In January 2015, Australia will host its first major international football tournament, the AFC Asian Cup. It’s a competition that represents a number of unique challenges for Football Federation Australia and for the game in this country but, at the same time, holds a huge amount of potential on and off the field.
For a few weeks, football fans – and indeed all sport fans – in Australia will have a huge, multi-national competition in their own backyard with the Qantas Socceroos arguably the favourites to claim their first piece of major silverware.
For a sport-loving nation like Australia, it sounds like a no-brainer, an easy sell, but hosting a major competition like this is not without its hurdles, both logistical and social, and the local organising committee (LOC) face a daunting job of not only delivering a successful tournament but convincing the public at large to get involved.
LOC CEO Michael Brown is the man charged with laying all the foundations for the Asian Cup, from looking after a massive influx of foreign media to development of stadiums and working with government and business to maximise the tournament’s potential to deliver ongoing benefits.
“We’re building a platform,” Brown says. “We want to leave a legacy – we often talk about how good it’s going to be – but what is it? How do we define it?
“The Asian Cup is only secondary by a small margin to the World Cup. So in 2014 if the Socceroos qualify, and everyone tells me they will, we will have a FIFA World Cup followed by the Asian Cup six months later, so there’s a real opportunity for this sport to make a mark in the sporting calendar.
“We’ll see other legacies in the fact that we need to upgrade some stadia and venues, and they will be local football facilities. Teams will be looking to play on facilities that are absolutely world class, and we’ve got to prepare 10 warm-up facilities across the eastern seaboard and that’s an obvious benefit.”
Of course, it’s Brown’s job to talk up the benefits of hosting the tournament to the game but many remain cynical as to just how much public support the tournament will receive, and what it will actually deliver to the game, players and fans.
And following the failed World Cup bid, some media pundits are eager to express their doubts over FFA’s ability to turn this event into a success.
But for Brown, this isn’t just about FFA and its critics; the Asian Cup is a nation-building opportunity.
“The lack of awareness of what the Asian Cup is is one of our biggest challenges,” Brown says.
“We’re talking to key people, we’re talking to A-League clubs, and we’re talking to governments to make sure people understand this isn’t just a football event; it’s about how we link with Asia in so many other ways, from tourism to trade and investment, and how socially we work with Asia and football is the only sport that connects with all of Asia.”
To most football fans, talk of trade development is an immediate turn-off that has nothing to do with the game but it’s because of these opportunities for business that governments continue to pour money into football – and billionaires buy clubs – even while the code’s critics grind their teeth in frustration.
“There are 46 countries vying to play in this event and all of them are Asian-based, and we’re part of Asia.
"Whereas cricket goes through west Asia, to India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, football goes right through Asia to Oman, and Uzbekistan. We’ll see a rich culture of 2.5 billion people could be watching this on TV, so it’s important we connect our community – we want good crowds to every match.
“[The Cup] will leave a legacy between business football and government. If we can establish relationships that go beyond the event in a business and social sense that will be very important, and we can enhance the relationship with our four biggest trading partners – Japan, China, India and South Korea.”
There is also a cultural shift required, with Asian football struggling to capture the imagination of all but the most dedicated fans in Australia, as opposed to the big European leagues on the other side of the world, with which in reality we have only a tenuous historical connection.
But again, Brown is a glass-half-full type and rather than dwell on the challenges, he’s at pains to point out that football offers a unique cultural avenue to connect with our global neighbours.
With the federal government’s Australia in the Asian Century white paper due to be released later this year, Australia’s relationship with Asia is about to redefined – and football has the potential to be a major part of that, perhaps more than any other cultural aspect
“I’m sure there are some of us who are monarchists and those who won’t [want to go further into Asia] but the reality is we are geographically part of Asia, we’re closer to Asia than we are to England as part of the Commonwealth.
“We are starting to establish the opportunities for the business future, which can only bring to a young country like ours incredible business opportunities and social learning.
"This is the cultural shift and the embracing of Asia is only good for the prosperity of our country.”
Part 2 of this interview will be published tomorrow and look at the criticism the competition has faced.