Today, January 1, 2006, marks the first official day of Australia's active participation in the Asian Football Confederation. Entering Asia was a dream held since even before the formation of the Oceania Football Confederation in 1996. In fact, the OFC was formed out of desperation that the AFC would not accept Australia and the three other founding members of Oceania. From there Australia has found itself to be too big a fish in too smaller pond and sought on several occasions to join Asia. There's even been periods where Australia has quit Oceania altogether, only to return because Fifa slammed Oceania competition against them anyway.
Seemingly stuck in Oceania forever, it was not until the monumental and shameful decision of Fifa to strip Oceania of its recently-awarded direct World Cup spot that finally awoke the nation at large to the plight of the region as a whole and to Australia's hopelessness within it. Something had to be done. Then suddenly out of nowhere, almost 2 years later, news broke early this year that Australia was set to join Asia. Below is the sequence of news items and editorials covering this phenomenal occasion:
This is the greatest news ever. Something to finally get excited about. Late last year when Football Australia CEO John O'Neil spoke of extra links to Asia in response to their offer of Australian clubs joining Asian competitions, then only to reiterate that Australia's future still lay in Oceania and that FA were committed to that, it was so depressing. To have all these links with Asia yet still remain so detached, it was like having the icing with no cake underneath it. It was so illogical. It was a time to actually tell Asia to "get stuffed". Fully integrate Australia as a member or have nothing at all.
Well, good thing that diplomacy reigns at FA, because it seems they've been working at that exact cause for the past 4 months. News this week leaked from Japanese Football Association vice-president and Fifa executive member Junji Ogura that Australia was lobbying to join Asia. As a member of the Fifa executive, he was at a Fifa meeting this week in Zurich that raised no objection to Australia leaving Oceania and becoming the 46th member of the AFC. FIFA president Sepp Blatter, Asian Football Confederation president Mohamed Bin Hammam and Oceania Football Confederation president Reynald Temarii have all given it their stamp of approval. It seems a done deal.
March 23: the AFC executive will agree to invite Australia to become a member.
April 12: the OFC executive will agree to allow Australia to leave.
September 12: Fifa will ratify Australia's membership.
The only nation to raise an objection about Australia leaving Oceania is, understandably, New Zealand. The other nations see it as a relief - that they can finally attain reaching various Fifa competitions. Quite simply, Australia was too big for Oceania, hogging all the allocations and have its very own development stifled. Now Oceania can continue as a true development region and fight for rewards on its overall strength, not falling in the shadow of Australia's. It will retain all its current allocations of direct access to all men's and women's Fifa tournaments except the World Cup. That would have meant the Solomon Islands qualifying for the World Youth Cup in Holland in June. A true impetus to Though, with no hope of gaining a direct World Cup spot now, Oceania really should be stripped of full confederation status.
For Asia, their allocations, if remain unchanged, will hardly see them miss out. It was expected their 2010 playoff place would not just against Oceania anyway, but also, without Oceania bickering for a place of their own, allow them to increase their allocation by another half-spot to 5.5.
With this announcement, and the new A-League domestic competition, all we need now is for Australia to qualify for the World Cup and the year 2005 will become a huge landmark in the fortunes of the game in this country and be one to truly remember.
Below is an excerpt from an article posted at theworldgame.com.au by columnist and SBS commentator Les Murray.
For all of those decades Australian football lived outside the frontiers of genuine competition, forced so by its geography. Its choice wavered between living in a world of competition with minute countries of minute playing acumen and, conversely, with countries and teams of mighty history and playing power. There was no in-between. Australia competed against Samoa one day and had to beat Argentina the next. This was not right and neither was it ever going to work.
There was an interlude proposition suggesting that the way out of all this was direct World Cup qualification from Oceania, an avenue to supposed greatness by way of beating a bunch of littlies. It was always a lie and it is interesting that those who proposed this silly thing are now rejoicing at the far more substantial prospect of qualifying for the World Cup via Asia, that is to say games of real meaning and real competition.
Where indeed are they now, those who accused this columnist, and the late Johnny Warren, of treachery and of looking a gift horse in the mouth for proposing that direct qualification was a sham and counterproductive?
Those same people will probably view the prospect of Asian affiliation only through the prism of the World Cup and a way to qualify for it. They will sigh that, at last, we won't have to play Argentina or Uruguay to make it.
But this is not about the World Cup and an easier path to it. It is about Australia gaining some sort of international integrity in football.
Well Les Murray, you are an absolute fool. Those that labelled you and the late Johnny Warren as treacherous had every right when you advocated immediately throwing away just granted direct World Cup qualification that was not only a right to a confederation with a full member status and also consistent with the fact it has direct qualification for every single other Fifa tournament in existence, but to give it away to a region that had spent the past 40 years rudely and unjustly rejecting all overtures for Australia and other Oceania countries to join that region.
