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May 22, 2008

Super June for Socceroos

You know there is an embarrassment of Australian footballing riches when a game involving Zinedine Zidane has to play second fiddle. Super June is the name of an incredible three weeks during which the Socceroos are involved in four 2010 World Cup qualifying matches and Australia's women's team, the Matildas compete in the 2008 AFC Asian Cup. The month begins with a June 1st exhibition match that sees Zidane lead an invitational XI - comprising several members of France's 1998 World Cup-winning side and coached by Aime Jacquet - against a Socceroos team from the same era, captained by ex-Manchester United and Aston Villa goalkeeper, Mark Bosnich. The Zizou game starts at 2.30pm in Sydney but later that same Sunday - kicking off at 5pm - Australia face a crucial World Cup qualifier against Asian champions, Iraq, in Brisbane, 980 kilometres north. So, on the first afternoon of winter, football fans can turn back the clock to see the likes of Zidane, Robert Pires, Bixente Lizarazu and Marcel Desailly facing up to Bosnich, Stan Lazaridis, Craig Foster and Tony Vidmar and then catch Harry Kewell, Mark Schwarzer and Brett Emerton trying to get revenge on Iraq after their shock 3-1 defeat of the Socceroos last July. Kewell is actually eligible for both matches having also played in the ill-fated 1998 World Cup campaign, scoring over two legs as Australia lost to Iran on the away-goals rule to miss out on the finals in France. Twenty four hours later, on June 2nd, the Matildas face regional giants, Japan, in their final group match in the AFC Women's Asian Cup in Hanoi. And the flurry of international activity comes after Sydney hosts the FIFA World Congress, Australia's under-23 side, the Olyroos, return from a successful pre-Beijing tournament in Malaysia and Adelaide United celebrate becoming the first Aussie team to qualify for the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League. On top of all that, Football Federation Australian (FFA) officials are putting in a very serious bid to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup and have also thrown their hat into the ring to stage the 2009 and 2010 FIFA Club World Cups. Australia's audacious World Cup bid has the backing of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who, after appearing in a recent photo call with Harry Kewell in Sydney, had to deny that he was favouring soccer over the country's three other major football codes. Kewell, who had just stepped off the plane from the U.K, presented Rudd with the Socceroos' number 18 jersey to mark the year the Australia intends hosting football's premier event. 'No more injuries, please Harry, no injuries,' joked Rudd who was elected Prime Minister over the Rugby-loving John Howard last December. Truth to be told, the intellectually-minded Rudd has never been much of a sports' fan. That's probably why he can look at the big picture and know that the round ball game is starting to generate so much power and influence in his nation. Standing next to Kewell and other members of Australia's national teams, he added: 'This game of football is the world game. The Socceroos, the Matildas, are our diplomats. More people around the world observe what they do than ever observe any speech I deliver, anywhere.' You can bet that officials from Australian Rules Football, Rugby League and Rugby Union - and possibly John O'Neill - the ARU Chief Executive and respected former FFA boss - were quietly seething. To make it worse for the other codes, Super June comes in the middle of both the AFL season and Rugby League's State of Origin series and as Rugby Union's Wallabies begin a new chapter under New Zealand coach, Robbie Deans. Rugby Union has suffered most in football's bold emergence and could lose further ground. The media's attitude is also starting to change. After giving football short shrift for so many years, TV and radio stations as well as newspapers and magazines are now recognising its value, in contrast to the pre-2006 World Cup days. Of course, old habits die hard and the media's 'football haters' - both in the public eye and behind the scenes - sometimes need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new reality. Often, the greatest armory of the detractors is to keep referring to game as 'soccer' and try to blow any kind of crowd trouble out of proportion in an attempt to create a tenuous link to the game's chequered past in Australia. Another tactic is to adopt a blinkered, parochial approach to anything sporting event happening beyond the country's shores, outside the Ashes and the Olympics. 'If you ask people in Martin Place (in Sydney) about Scott McDonald, how many would know who he was?' was the rather lame excuse of an editor at an Aussie media outlet last year when it was suggested that the striker's phenomenal Scottish Premier League feats might be included in that day's bulletin. Well, after McDonald's 31 goals in 48 matches for Celtic and some eye-catching appearances in the Champions League and for the Socceroos, the answer is: a significant number of people. The same editor also questioned if Tim Cahill's late bicycle kick equaliser for Everton at Chelsea last November - one of the greatest ever goals by an Aussie in the English Premier League - was a big story. Australia's football crowd figures, TV ratings and fresh sponsorship dollars would all strongly suggest it was. The reality is that in the decade after Zizou and co. lifted the 1998 World Cup - and even in the seven years since France's 2001 friendly against the Socceroos in Melbourne - football has come into its own, with 90 per cent of the growth since 2005 with the advent of the A-League. Super June sees football advancing on a united front. It will be another opportunity for the game to eat into the precious territory of some of Australia's other sports, some of whom might be wishing the days of 'soccer' shooting itself in the foot would return. * Sydney-born Jason Dasey ( www.jasondasey.com ) is a host for Soccernet SportsCenter and SportsCenter. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.

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