Australia has long had a mixed relationship with Southeast Asia. There has been much talk in Canberra of forging closer ties with the region of around 700 million people to the north and the benefits this would bring economically, diplomatically and politically. Actions have not always matched the rhetoric but football may be able to show the way.
Back in 2006, Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). In football terms, the country felt it had outgrown the Oceania confederation and wanted more games against better opposition at all levels. Financially too, the world’s biggest continent had much to offer.
In 2013, Australia also joined the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF), one of five sub-federations in Asia (along with West, Central, South and East). These don’t have much of a public profile being best-known for organizing regional tournaments. In some parts of the continent, these competitions are used as little more than training exercises by traditional powerhouses such as Japan and South Korea but Southeast Asia is different.
The biennial AFF Suzuki Cup is a big deal. In the two-legged final of the 2018 edition, 90,000 fans turned out in Kuala Lumpur and there were 40,000 in Hanoi for the second leg, as Vietnam defeated Malaysia to provoke night-long celebrations.
Australia has never participated despite its membership, partly because the Socceroos, as the men’s national team is nicknamed, were seen as too strong. Australia won the 2015 Asian Cup and has been a feature at the World Cup since 2006. One reason why the AFF Suzuki Cup is so important is that Southeast Asia has long underachieved on the continental and global stage despite an undoubted love for the game. ASEAN national teams rarely made the Asian Cup or got anywhere near the World Cup so the regional prize offers a rare chance of silverware and is fiercely-contested.
The situation has changed a little of late as Football Federation Australia (FFA) boss David Gallop explained recently. “Part of our evolution with our relationship in ASEAN is to now look at the Suzuki Cup which traditionally has been felt that we were too strong for, but as many of those nations increase their playing strength, and taking into account Australia’s ability to be a key commercial rights market, it’s certainly worth exploring.”
As Gallop said, Southeast Asia is improving (and, whisper it quietly, Australia is not quite as good as it used to be). Thailand and Vietnam not only qualified for the 2019 Asian Cup held last month, but both progressed to the knockout stages. Their players are starting to move overseas and their clubs are starting to impress in the Asian Champions League. To put it simply: the gap between the best teams in Southeast Asia and Australia, if it exists at all, is not as wide as it once was.
With the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said to be in favor of the move into the AFF Suzuki Cup and closer engagement with nearby countries and trading partners, it could happen.
“There certainly could be a benefits for both sides with Australia playing more tournament football,” former Australia international Robbie Cornthwaite, who also ended his club career in Malaysia, told Asia Times. “It would also benefit Australia in becoming more of a part of the region.”
The reaction from leading ASEAN nations seems to be positive. “For us, it is no problem,” Somyot Poompanmoung, the president of the Football Association of Thailand, said. “Australia would improve the tournament but everyone has to agree.”
Some of the weaker members of the 11-nation sub-federation, such as Brunei, Laos and Timor Leste, may take some more convincing. The addition of another strong team into the mix means more chance of heavy defeats but the prospect of greater commercial revenues from the tournament may help persuade the doubters.
The one major sticking point is likely to be a logistical one. The Suzuki Cup takes place in November and December which comes in the middle of the domestic league season in Australia.
“The format of the tournament doesn’t suit Australia,” Cornthwaite said. “It’s played in the European season and also the A-League season so no club will be willing to give up their players for six weeks. There’s a lot to be worked out for it to happen.”