How selfish. How self-absorbed. How galling. How insensitive. Have you no conscience? All those that accused you of treachery have actually been thoroughly in favour of Asian integration for so long. But with that impossible, direct qualification through Oceania was the next best action.
The crusaders for direct qualification were crusaders of a fair process. Especially after the decades of harsh treatment that you yourself should not only be aware of, but should show sympathy. It wasn't about an easier path or beating up littlies - which, incidentally, countries like Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Italy and Korea have been enjoying for decades - but about an end to the harsh playoff system against a well prepared lucky loser from another confederation. No one had too many significant problems playing against South America, but play them in a pool scenario, not the ridiculous playoff that is so callous and unfair. Oceania gaining its spot meant the World Cup qualification process became fair.
So why then immediately give it up? What sort of message do you send Fifa and the world? That we get a spot and then throw it away? That sort of attitude from people of such high esteem possibly contributed to Fifa revoking the decision later on. Absurd. At least use it for a couple of World Cups and see what it can do first. Maybe Oceania could have enticed other nations to the region. Maybe even use it to have a full integration of Oceania into Asia, and not just use it for World Cup qualifying as you advocated. Your motives are even more selfish than direct qualification proponents. Your motives only concern Australia.
Lets not delude ourselves here. Under your proposal, giving it to Asia was nothing more than procuring preparation for the World Cup itself. Because, as we all know, that under a pool process, Australia would romp in with qualifying through Asia. YOU ARE the one also thinking about the "prism of the World Cup and a way to qualify for it". YOU ARE also the one sighing "that, at last, we won't have to play Argentina or Uruguay to make it". Hypocrite! Worse, your proposal actually gave Asia nothing but arrogant disrespect in return. Where's the benefit in youth development? Where's the benefit of potential spots for Fifa's other tournaments? Where's the marketing and commercial benefits for Asian companies? No where.
Now you stand here in condemnation of those that actively sought, endorsed and then succeeded in gaining integration into Asia. Here you are standing accusing them of "a lie and it is interesting that those who proposed this silly thing are now rejoicing at the far more substantial prospect of qualifying for the World Cup via Asia". No! Even with regards to the news breaking about this "silly thing" of Australia joining Asia, the majority of spruiking from the "accusers of treachery" has been about full ecomonic and marketing links, Asian Cups, club competitions and real qualifying and matches for teams at all levels. Yet here you stand still concerned only with the World Cup? Tsk, tsk.
Oceania gaining a World Cup spot was was never a lie. It was about the next best and fairest thing for Australia other than joining the Asian Football Confederation. The biggest lie has come from you and the late Johnny Warren - a man whose compassion for Australian football became more an odyssey of self-interest and personal ego than doing truly the best thing for the country. Nor doing the best thing for Oceania. Nor even doing the best thing for Asia. Now the lie continues by undermining those truly responsible for what will be the most momentous occasion in Australian football by acclaiming it for yourself. You and Johnny Warren NEVER in recent times sought ways or interest for Australia to join Asia, only for ways for Australia to steal their most valuable asset.
In this time of true metamorphosis for the game in this country, lets remember the true visionaries of Australian football as this journey into Asia proceeds: former Australian soccer chairman David Hill, decent journalists like Mike Cockerill, out-spoken people like national coach Frank Farina, and most specifically of all, the current administration of Football Australia. If Australia does become a member of Asia, it won't be because of the likes of you, Les Murray. It will be in spite of you.
Latest developments is that New Zealand is now keen to join Asia. However, with a 10-year plan to redraw the confederation just beginning, they have little chance of succeeded and are destined to remain in Oceania for 2010 and 2014 World Cup campaigns. These new boundaries involve a split of eastern Asia with the 20 countries east of Bangladesh joining with Oceania's 12 nations to form an Asian Pacific confederation. It's a much more logical and workable solution, especially with regards to timezone, trade and cultural aspects. The Middle East nations are not overly excited at the moment, however, so it will take time. Key factor will be the distribution of World Cup allocations. The much stronger eastern side would expect at least 3 or even 4, but that would leave only 2 or even less for the west. Maybe the qualifying process would be merged in such a scenario.
However, there is a better solution - a broader solution - and that will be detailed soon in a feature that will not only present the best and fairest World Cup qualifying for all teams in the world, but also a way to stop the bickering, streamline the entire qualification process, and to fix Fifa once and for all.
