Socceroos to rival Ashes Test: O'Neill
World Cup fever might have Socceroo fans thinking of only one thing right now - Germany 2006 - but Australia's move into Asia is far more important in the longer term.
So says Football Federation Australia chief executive John O'Neill, predicting the day when a Socceroos-China clash will rank up there with an Ashes cricket Test.
As Australian medicos in Holland busy themselves with Harry Kewell's groin and Tim Cahill's knee ahead of their opening match against Japan on June 12, football officials back at home are spreading the Asian gospel to the big end of town.
Billionaire Frank Lowy's new administration believes moving from Oceania into Asia has economic repercussions that make it more significant than establishing the successful A-League and even making it to the World Cup finals for the first time in 32 years.
"It is without doubt the most transforming event we have been able to achieve," O'Neill said.
"Whilst World Cup qualification is absolutely wonderful, the long-term effects of the move into Asia are far more significant.
"We have moved into the largest and fastest growing football economy in the world.
"We arguably will be the only mainstream sport in Australia to engage in Asia in a meaningful and symbolic way.
"This hasn't hit people between the eyes yet as much as it will in the future," he told a business luncheon attended by Sydney Airport CEO Max Moore-Wilton, Boeing chairman Andrew Peacock, former Sydney Lord Mayor Lucy Turnbull and NRL boss David Gallop.
"In years to come Australia versus China, Australia versus Japan, Australia versus Iran, Australia versus Vietnam, Australia versus any of the major powers in this massive bloc called Asia, will be equivalent to clashes between England and Australia in cricket."
"We are moving into scale, we are moving into critical mass."
O'Neill, who recently brokered a seven-year $120 million pay-TV deal with Fox Sports, also forecast the day when the major commercial free-to-air networks would want a slice of the soccer action.
It might take five to 10 years before "free-to-air says we must have that", he said.
"But we are on the right path."
He said the chronic clubs-versus-country tug-of-war would continue over the mostly European-based Socceroos, but world body FIFA would insist on player availability for FIFA-sanctioned dates.
"I think the full force of FIFA will come down on the clubs to release players," he said.
He forecast that more A-League players would force their way into the national side, and that overseas-based Socceroos would have a greater desire to come home for more meaningful matches in the Asian Cup and World Cup qualifiers, rather than friendlies.
As for the World Cup, O'Neill said the Socceroos had booked accommodation "right through to (the final in) Berlin on July 9".
"The past few World Cups have produced many surprises, and I think we will be one of those surprises this time," he said.
"I believe we have the ability, the temperament and the never-say-die attitude to go into the second round, and from then on it's knockout football.
"I think the Socceroos will do something very special in Germany."