cups and reach the knockout stages of World Cups to the AFF competition would naturally lessen the chances of others winning. ASEAN teams have enough experience of losing to the best in Asia in other sectors and don’t really wish to invite giants to their own backyard.

Australia would lift the standard of the competition but the standard is not what it is about. It is about beating neighbours and standing on that regional podium, looking down on all your rivals. Australia are not really part of that, the Socceroos would be something of a stranger at a very local event.

There is also the more pragmatic fact that it would not be easy to fit Australia in. There will be two groups of five in the 2018 version. Australia could enter qualification for that along with the likes of Brunei but would surely win.

Persuading the minnows to basically give their chance up would not be easy with the benefits from doing so uncertain. The competition could be expanded to include more teams, basically the entire federation, but it already lies in a crowded calendar and given the new format where all teams will play some games at home next year, Australia adds lots of travel time.

Yet if Australia do not participate in AFF’s showpiece event, then the question as to why the country is part of the federation at all will not go away. Until that happens, the two sides will never even have a chance to create a feeling of fellowship.

It is no secret that Australia’s entry into the AFC has not been universally popular, especially in the west of the continent. Southeast Asia has been much more positive but there still could be a great deal more done in terms of engagement.

Australian clubs could be more active in trying to sign players from the region. After all, Thailand showed the Socceroos the talent that exists. If a number of Southeast Asian players were active in the A-League, it would be big news indeed.

In an ideal footballing world, there would be real pride in Bangkok, Manila, Singapore etc that a federation co-member was so close to the World Cup. South-east Asian fans should be cheering for Australia against Syria but at the moment few know, feel or care that Australia is an AFF team.