I love a bit of football. Aside from my lifelong devotion to Liverpool FC, the highlight of which was a seven-year spell as a season ticket holder at Anfield, I’ve always gone along to support my local team wherever I’ve lived, and have been known to pause to watch the odd interesting park game for more than a minute or two.
Imagine then, my disappointment at learning that Canberra is one of the few Australian cities not to have a team in the country’s national league, the Hyundai A-League. Imagine then, also, my delight at learning that the AFC Asian Cup – one of the world’s biggest tournaments outside of the FIFA World Cup – was being held in Australia this year and that Canberra had been named as one of its host cities.
Tickets were astonishingly cheap – around $150 for tickets to seven matches for me and one of my boys. I’d expect to pay that for one match at a major tournament in Europe. Admittedly the teams coming to town weren’t exactly the glamour teams of the region, let alone the world – both Koreas, Oman, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, China, Iraq and Palestine.
Nevertheless, this was football, on our doorstep and I was not going to miss it for anything.
I think there’s a subplot to all this too. There have been rumblings about giving Canberra an A-League slot for a number of years but, as with all such things, there’s a question mark over the viability of any new teams – particularly in a city so well served by other sporting attractions. The way I saw it, if the Asian Cup games drew decent attendances, the viability argument would be strengthened and we might get our own local team. But if Canberrans shunned the tournament, well, you’d better enjoy rugby and cricket because nobody would fund a franchise that couldn’t draw the crowds.
I’ve been to three games so far, South Korea v Oman (a fortunate 1-O win for the Koreans, despite their pedigree as former World Cup semi-finalists), the UAE v Qatar (an emphatic 4-1 win for the UAE) and Kuwait v South Korea (another squeaked 1-0 for the Koreans), and a couple of things have struck me.
First, Canberra needs a new rectangular stadium. The current Canberra stadium is mostly roofless – a pain when it pours down, as it did for the first game; uncomfortable when the sun is beating down, as it often is; and lacking in atmosphere as all the noise of the crowd dissipates rather than echoing around the arena.
Second, the Australian football federation, Soccer Australia, needs to consider whether its priority is cash or the promotion of the game. It’s a sad fact that an international tournament for representatives of around half the world’s population is being held on Australian soil and, outside of a few late-night highlights packages, it can only be seen on TV by those with a subscription to Foxtel Sports – around $50 a month.
As a lifelong football fan who lived in England when it hosted UEFA Euro 96, and who travelled throughout France for the 1998 FIFA World Cup, I saw firsthand the growing excitement as the respective host nations progressed through each round, witnessed by thousands of fans in the stadiums, and millions more via free-to-air live broadcasts. Here, as the tournament of a lifetime kicked off, there was barely a mention of the fact from Australia’s national broadcaster, ABC.
Football is a late starter here and is currently a poor relation to cricket, AFL and the rugby codes. The Asian Cup could have been a springboard to greater public awareness and excitement about the world’s game. Instead, presumably because Fox offered a few extra dollars to Soccer Australia, it’s taking place on an expensive pay TV channel, inaccessible to the vast majority of Australians.
Even so, the small TV audiences each game will receive seem vast compared to the travelling support of some of the participating countries. Qatar, that country of 2 million people who, let us remember, were chosen by FIFA as hosts of the 2022 World Cup, sent about 75 fans to their clash with the UAE. If that’s an example of their fervent passion for the game that convinced FIFA to award them the tournament, then I’m slightly puzzled. Could it possibly be that, just as with Soccer Australia, some other factor was key to their decision?