Australia - from Asia's embarrassment to favourites

When Australia sought to transfer from Oceania to the Asian Football Confederation in the 1990s, a vote was taken of members of the world football body, FIFA, to back Australia's request. Then Soccer Australia Chairman David Hill was the only one to vote in favour. From that embarrassment, Australia's Socceroos prepare to play their first game in the Asian Cup finals against Oman. They do so not only as the favourites but also the competition's glamour team - its European-based players well known to Asian fans from the saturation television coverage of the English Premier League and other elite competitions.

"Asian soccer, under the leadership of Qatari Mohamed Bin Hamman, has warmed to the idea of Australian involvement in the region. The massive revamp in the local game, the scrapping of the old Soccer Australia and the ascension to soccer power of billionaire Frank Lowy as chairman of Football Federation Australia shifted the goal posts dramatically. Lowy was the kind of man Bin Hamman could deal with, and the benefits since the pair forged an alliance to get Australia into the region have flowed," noted Michael Lynch in The Age.

While the Asian Cup offers no prize money and is costing FFA about A$2 million, CEO Ben Buckley believes it is money well spent. "I think it's very significant for the development of the game. It's the single biggest sporting event in Asia this year and the sort of audiences it will reach can only be beneficial for the commercial aspects of the game in this country. In 2004, the competition in China recorded 2.15 billion cumulative viewers for the tournament. In Japan (the eventual winner), the audience share for the final was 32 percent, the biggest for any television show in that year, and around 450 million people watched the final in more than 120 countries. This event was one of the key reasons why we moved from Oceania to the Asian Football Confederation. But, more importantly, it's about preparing our teams for the World Cup qualification program, playing against the sort of teams we will face in that campaign.

"Playing in the Asian region offers very good development opportunities for the players and the coaching staff. It's also a very significant opportunity to again expose the national team back to Australia and help build on the successes achieved at the World Cup. All these matches will be shown on Fox Sports, they are in our time zone, played in the evening and are against good teams in a big tournament. People might not know much about Asian football at the moment, but I think this tournament will give them a real idea of the size and scope of the game in Asia and how popular it is there."

Buckley also suggested that the Australian business sector can find no better sporting vehicle to deliver its message into the region than soccer. "I think over time for companies that do business in Asia who want to break into Australia, it offers an important opportunity to get their name known, and likewise for Australian companies wanting to get into the Asian region," Buckley said. "The Socceroos can become a great vehicle to assist with that: they will be playing regularly in Asia in front of huge television audiences … in strong economic markets like Japan, South Korea and the Middle East."