Getting Australian fans behind Asia's Champions League
The ball bounces dangerously into the six yard box as the keeper, surrounded by a mass of rival players, manages to punch it away. Much to his dismay, it lands square on the boot of his opposing marquee player, who wastes no time in slamming the ball into the back of the net from just outside the penalty area. The crowd goes wild – this is the fourth out of five goals that will be scored by their team that night.
That was a scene at Parramatta’s Pirtek Stadium last Tuesday night as Shinji Ono scored from 16 metres out, and all but confirmed the Western Sydney Wanderer’s place on top of their Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League group.
This yearly tournament brings together clubs from within the AFC’s jurisdiction and includes squads from both East and West Asia. Seven out of Australia’s 10 A-league soccer teams have also taken part since our transfer from the Oceania Confederation to the AFC in 2007. The Western Sydney Wanderers is one of these teams. Last week’s completely one-sided display against a depleted Chinese Guizhou Renfe outfit made a strong statement to the AFC: the Australian team has cemented itself as one to watch in the remainder of this year’s tournament.
Looking back on last year’s championship, it was a very different story. The AFC had reduced the number of automatic spots for A-League teams to just one, plus an additional half a spot for a team that could qualify in a pre-tournament playoff. Australian teams had the same amount of places as the leagues in Thailand and Uzbekistan. That’s to say – when you look at the four automatic places each granted to Saudi Arabia, Korea, Japan, China and Qatar – that the AFC considered Australian club football to be the lowest of the low.
Australian football has never had an easy run.
“Soccer” flies in the face of the Aussie tough guy image so often played out in true-blue rugby and AFL. Football – the round ball version – was a game for migrants and those too skinny to battle it out on the oval field with a Sherrin. Even today, critics of the round ball use examples of Brazilian Neymar Junior’s melodramatic dives as proof of football being a weaker, inferior sport.
But Australians play their own, unique brand of football that resonates, in some ways, with its tackle-based competing codes like AFL. Foreign imports have often spoken about having to ‘bulk up’ in order to cope with our heavy contact, rough way of playing football. As a player, I’m used to being barged off the ball by players much larger than myself, but while playing for a university team in Spain last year, I was often yellow carded and told to tone down my “aggressive” style of play.
Gone are the easy days of the Oceania Club Championship, where Australian teams still hold records for the biggest win (16-0) and most goals scored in a season (that’s 43 in just seven games). Now our A-league teams play in a league that challenges them, develops the Australian style of playing, and heightens Australia’s image as a footballing nation.
So, why aren’t more A-League fans getting behind the AFC?
Melbourne Victory average a crowd of a little over 21,000 for their domestic A-league games, but when it comes to the AFC Champions League, only about 8000 usually show up. More than 13,000 were in attendance at their game against Guangzhou Evergrande a couple of weeks ago in Melbourne, but roughly 2500 of these were fans of the Chinese team. The Wanderer’s garnered 11,000 during their belting of Guizhou Renhe last week, almost a 1000 people less than their lowest attendance of the domestic season.
Maybe it’s because casual football fans prefer the grandeur of the UEFA Champions League in Europe. Maybe it’s a lack of coverage in the media. Or could it be time? As the A-League develops and welcomes more and more well-known foreign and domestic players, it’s possible that in years to come fans will turn their attention to the confederate club tournament for a secondary football fix.
The AFC Champions League will probably never be as grand or highly regarded as its European counterpart, but supporting the A-League teams in the tournament could do a world of good for Australian football. Veteran Socceroos goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer will look back at his appearance for Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League semi final last week as one of his greatest career achievements. Getting behind the Asian version would make an AFC league appearance just as highly sought after for our best homegrown players, and just as rewarding for fans.
The point of difference for football in Australia against its competing codes is the international factor. Sure, fans of rugby will argue about the existence of the World Cup, and those who support AFL will cite the on-and-off International Rules test against Ireland, but when it comes to international following and involvement, football has an edge.
Later this month, the Wanderers will take on Japan’s J-League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima twice, both at home and away, in the round of 16. I say: get there, get behind them and help take our uniquely Australian style of club football to the world.
Danika Wilkinson is a fifth year Journalism-International Studies student at UTS and is constantly covered in football-boot inflicted bruises. Danika Tweets at @danikawilkinson.
Image: The AFC's Official Page