It would be appropriate to portray Australia’s relationship with Asia as one of nostalgia since joining the Asian Football Confederation.
Australia joined the Confederation at the end of its golden generation; A team that was filled with European-based stars such as Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Lucas Neal and Mark Schwarzer. Australia largely thought it was better than Asia.
Meanwhile, Asia was not particularly fond of its intruder. It should not be said across Asia, but in large parts of it, especially from the Gulf, Australia was stripped of its World Cup berth and offered nothing in return.
It was a frosty relationship. In many ways it still is.
But everything changed for one magical month in 2015. Australia embraced Asia like never before, and Asia opened its eyes to what modern Australia looked like.
For that month the Australians could not get enough of Kesuke Honda or Shinji Kagawa. He was mesmerized by the magic of Omar Abdul Rahman. They were enriched by the story of Palestine. And they were awed by the beauty of Asian football and its rich tapestry.
An opening-night sell-out in Melbourne on an unseasonably cold and wet summer night – I’ve never felt so cold during Melbourne summer – kicked the tournament off and on.
Two days later the same venue packed nearly 18,000 AAMI Parks – or Melbourne Rectangular Stadium to name it AFC-approved – to watch Iran vs Bahrain, and provide an atmosphere that only Iranian fans could congregate.
That’s when we came to know that something special was about to unfold.
Few countries across Asia have such a multicultural mix as Australia. While some populist politicians try to use this as a tack, it is what makes Australia so unique. Gone “White Australia.” While this may still be the perception of Australia around the world, for those lucky enough to have been in Australia that month wandering our cities they may have witnessed a very different reality.
Connecting with those expatriate communities, and doing so in a really meaningful way, was one of the biggest success stories of the tournament. Communities that have often felt excluded from the mainstream of football in Australia were embraced with open arms, and responded by coming out in large numbers.
More than 12,000 people attended for Uzbekistan vs North Korea, the ultimate test of how well the tournament was resonating. While this may seem like a small number, it is still larger than the vast majority of Asian Cups held in the United Arab Emirates.
Asian football had reached Australia.
Seven and a half years have passed since the tournament ended, and while there are worthy debates about its legacy, that month is still remembered as a high water mark for football in Australia.
And there are moments that are discovered in the memory bank.
Canberra, Australia’s often sleepy capital, experienced one of the most memorable games not only in the tournament, but in the history of the Asian Cup, especially in the summer months when university students and political staff go on vacation. .
Those who were lucky enough to reach the quarter-finals between Iran and Iraq still talk about it. Canberra has rarely seen anything like this.
I was about 300km away in Sydney for the second quarter-final between Japan and the United Arab Emirates that night – a match and result that would have taken top billing on any other night. I was glued to the TV screen inside the media center in the stadium in Australia watching the drama in Canberra.
Just as the extra time exploded, so did the Media Center. Every goal was met with a gasp of disbelief. While Japan and the United Arab Emirates warmed outside on a summer evening and kick-off drew to a close, the Media Tribune was largely empty. No one was leaving his seat.
I was tasked with writing a match report for the game the outlet I was working for. I wrote and rewrote my introduction probably half a dozen times during that play-filled last 30 minutes. In the end I gave up and surrendered to action. This was not the moment to try and stay ahead of the curve. It was a moment to put down the equipment and soak in one of the great Asian Cup opportunities.
The final, on a glittering Sydney evening, was another such occasion. The Harbor City seemed resplendent, bathed in sunshine, a fitting backdrop for such an occasion. I sat next to my colleague, nearly crippled by a head-to-toe sunburn after spending a morning on Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach.
But no one could reduce the magnitude of the occasion. A sold-out Stadium Australia was a sea of green and gold, thanks to a small pocket of red in hopes of spoiling the party.
Australian of Indonesian heritage, Massimo Luongo opened the party with a fine strike in the first half; A goal worthy of deciding any tournament. For so long it looked like it would do just that, but as 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 Jeeves had walked out of the stadium as Son’s shot hit the back of the net, but looking back, the gods of football were doing us a favor, extending the tournament for another 30 minutes .
No one wanted the fun to end.
History shows that James Troisi conquered Australia to become a national hero.
Australia ended the tournament with the trophy in hand, but the tournament had achieved much more. The tournament brought Australia and Asia closer and opened the eyes of both sides. As it seems, Asian football was the winner.
Australia has had so much fun that we want to do it all again, with confirmation this week that Australia is one of four interested parties to step into the void left by China to host the 2023 Asian Cup.
The tournament has been expanded to 24 countries, giving countries such as Vietnam, Lebanon and India some of Australia’s largest expatriate communities with potential routes to the final tournament.
It’s hard to believe after the success of 2015, but if 2023 happens, it will be even bigger and better again.