Australia's Asian Cup organisers hope for impetus, not overkill, from Brazil

With only six months separating the regional affair from the World Cup, hosts Australia are gambling on a positive reaction

One benefit of Australia's tough World Cup group, though it may not seem that way when the third group game against Spain ends on 23 June, is that it will make the 2015 Asian Cup seem that much more attractive.

Playing without pressure in Brazil could put the Socceroos in the unusual position of using the world’s biggest sporting event to prepare for the continental competition that kicks off on home soil less than six months later. The hope is that other Asian nations will see it the same way and fans will flock to Australia next January but, in truth, it is unlikely that many will.

Most supporters will be local, and there is nothing wrong with that. Saying that the Asian Cup is more important than the World Cup for Australia may come across as a touch hipsterish and smug, but it is the truth.

A country that is still less than a decade old in Asian football terms is hosting the continent’s biggest tournament. There have been dramatic proclamations that it will determine the country’s football relationship with northern neighbours for years to come. That’s over the top, but if it has a positive effect on how Australia sees Asian football in the short- and long-term, then there could be a rare result – a tournament with a real legacy.

It sounds like a lot of pressure, but as with the Socceroos in Brazil, it isn’t really. Of course, there is always the potential for a ‘put the South Korean flag next to North Korean names’ kind of embarrassment, but the bar is set pretty low. China in 2004 aside – having half the world’s population in relatively close proximity helps – average attendances in past tournaments have been nothing special. Crowds in Qatar in 2011 struggled to get into five figures. The south-east Asian tournament held four years previously was bumped up hugely by having four hosts (with Indonesia reaching a quarter of a million for its three games, achieving an atmosphere rarely surpassed anywhere in the world). In the Asian Cup, empty seats, especially in the earlier rounds, are not automatic signs of failure.

That doesn’t mean no attempts are being made to attract fans from around the continent. The chief executive of the tournament's organising committee, Michae Brown, told Guardian Australia: “We are working with the AFC, World Sport Group, Tourism Australia and state and territory tourism authorities to look at ways to maximise the number of people travelling for the Asian Cup. The AFC will also engage with participating member associations to encourage their fans to travel.”

Much encouragement will be needed. West Asia will account for half of the 16 berths in the tournament and fans from the region are not big on travelling, whether for short distances or long. If they come, most will come from the big three in East Asia – that does not include North Korea, although the regime has sent cruise liners full of attractive female fans to support the team in past sporting events. China have not yet qualified, needing to avoid defeat against Iraq in their final game. While Iraq are more attractive on the pitch, in every other respect China bring much more to the table. Understandablu, organisers are keeping their fingers crossed that the Reds don’t stuff this up in a tense final qualifier next month.

If China do fail – and it would not be a surprise – it would probably be the first time the qualification process made headlines in South Korea and Japan. The two east Asian powers qualified automatically thanks to their 2011 performance. That helped to shunt the Asian Cup out of the collective consciousness of the continent’s two most successful football nations (and ensures that the whole process receives less attention internationally) as Shintaro Kano of Japan’s Kyodo News agency says: “The first reason is that Japan have already qualified. The second is Brazil.”

The World Cup dominates the football agenda for the first two-thirds of the 2014, depriving the Asian Cup of early exposure it would have if it was taking place a year later (some Asian sportsdesks have decided against a trip to Australia for the draw in March, with Brazil just weeks away). With the Asian Cup starting only six months after the World Cup finishes, it may be harder to build excitement in the usual lull that follows the global tournament.

The organisers see it differently. “It actually makes more sense holding the Asian Cup six months after the World Cup,” Brown argues. “The momentum generated by the 2014 World Cup will carry through over the following six months throughout Asia. We want to use the World Cup as a springboard.”

It’s hard to argue, although springboards can undershoot or overshoot. An abject failure of the big Asian powers in Brazil might lead fans to turn away, while too much global success might reduce the importance of continental matters.

“Six months is enough to move out of the World Cup shadow for Koreans, unless the national team gets to the quarter-final or more – then it is difficult to say,” says South Korean television commentator Seo Hyung-wook.

Regardless of the World Cup, Seo says, the timing of the tournament will result in fewer Red Devils making the trip. “Most Koreans can’t get any holidays in January,” he says, believing students will be the main travellers, although they could be in for a shock given Australian prices.

For Kano, even earlier could be better. “If the Asian Cup overlapped with the Christmas/new year holidays – peak travelling time for people in Japan – I think more would travel for it.”

He points out that Japan, like many other Asian nations, already have a good number of expats in Australia who will get behind the team.

“There are many Iranian residents of Australia at the moment,” says Hossein Radka of Tehran’s Meidan Sports television show. “Iran has historically a good record in the tournament and is now the No 1 ranked team in Asia. There could be as many as 1,000 fans travelling from Iran.”

That will be more than most. Attracting fans will not be easy, but the tournament can still be a success. It is all about Australia.

comments powered by Disqus