Thursday, January 31, 2019
Is AFF Suzuki Cup Ready For Australia Or Are The Socceroos Too Big For ASEAN
Today the Australian Football Federation announced it would be looking to compete in the AFF Suzuki Cup 2020 for the first time. Despite having been a member of the ASEAN Football Federation for a number of years now the Socceroos have till now not tried to take part in the largest international competition in the region.
One of the reasons why it is so large is because many competing nations genuinely believe they have a chance of winning the biennial tournament despite the seeming clamp like hold Singapore and Thailand have had over recent years.
In the 12 events since the competition was introduced in 1996 the Thais have won the trophy while Singapore have triumphed on four occasions. Vietnam (who won the title for the second time in 2019 and Malaysia are the other winners).
Interest in the AFF Suzuki Cup has grown over the years and I am not just talking about sponsorship. Budget airlines and an increasing middle class have seen more and more supporters, especially from Indonesia and Malaysia, travelling round the region to watch their heroes where once away support was limited to a smattering of locally based expats, students and embassy staff given a little flag to wave.
In 2010 I recall being at both Indonesian semi finals and both legs of the final with Malaysia along with more than 360,000 other supporters! That's a lot of bums on seats. Imagine the TV viewing numbers.
Many in Australia have been calling for greater integration with their neighbours to the north but for much of the country South East Asia evokes images of Bali, Bangkok and other beaches. There is little understanding of the countries that make up ASEAN let alone its football. When Sydney were drawn with Persik in the AFC Champions League the Aussies expected just to turn up and win for example.
|Australia winning 2008 AFF Under 16 Championship in Jakarta|
Indeed Perth Glory have even mooted the idea of playing home games in ASEAN hoping to boost their profile, an idea that comes with the right intentions but could be perceived as arrogance across the Java Sea in countries which already boast their own active leagues and football cultures.
The issue of national pride and sovereignty is also at stake. ASEAN as an economic/political grouping which prides itself on non-interference in each others' internal affairs. Hence the silence over Myanmar and its treatment of the Rohingya. Australia on the other hand tends to be more vocal on such matters, witness the efforts being made to force Thailand to release Bahraini footballer Hakeem el Araibi who claimed refugee status in Australia but is now being held in Thailand as it processes an extradition appeal from Bahrain.
Sadly politics and football cannot be easily separated in the region and undoubtedly Australia's vocal support for Hakeem sits uncomfortably with a Thai government who would prefer people talked about its beaches and its friendly people rather than such a political hot potato. Australia's public utterances also feed into local, nationalist sentiments in countries where colonial memories/foreign interference still hold great sway.
Putting aside the politics, and I wish we could, how about at a football level. Australia is a sporting nature with a culture that loves to win. When they lose the whining doesn't stop for ages! Would the Socceroos come into the AFF Suzuki Cup and steamroller the opposition aside? No doubt they would be strong at home but what about on their travels? Would they be able to handle a wet Tuesday in Jakarta? The infrastructure? The poor facilities?
Australia have reached the last four World Cups, winning a massive two games in their 13 games. They have had better luck in the AFC Asian Cup, winning in 2015, when they hosted the event, and runners up in 2011. The worry among many in ASEAN is among weaker sides Australia would dominate their most important trophy to the extent it loses its appeal. From Hanoi to Jayapura it is in no-one's interest to see this competition so thoroughly dominated by one country.
If Australia were to enter the competition it would require the existing sides to really up their game and I am not sure they are all able to. Would there be a desire among ASEAN associations to back their national sides to the extent they can prepare fully for trips to Sydney or Brisbane or Perth or would they plead poverty and book the cheapest flights with the cheapest hotels for the shortest stay?
I get that there have been suggestions Australia could enter an Under 23 team because they wouldn't want to disrupt their domestic competition. That would not be a good idea. Indeed, that would just be seen as cheapening what is for hundreds of millions of people the highlight on the international calendar.
