It would be fair to characterize Australia’s relationship with Asia since joining the Asian Football Confederation as one of indifference.
Australia joined the confederation at the tail-end of its golden generation; a team that was full of European-based stars such as Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Lucas Neill and Mark Schwarzer. Australia, to a large degree, thought it was better than Asia.
Asia, meanwhile, was not particularly fond of its intruder. Not all of Asia it must be said, but large parts of it, particularly from the Gulf, saw Australia as taking away their World Cup berths and giving back nothing in return.
It was a frosty relationship. In many ways, it still is.
But for one magical month in 2015 that all changed. Australia embraced Asia like never before, and Asia had its eyes opened to just what modern Australia looks like.
For that month Australians could not get enough of Keisuke Honda or Shinji Kagawa. They were enthralled by the magic of Omar Abdulrahman. They were enriched by the story of Palestine. And they were awoken to the beauty of Asian football and its rich tapestry.
An opening-night sell-out on an unseasonably cold and wet summer’s night in Melbourne — I’ve never felt so cold during a Melbourne summer — got the tournament off and running.
Two days later at the same venue almost 18,000 packed into AAMI Park — or Melbourne Rectangular Stadium to give it its AFC-approved name — to watch Iran versus Bahrain, and providing an atmosphere that only the Iranian fans can muster.
That is when we knew something special was about to unfold.
Few nations across Asia have a multicultural mix like Australia. While some populist politicians try to use that as a wedge, it is what makes Australia so unique. Gone is “White Australia.” While that may still be the perception of Australia around the world, for those lucky enough to be in Australia for that month, walking around our cities they would have seen a very different reality.
Engaging with those migrant communities, and doing so in a really meaningful way, was one of the greatest success stories of the tournament. Communities who have often felt ostracized from the football mainstream in Australia were embraced with open arms, and they responded by turning out in droves.
More than 12,000 turned up for Uzbekistan versus North Korea, the ultimate test for how well the tournament was resonating. While it might seem a small number, it is still larger than a vast majority of games at the following Asian Cup in the UAE.
Asian football had arrived in Australia.
Seven-and-a-half years have passed since the tournament ended, and while there are worthy debates to be had about its legacy, that month is still remembered as a high water mark for football in Australia.
And there are moments that are seared into the memory bank.
Canberra, Australia’s often sleepy capital, particularly in the summer months when the university students and political staffers leave on holiday, experienced one of the most memorable games, not just of this tournament, but in Asian Cup history.
Those that were lucky enough to be there for the quarter-final between Iran and Iraq still talk about it. Canberra has seldom seen anything like it.
I was almost 300 km away in Sydney for the other quarter-final that night between Japan and the UAE — a match and result that on any other night would have taken top billing. I was sitting inside the media center at Stadium Australia glued to the TV screens watching the drama unfold in Canberra.
As extra time exploded, so too did the media center. Every goal was met with gasps of disbelief. While Japan and the UAE warmed up on a balmy summer evening outside and kick-off approached, the media tribune sat largely empty. No one was leaving their seat.
I was tasked with writing the match report of that game for the outlet I was working for. I wrote and re-wrote my intro probably half a dozen times throughout that drama-filled final 30 minutes. In the end I gave up, and surrendered to the action. This was not a moment to try and be ahead of the curve. This was a moment to down tools and soak in one of the great Asian Cup occasions.
The final, on a truly spectacular Sydney evening, was another such occasion. The Harbor City looked resplendent bathed in sunshine, a fitting backdrop for such an occasion. I sat next to my colleague, almost crippled from the head-to-toe sunburn I had suffered after a morning spent at Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach.
But nothing could take away from the magnitude of the occasion. A sold-out Stadium Australia was a sea of green and gold, save for a small pocket of red hoping to spoil the party.
Massimo Luongo, an Australian of Indonesian heritage, got the party started with a stunning first-half strike; a goal worthy of deciding any tournament. For so long it looked as though it would do just that, but just when the champagne was being prepared, South Korea struck and Son Heung-min equalized in the 90th minute.
It might not have felt like it at the time, as the life went out of the stadium as Son’s shot hit the back of the net, but looking back this was the football gods doing us a favor, extending the tournament for another 30 minutes.
No one wanted the fun to end.
History shows that James Troisi struck the winner for Australia to become a national hero.
Australia ended the tournament with trophy in hand, but the tournament had achieved more than just that. The tournament brought Australia and Asia closer together and opened eyes on both sides. As cliched as it sounds, Asian football was the winner.
So much fun did Australia have that we want to do it all again, with confirmation this week that Australia is one of four interested parties in stepping into the void left by China to host the 2023 Asian Cup.
The tournament has been expanded to 24 nations, which gives nations such as Vietnam, Lebanon and India, which boast some of Australia’s largest migrant communities, a likely path to the final tournament.
It is hard to believe after the success of 2015, but 2023, should it happen, would be even bigger and better again.
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