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.