As you can probably tell by my garbled meanderings in this post I am undecided. Absolutely, there should be a greater integration between ASEAN and Australia. Long term, and that I think is key, it would benefit all sides. But I am not sure entering the AFF Suzuki Cup now is the best way to achieve this. Personally I would like to see a club competition, much like the Bang Yos pre season event in Jakarta (programme pictured left), where clubs from the region go toe to toe. Alongside this I would like to see Australia engage with ASEAN nations in friendlies, perhaps along the lines of a Thai King's Cup or Malaysia's old Merdeka Tournament. I think adopting such a twin track approach would convince ASEAN Australia is serious about engaging with the region on the football pitch and is not just looking to win an 'easy' trophy or improve their own FIFA ranking at the expense of football development in their own backyard.
PS Tira Merger With Persikabo Raises Questions
Once upon a time there was a team called PS TNI. Not a team so much, more the armed forces Football Association who would ocasionaly muster a team to play against the national team or club sides in friendlies. As a team associated with the military and only playing on a ad-hoc basis, they didn't of course have a natural fan base but for some reason in South East Asia that doesn't seem to be an issue, at least for club owners.
When the domestic league was suspended in 2015 we saw a period of rough and ready competitions cobbled together to keep players busy, turnstiles clicking and TV stations paying. With no oversight from FIFA, or AFC, it was basically anything goes and into this vacuum leaped the military, and the police, with their own teams and fans were remarkably underwhelmed to see PS TNI and PS Polri playing proper games against proper teams.
PS TNI merged with PSMS with gave them a sheen of legitimacy in the eyes of the PSSI and allowed them to compete in the stop gap competitions. However PSMS later decided they wanted to go their own way again so PS TNI looked around for another way to be piggy backed into the top flight of Indonesian football, eventually 'merging' with Papuan side Persiram. It was a take over to all intents and purposes and now Persiram has all but ceased to exist.
So for the unofficial, in the eyes of the rest of the football world, we had PS TNI playing in the Indonesia Soccer Championship at Pakansari Stadium, Cibinong, a stadium far too large for their support, much of which was bussed in from local military barracks.
When the FIFA ban was lifted PS TNI remained in the rebranded Liga 1 and kept playing home games in Cibinong. A club with no fan base playing at one of the nicest venues in the country. Meanwhile the real local side, Persikabo, were struggling against relegation from Liga 2, deprived of cash yet possessing a more than decent fan base of their own.
The 2017 season was a constant struggle against relegation for an inconsistent PS TNI and it wasn't until coach Rudy Eka Priyambada came in that the team settled down and eventually ended in a comfortable mid table position. Persikabo could find dug-out saviour and ended the campaign bottom and heading for the ignominy of Liga 3.
For 2018 the powers that be decided what PS TNI needed was a rebrand so the name was changed to PS Tentara Indonesia Rakyat (Indonesian People's Army), or PS Tira for short and the club 350 miles east to Bantul in Yogyakarta. At least they had no fan base to worry about upsetting.
If the move was expected to attract more supporters it didn't work as crowds averaged less than 1500 at their new home and most of those would have been away supporters! Again the team struggled on the pitch despite the 21 goals of Aleksander Rakic and they only just escaped relegation. I guess the humiliation of PSMS and PS Tira going down would have been too great!
Perhaps in response to the poor attendances but a few weeks back PS Tira announced they would be returning to Cibinong and the rest of the football world was left wondering what had been the point of the Bantul experiment in the first place? There are military associated teams throughout South East Asia but none attract sizeable followings because, umm, they are military associated teams. Supporters are keen to follow new teams but not ones coloured with uniform influences.
Today comes the news PS Tira have merged with Liga 3 side Persikabo and for the 2019 season will be known as PS Tira Persikabo which translates as Football Association Tentara Indonesia Rakyat Football Association Indonesia Kabupaten Bogor!
One the one hand Persiram/PS TNI/PS Tira/PS Tira Persikabo seem to have learnt one lesson from their travels and that is to try and build an identity with the local community. On the other hand the military connection continues to loom large. And what about the Persikabo supporters, known as Kabomania (pictured left)? What do they feel about this merger? Were they involved in the process?
There is more to Kabomania than just a bunch of supporters on the terraces. They run a thriving SSB (football academy) and are a massive part of the Cibinong community. How are they going to react to seeing PS Tira just roll up and take over? The original Persikabo will apparently continue playing in Liga 3, under PS Tira management, which begs the question. What is in it for Persikabo and their faithful supporters?