Sunday, June 3, 2007
ESPNsoccernet: July 4, 4:33 PM UK
Australia prepare for another adventure
It was once shunned as a game for 'sheilas, wogs and pooftas'. But now, with Asia as its playground, football in Australia is about to make a second, monumental step forward in just 13 months.
July's Asian Cup will see Australia's national team - the Socceroos - in the unfamiliar role of favourites, a little more than a year after they surprisingly made the knockout stages of the 2006 World Cup before narrowly losing to eventual champions, Italy.
The appearance of English Premier League stars like Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka and Tim Cahill will add much needed glamour to the quadrennial event, co-hosted by Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.
With the Socceroos based in Bangkok for the group stages, the event is likely to attract tens of thousands of hedonistic fans, further raising the profile of a once-ridiculed sport in Australia.
And you can be sure that other football codes are less than delighted that soccer is again eating into their market share.
For decades, the world game has been maligned in Australia as a boring, effeminate pursuit that heterosexual males should never consider playing.
Sheilas, Wogs and Pooftas was the tongue-in-cheek title of the autobiography of the late Johnny Warren, a former national captain who played in Australia's first World Cup appearance back in 1974. Warren, a well-known TV pundit, was frustrated by what he perceived as a blatant campaign across his lifetime to undermine the growth of the world's most popular sport.
As recently as 2005, long-serving Aussie Rules coach Kevin Sheedy told sports fans who were toying with the idea of watching a Melbourne soccer game to 'get a life' while AFL officials were known to pop open a bottle of French champagne every time the Socceroos failed to qualify for the World Cup finals.
Australian soccer certainly didn't help itself with poor management, in-fighting and an erratic national league, organized along ethnic lines with clubs like Sydney Croatia, St George Budapest and Heidelberg. And you could be sure that any punch-up on a Sunday afternoon crowd would be reported as a Heysal-like 'soccer riot' on the six o'clock news.
That only added to the mainstream belief that football - nicknamed wogball in the schoolyard - was for badly-behaved immigrants only, even though it was so often the first game introduced to Australian children by their protective parents. By the time they'd reached puberty and were more aware of peer pressures, the same children had usually changed to the sports of real Australians like Aussie Rules, Rugby League or Rugby Union. And many of the kids who continued to play soccer on weekend mornings would enthusiastically support their local teams in the other codes in the afternoon.
But with events like the 2000 Sydney Olympics helping Australia become more aware of its place in the world, football has emerged from the doldrums.
A wave of nationalism, combined with a desire to measure achievements on a global scale, has helped. Not even the slickest marketing campaigns and slanted media coverage can now convince a more aware sporting public that the farcical Rugby League World Cup and the AFL's novel International Rules series against Ireland should be compared with the FIFA World Cup. Certainly, the Socceroos' new found success has seen them embraced by a sporting mainstream that once shunned them.
It's also no longer seen as the immigrant-only sport. At the 1974 World Cup, many of the Socceroos were born overseas and spoke with strong European or British accents. But even though some of the 2006 World Cup squad had tongue-twisting Slavic names, no-one dared consider them anything less than 100% Australian.
Reserve goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac laughed out loud and shook his head when a reporter asked him if he would like to see the nation of his parents win Australia's final World Cup group game against Croatia in Stuttgart.
Melbourne-born national captain, Mark Viduka, whom more than a decade earlier produced a Croatian flag when scoring goals as a teenager, answered: 'Mate, I'm Australian', when asked about his allegiances.
Money has given football a louder voice as well. Australia's growing contingent in the English Premier League earns far better than any of the players in the country's other team sports, including cricket. Sydney-born Lucas Neill is earning a reported US$120,000 per week in his new contract with West Ham United - and he's a humble defender.
Australia's fledgling professional championship, the A-League, is far less lucrative, but now provides a more solid and popular domestic platform than the competition it replaced. Importantly, the A-League's first two champions - Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory - came from the country's two largest cities and the 2007 Grand Final was an impressive 50,000 sellout at Melbourne's Telstra Dome.
Joining the Asian Confederation at the start of 2006 after years of playing in the Oceania zone against the likes of the Solomon Islands and American Samoa has been a crucial move for Australian soccer. It gives Aussie national teams - and clubs - more regular and meaningful competition.
Instead of Oceania qualifying - followed by a nerve-jangling playoff with a South American team - Australia will need to follow the Asian route for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It's by no means easier, but a more comprehensive and satisfying process that will ultimately ensure the long-term growth of the game.
Before that, the Socceroos - with barely a Sheila, Wog or Poofta amongst them - will call Bangkok home as they try to win their first ever major trophy.
'Sheilas, wogs and pooftas' is Australian slang for women, European immigrants and homosexuals.
Sydney-born Jason Dasey is a co-host of Soccernet SportsCenter and SportsCenter
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