Australia bid set it apart from Asia
It was a telling remark. In October when I asked Mohamed Bin Hammam, the president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), if he would vote for another of the continent's 2022 World Cup bidders in the event that his native Qatar was eliminated in the early rounds, he asked: "You are considering Australia as an Asian country?"
And this was from the man who was the main mover behind the nation's ascension to the organization in 2006. When pushed on this, he answered "yes, of course" though probably even then he was confident that it would not come to that.
As he celebrated helping the World Cup go to his home country in Zurich last week, Bin Hammam probably didn't give Australia's plight a second thought after FIFA's Executive Committee didn't give the bid a second vote. Just one 'yes' for a candidate considered to be in with a fair chance of success - the shock is still being digested in Australia.
Their government had provided $45 million of taxpayers' money. High-profile consultants, reportedly costing a few of those millions, had been hired. These experts supposedly had the know-how and connections to swing things Sydney's way. In the end, perhaps they hindered rather than helped. At the October meeting of FIFA's Executive Committee, one that took place shortly after allegations of corruption, those very advisors were discussed. Concern was expressed at how the Australian consultants with pockets deemed to be deep were, at a sensitive time, allowed to wander around Zurich and talk to committee members while Amos Adamu and Reynald Temarii were barred.
While the questions as to how it could all go so wrong may be answered over the coming days and weeks, the important next step for Football Federation Australia (FFA) is one that moves it closer to its Asian neighbours. With Asian influence in the world of football growing all the time then only by gravitating to the heart of the continent can Australia start to have its voice heard. Engaging with the world's biggest continent is the only way forward.
It didn't happen much in the campaign. The FFA struggled to find a compelling story to tell and the bid lacked identity and compelling reasons to bring the game Down Under. The Aussie new kids on the AFC block annoyed the long-time residents and bidding rivals by emphasising their closeness to the continent (though doing this too much could have backfired - if Asia really is so important why not just take the tournament there?). In reality, the Australian bid, one supposedly keen to represent Asia, made almost no attempt to engage with it at any time over the last 12 months or so.
Perhaps this was to be expected. The Aussie media is largely uninformed and disinterested about what is going on to the north and west. This is unfortunate. Australian football never needed the World Cup but it does need Asia, its talent, its commercial opportunities and its increasing influence.
There are hundreds of players all over the continent that are worthy of and would welcome a move south. With the salary cap, A-League clubs are not in a position to sign top class Korean, Japanese, Chinese or Saudi Arabian players but there are other options. Talented young players abound in South East Asia, many of which are good enough for the A-League and more than open to a move.
We have seen in recent times that the route from the K-League and the J-League to Europe is now a direct one with players able to succeed immediately in the big leagues. The path is far less open for South East Asians and doing the business in Australia is a great stepping stone.
That's not to say that signing a player from the region means that Aussie football is Asian. Putting the likes of Surat Sukha of Thailand into a Melbourne Victory side that plays direct and unimaginative football is not exactly the way forward.
The way lies with the coaches in Australia. The league is still young but the methods of many local bosses have seemed distinctly old school. That may be changing however as the rise of Brisbane Roar under Ange Postecoglou has been noted as has the way the league leaders play football. So much so that their style may shift FC Seoul's stance. The newly-crowned Korean champions have a policy of advising their discarded young players against moving to the A-League after seeing their former player and prospect Song Jin-hyung in action for Newcastle Jets in the 2009 Asian Champions League. The Koreans' shock at what they saw as his regression in technical terms since heading south was profound.
Introducing a genuine Asian flavour into the admirable aggression of the Aussie game would be a huge breakthrough. Problem is, in Australia, it is still something of a closed shop when it comes to coaching positions and there are still too many closed minds with regards to Asian players (though this prejudice exists in Korea and Japan when it comes to other parts of the continent too).
A closed shop can have short-term frustrations but long-term benefits. It has forced a number of Australian coaches to move to Asia at a number of different levels. Gary Phillips ended 2010 by taking Sabah to the top tier in Malaysia, his first season with the club, Scott O'Donell has been a fixture in Cambodia and Singapore for years and at just 25, Nathan Hall is the assistant at leading Bangkok club Thai Port. It would be healthy indeed if they were able to take what they have learned back home.
There are other encouraging signs. An Australian, Sasa Ognenovski captained Korean club Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma to the Asian Champions League title and was named AFC Player of the Year. The Socceroos are making the right noises about the 2011 Asian Cup, in complete contrast to the arrogance and ignorance of the 2007 version, and the 2015 tournament will be held down under.
For now that will have to be enough as far as international competitions go but whether Australia has another shot at the World Cup or not, it will end up winning much more if it gets more serious about Asia.