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focus on asia

A match made in football heaven

September 17, 2009
By Matthias Krug

The other day I was doing a routine football-related check of the calendar when I came across the date and it occurred to me for the first time that it means there is less than one year to go before the World Cup in South Africa begins.

GettyImagesThe Socceroos had a high profile friendly with South Korea recently.

It seemed just yesterday that I was walking through Germany's fan filled, colourful streets, doing the Mexican wave in ecstatic stadia, thinking 'this is probably the best World Cup of all times, you lucky thing'.

But who is to say South Africa can't go one better? Expectations are certainly not very high, which is always a good start.

Add in this half-consumed football month, and we are talking about a mere eight months until the start of proceedings in Johannesburg. Soon all the key European and South American qualifiers will be wrapped up, luxury hotels in South Africa will be booked (if they haven't been already) - and then there will be that one awkward playoff match between continents to see who gets the final ticket to the World Cup.

And don't we all love that match? Who can forget that crazy game when Iran scored two late goals to qualify on away goals with a 2-2 draw against Australia in Melbourne? Or the drama of the eternal Australia vs. Uruguay rivalry; egg throwing at airports and pan-beating outside visiting team's hotels included in the package.

Only this year, that playoff won't feature Australia. Sad for some, like me, who have grown accustomed to the late Aussie struggles for qualification. Definitely not so heart-breaking for die-hard Socceroos, who would rather not go through all that drama every four years.

This year Bahrain will face New Zealand in the battle of the continents; the Gulf country having knocked out the highly fancied Saudis in dramatic fashion on away goals in a 2-2 draw in Saudi Arabia, and the Kiwis having done what Australia usually do with the surrounding islands.

The Aussies, meanwhile, are already through to South Africa. In fact they were the second team to make the World Cup - they qualified long ago from a somewhat surprising confederation: the Asian Football Confederation. Which brings me to the real topic of this Asian football column: Australia, and its recent marriage to football Asia.

That admittedly does not sound right. Australia will take some time before sneaking into our conscience as an 'Asian' football country. But, as we all know, on January 1, 2006, the Australians sealed the deal and switched to the Asian Football Confederation. Perhaps it was the football equivalent of matrimony for immigration purposes, but this has been a blissful marriage so far.

The Aussies bring a much needed dose of glamour to the Asian federation. European based stars like Kewell and Cahill fill many an Asian stadium, and add a real marketing buzz to Asian competitions. But no marriage can claim to be perfect. There are occasional misunderstandings and the odd plates thrown around.

When I asked Qatar's then coach Jorge Fossati what it meant to be drawn against the Socceroos in the World Cup qualifiers, he said: "I cannot understand why, now that Australia has come to join the Asian Federation, we still only have the same number of qualifying spaces available. Of course it will be difficult to qualify now."

Fossati already had something of a history with the Socceroos, having been the coach of his native Uruguay when Australia won the final World Cup 2006 place on penalties.

"Maybe God put me in charge of the Qatar team to have another game with Australia," Fossati mused. "But I can say for sure that, in the Asian confederation, Australia is a very tough rival for every team. That's why I told you that I don't understand why no more places have been made available. Now the only advantage is for New Zealand, they can qualify easier."

GettyImagesFossati was unhappy with the Australian switch.

In that sense, Fossati is right. New Zealand are now just a playoff away from South Africa, although Bahrain are looking a handy side and may take the Asian qualifiers up to five. The eternal debate about the number of qualifying spaces may be interesting - Asian heavyweights like Iran and Saudi Arabia will be watching from home when the World Cup begins - but for now it is not relevant.

In this qualifying campaign, poor Fossati - a coach and football philosopher I rate greatly - was drawn with Qatar to face Australia not once, but twice. Each time, a loss followed.

For Asian sides, the added quality of physically robust and tactically astute Australia can only raise the level of their confederation. For the Australians, not winning every other qualifying game 30-0 may be a new experience, but it is also a vital one when it comes to performing at the World Cup.

Of course the other great advantage for Asia is that Australia now counts as an Asian country, and World Cup successes by the Socceroos showcase the football prowess of the continent. Technically this was already the case in 2006, when the Aussies came agonizingly close to dumping eventual champions Italy out of the tournament in the second round. How Germany would have liked that, retrospectively speaking.

In 2006, Australia was also the only Asian country to make it past the group stages. This time around, the two Koreas and Japan (and maybe Bahrain) will be out to match the Aussie showing. The Socceroos may not be essential Asia, but they have been a welcome addition to the Asian football continent since making the hop over three years ago. Here's to many more happy years together.