• Matt Olsen

The time has come for Australia to take its place in the South-East Asian game

The 2021 AFF Suzuki Cup in Singapore - South-East Asia's premier football competition - concludes tonight when Thailand face Indonesia in the Final Second Leg.


Later this month, the Socceroos will also face South-East Asian heavyweights Vietnam in a crucial World Cup Qualifier, with football in the region booming at the moment.


But Australia's refusal to participate within the ASEAN association is questionable when increasing such involvement would have cultural and professional benefits.

 

It was only after a nail-biting Asian Cup Final against Japan in 2011 that Australia agreed to join the East Asian Football Federation (EAFF) Cup in 2013.


That tournament had proven vital to the Socceroos, as a fair chunk of players unfamiliar with the international game were given a rare opportunity to impress.


The likes of Aaron Mooy and Adam Taggart were involved, with Mooy still in Western Sydney, whilst Taggart was the A-League's top goalscorer at the time.


Mooy has achieved truly great things in the game, whilst Taggart has played a role so far in 2022 World Cup qualifiers and remains in Graham Arnold's plans.

You can see with a similar opportunity provided how those involved may benefit; it's a time for the Australian game to utilise such a boost on the international stage.


The powers that be must take the thought seriously.


However, it's a tricky balance for the FA, and I do not by any means envy their position.


The sub-confederations have been a recent phenomenon that Australia hasn't conceptualised yet, and certainly one that raises very little revenue or interest.


You can logically think that this stance makes perfect sense for the average Australian football fan; no one would care for such participation.


The minimal revenue doesn't stack up; it also may culturally feel like a bit of an invasion.


"They wouldn't want us" is the stance most take on this topic.


The denial of the facts is challenging; even passionate football fans are not losing sleep to watch the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Suzuki Cup.


The thought process may have been vindicated in all honesty; this years edition wasn't especially viewer-friendly.


Thailand boasts an exciting squad with familiar names to lovers of the Asian game, such as J-League mainstay Chanathip Songkrasin, ex-Ligue 1 defender Tristan Do, and cult hero Teerasil Dangda.


Dangda became the Suzuki Cup's all-time top goalscorer, having helped Thailand signal their silverware credentials by winning Group A.


Indonesia placed above Vietnam in Group B, but Thailand's 4-0 triumph in the first leg of the decider has ultimately denied fans of the tightly-contested heavyweight final the tournament deserved.


There were thrashings galore at the hands of minnows such as Cambodia, Laos and East-Timor, whilst there were underwhelming showings from nations on the rise, namely the Philippines.


The point is that the attitude previously held by Australian fans may still garner a fresh load of weight.


However, there is rising respect for what South-East Asian nations offer from many within the Australian football scene.


Many of Australian football's most prominent pundits have praised the game's growth in certain ASEAN nations.


They have highlighted how the domestic scene is also benefitting from increased investment and an improved foreign influence, making it a potentially more significant threat in the future.


An unrivalled passion from their fans also underlines the untapped potential these nations have to offer.

Vietnam's Under 23s came home to wild fanfare after a successful 2018 Asian Cup campaign. (VN Express)


All of these factors are entirely true, and that's why Australia's participation could become a vital catalyst for its diversification on and off the pitch.


For starters, the Suzuki Cup takes place outside of FIFA's international windows, meaning a weaker, perhaps all A-League Men XI could go and compete.


The likes of Thailand and Vietnam would still miss European-based players of their own accord.


Some nations at this year's tournament still made clubs release their players, but only those on the fringe.


There is no reason why a similar situation couldn't arise for Australian players.


As for the argument of the quality of opponents, the AFF has been working hard to form an equivalent to Europe's domestic Super Cup competitions.


The ASEAN champions would face the champions of the EAFF in a FIFA window.


A full-strength side could thus potentially face Japan or South Korea, a fixture Australia would undoubtedly relish.


However, it is worth noting that both editions of the AFF-EAFF Championship have been cancelled during the pandemic, though certainly, it is one to look out for in the future.


On the domestic front, at this moment in time, the A-League Men on coefficient lies behind both Malaysia and the Philippines' top tiers, fifth overall in the ASEAN rankings.


Suppose they participate in the AFC Cup - Asia's secondary club competition - in 2023, Australian clubs will be directly involved with ASEAN members.


The experience of such participation will only likely grow an understanding and respect of the South-East Asian game.


It will also help Australian football develop through a tournament it previously saw as insignificant.

The last fixture between an Australian side and a ASEAN club was in 2020. (The AFC)


Culturally, football and political commentators could say a lot about the differences between Australia and South-East Asia.


When Thailand's English-based player, Ben Davis, was denied entry into Singapore, there was controversy.


This situation had arisen following a claim that Davis selfishly defected from conscription when he carried dual-citizenship in Singapore.


As a teen, he signed a contract with Fulham in England.


But his exemption for conscripted service on sporting grounds was denied.


It meant that Davis had essentially become a fugitive facing extremely negative views in Singapore over his and his family's character.


Today, such a debate in Australia would be seen as outrageous and undoubtedly condemned.


The cultural argument is significant, although it's the even more enormous benefit one must consider.


Australia's relations with the ASEAN as a whole could increase, leading to more diplomatic ties with the association.


This diplomacy could help mend some rocky relationships, particularly with the likes of Indonesia.


Using sport for such a conversation is not all that complicated and has become an essential tool of 21st-century life.


Australia has that going for them, the way I view it.


Football-wise, South-East Asia is a booming area.


Australia would have a deeper awareness of what these nations offer.


These nations have a culture worthy of respect from Australian football circles.


A fandom is deeply rooted in the game, more so than in Australia.


The FA have the power to help diplomacy both on and off the pitch if they want to.


It's on this very premise that increased participation in South-East Asian football can only come with benefits and promise now and in the future.