The main hurdle has been cleared. At their executive meeting in Kuala Lumpur last week, Asia unanimously endorsed the proposal for Australia to join Asia, with the only requirement now being the official protocol of Australia leaving Oceania and then Fifa ratifying the process. It's hope this can be achieved in June, but failing that, at the Fifa Congress in Morocco in September. AFC president Mohamed bin Hammam was ebullient in his enthusiasm saying: "If it was left to our wishes, we would like it to have happened yesterday". Asia's convinced that Australia's inclusion in Asia will not just be a boon commercially, but make the region stronger footballing wise and provide greater clout politically. The downside of greater competition for existing Asian teams for World Cup places most likely will be neutralised by having allocations increased, if not directly, then in a playoff with Oceania. Oceania will have no clout to get a spot of their own.
For Australia, joining Asia in time for 2006, will see them in immediate action with qualifiers for the Asian Cup. The only (theoretical) downside is losing direct spots for youth and women's teams. But the reality is that extra - or simply having some - competition for qualifying will make the teams stronger. This is especially so for the women's team, who will face tough competition from China, Japan and the two Koreas. In contrast, with Oceania, New Zealand often didn't even enter a team for some qualifiers, whilst the island nations only offered cannon fodder. If such embarrassing displays then begin to show at Fifa competitions themselves, it's quite possible that after several of these, Oceania will see their direction allocations become half-spots with Asia anyway.
The other potential downside is that, with the extra international matches, the club vs country battle will come to the fore. It really is not acceptable bringing players across the world to Australia, even during an international weekend. As seen with this game against Iraq, the players proved quite flat, not to mention fatigue and possible injury being an impediment on their club's fortunes. Clever scheduling will alleviate some problems with games against teams nearer to Europe scheduled for the shorter international windows. Longer term, however, if the A-League kicks off, it could see the national team primarily home based anyway. Regardless, it's a minor problem to have in the scheme of the huge rewards Asia offers.
Of course, if Fifa would just cut these stupid international windows out of the club season altogether, therefore condensing the club season and freeing up at least 6 weeks of the footballing calendar for use elsewhere, there could be a dedicated international season at the end of the season, which would end the club vs country woes forever.
For Oceania, New Zealand has offered some misgivings with Australia leaving, citing the lack of competition for its own development, but this is the exact problem Australia has in staying. It's too big for the region. NZ will benefit by qualifying for some youth World Cups and the Olympics - if it puts its mind to it. Remember, it's not even the number two ranked team in Oceania, with Solomon Islands in the World Cup playoff and have struggled to beat teams like Vanuatu and Fiji in recent age-level qualifiers. No doubt they are rapt Australia is gone. Long terms, however, there's already talk of a redistribution of confederation zones, with a 10-year plan just under way. The sooner the region is disbanded the better. If it's not obsolete before, it certainly is now.
Barely mentioned in the media last month was the Oceania meeting held April 12 to ratify Australia's exit from that Confederation. It passed with full endorsement as the island nations look forward to representation in Fifa youth World Cups and the consequences that brings of improving their playing standard. The final step is the Fifa Congress in Morocco on September 12 when Australia's entry into the Asian Football Confederation will be fully ratified. Then it's officially bye-bye to Oceania forever.
In the wake of fallout between coach Frank Farina and television broadcaster SBS and reporter Andrew Orsatti, theworldgame.com.au columnist Simon Hill raised the issue of the right to criticise. Rightly so, everyone has a right. But not when it's based on sheer ignorance of the situation and seems more about a personal indulgence or company agenda. That's when it seems a vendetta. That is the issue with various SBS commentators.
Fifa has officially approved Australia's move into Asia at its executive committee meeting in Frankfurt. The bid to join was only expected to be endorsed, but Fifa went one step further and, with all parties eager to complete the process, fully ratified the move before the Fifa congress in Morocco in September. Australia will be a member of the Asian Football Confederation as of 1 January 2006. Australia's first matches will be Asia Cup qualifiers early in 2006 and its last matches for Oceania being the Oceania World Cup playoff against the Solomon Islands in September.
So it's happened. Amazing at how swiftly and anti-climatically. The major celebration was earlier in the year when all parties announced the plan and it seemed such a fait accompli. It's probably the most significant day in Australian football and something preferable to qualifying for the World Cup this year. It's just difficult to believe it's all over. The fighting, the lobbying, the drama, the betrayal, the heartache. All to get Oceania its deserved rights or for Australia to join Asia. It's over. It really is a stunning moment in time. Something that won't really sink in until Australia starts competing within Asia. Amazing.
This event had two milestones present for Australia. The first was the official and ceremonial ratification of Australia's move into Asia, and the second was the draw for deciding the home and away legs against the fifth placed South American team to qualify in November for the World Cup. But whatever happens with regards to the World Cup, the big prize has been won.
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