Time for Australia to embrace Asia
"We're not used to this!" said Brett Emerton as Australia arrived in Bangkok for the 2007 Asian Cup. Fans and journalists swamped the players at the airport; it was the full rock star treatment. Everywhere you looked was a familiar face. Harry Kewell was with Thailand's beloved Liverpool, Mark Viduka had scored goals against some of Europe's best clubs, Everton's Tim Cahill had been one of the best performers at the World Cup the previous year, Mark Schwarzer, Emerton and Lucas Neill were English Premier League stalwarts during its golden age while midfielders Vince Grella and Mark Bresciano were Serie A regulars.
The Asian Cup had never seen such a team, such glamour and one night in Bangkok didn't make these hard men humble. Captain Neill predicted that they would win the trophy without losing a game and Emerton promised sexy football. Neither came to pass. Even in the Thai capital, a city where the definition of sexy is pretty broad, the new kids did not thrill and were booted off the block at the quarter-final stage.
Okay, so Australia's introduction to Asia – they joined the AFC in 2006 - may not have gone according to plan but by the time qualification for the 2010 World Cup came around, they seemed to have it sorted. The road to South Africa was the smoothest of strolls. It wasn't exactly pretty but the job was done with the minimum of fuss. This Australia team never knew when it was beaten. There was an aura.
But the aura has dimmed, the fear factor has gone and the gold jersey just doesn't seem so splendid any more. Australia are still one of the big boys but they are now beatable. Oman recently left Sydney disappointed to draw 2-2 while the hosts were thankful for only a sixth point in five games in the final round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup. It was the men from Muscat who played the better football, who were more fluid and who looked like they wanted it more.
In the past, Australia just looked bigger, perhaps it was the tight shirts, but while the size is still there the stature is not. The country's coming out party in the modern football world was that 3-1 win over Japan in 2006 and while the left half of the teamsheet was the likes of Liverpool, Everton, Torino, PSV Eindhoven and Newcastle United, the Samurai Blue side was mostly J.League.
Now, Australian players in regular action in the best leagues in the world are much harder to spot. The golden generation is older and the replacements don't match up. In the game against Oman, the starting line-up still had the eternal Mark Schwarzer in goal from Fulham, but elsewhere, the big leagues were represented by relegation battlers Aston Villa and Fortuna Dusseldorf. Today's Japan stars play for Manchester United, Inter Milan and all kinds of Bundesliga clubs. It is not only in the final round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup where the East Asian giants have left their rivals down under far behind.
Modern Socceroos are just as likely to be found in UAE, Qatar and China as in England, Germany or Italy. Increasingly Asian fans, players and media can see Aussie internationals week in and week out and can see that they are no better than the locals. Korea was the keenest importer but of the seven Australian players ] in the K League, perhaps only two would be regarded as automatic starters for their clubs.
Familiarity has not bred contempt but even middle-ranking nations are content to be drawn against the Aussies these days. This is partly natural and it would have happened anyway but it has come sooner than expected. And it is not just the senior team. In qualification for the 2012 Olympics, Uzbekistan, Iraq and UAE were shocked at the performances of the Olyroos, who incredibly failed to score in six games.
And then there is the style of play. Top Aussie players struggle to go to the best clubs in England these days but the old English influence is still strong. Holger Osieck's team has been plodding, predictable and Plan B-free for too long while the likes of UAE and Oman are increasingly playing a slick passing game with players comfortable on the ball and full of pace and skill.
Perhaps it is necessary. Australia arrived in 2007 as a European team ready to conquer a territory seen as foreign and weak and while it was fun at first, it was never going to be a route to long-term success. More players in Asia at the expense of Europe may be lamented in the local media but if it makes Australia more Asian in a football sense then it is no bad thing. It could be that a few defeats at the hands of nations that would, until recently, have been seen as pushovers may bring sputnik-like realisations that there is much for Australia to learn from the giant continent. A few years ago, asking what Oman could teach would probably have elicited an answer of time-wasting and diving. Now though, it is clear that there is more.
Asia may not fear Australia any more but there is still respect. The next step is Australia respecting Asia. Perhaps then A-League coaches will consider Asian players more, perhaps the clubs will consider Asian coaches and perhaps the media will consider Asian football. The fear factor is gone but perhaps so is the barrier that has stopped Australia really embracing the continent to the north.