It is easy to get lost in hubris when it comes to the transformative impacts of sport on the real world. There is something about international football tournaments in particular that exert a romantic power over the imagination. As in 2002, when I attended a number of matches at the World Cup and became completely immersed in South Korea’s run to the semi finals, the past few weeks for me have been a love affair with the round ball, the Asian Cup and the Socceroos.
In part the romance of football is a narcotic escapism from everyday life. That people yearn for such escape from the everyday is a harsh indictment on the tendency to isolation, the recurrent tedium and the under-nourishment of the soul that often characterises life as a wage labourer. This yearning can even overpower our disgust at the shameless corruption of high level football administrators and endure the bombardment of corporate propaganda that characterises such events, something Carol D’Cruz and I touched on in our discussion on AFL football last year. This, however, is a discussion for another day.
But is there more to international football than escapism? Writing about the World Cup experience for South Korea in the lead up to the tournament in Brazil last year, I wrote…
“The host nations of major sporting tournaments like the football World Cup are usually obsessed with the international status and prestige that comes with holding these events. However, the impact that these tournaments have on the host society itself is more interesting.”
In this piece I discussed how I observed Korea coming of age as a confident nation, much as many have suggested that the 2008 Beijing Olympics represented a coming out party for China. SBS football analyst and former Socceroo Craig Foster has argued that the Asian Cup is Australia’s “coming out as a member of Asia.” Many pundits have mused on this question both during the tournament and in the afterglow of Australia’s victory. Dean Biron from Griffith University suggested in The Conversation that “perhaps the great achievement of the Asian Cup is that it delivered irrefutable evidence of the significance of Australia’s intimate relationships – social, cultural and economic – with wider Asia.” Not everyone was so celebratory; blogger Athas Zafiris lamented the absence of positive coverage in the Melbourne press for the carnival atmosphere at the games, particularly those featuring Middle Eastern teams: “Melbourne’s Muslim and Middle Eastern communities had a great story to tell during the Asian Cup, especially at this difficult time. They were ignored.”
Zafiris’ comments raise the issue of Australian identity, a concept that is both a source of endless debate among Australia’s anglophile cultural aficionados and oxymoronic given the vast ethnic and cultural diversity of the Australian people. I love the Socceroos because they are the only national sports team in Australia whose composition accurately reflects the ethnic and cultural diversity of our country (I respect the US soccer team for the same reason).
The Asian Cup also gave a forum for our migrant communities to celebrate their roots through football and in so doing, brought all participants together in a carnival atmosphere. As a neutral observer at a number of games, it was a delight to chant “Dae Han Minguk” (Republic of South Korea) with the Korean fans, channelling memories of 2002, and enjoy smiling Chinese fans singing “Zhongguo jia you” (Go China!). The synchronised clapping of Kuwaiti fans was an auditory delight, while for visual stimulation one couldn’t go past the “starlight” crowd at Stadium Australia, where people around the stadium lit up the lights on their mobile phones.
Whether the Asian Cup represents a coming out party for Australia as a member of the Asian community of nations remains to be seen. As someone who has lived, worked and studied the region, I was already comfortable with the notion of Australia as an Asian country. For other Australians coming late to this party, it’s better late than never. Football is the lingua franca through which people from anywhere can communicate, a cliché but true. As Athas Zafiris suggested in his blog, football, through the Asian Cup, has opened a window through which we can see the humanity of people from other cultures in the shared experience of the game, rather than the ridiculous national caricatures that often proliferate in the media and certain sections of the community. At a time when inhumanity has been the order of the day in many aspects of Australian politics (asylum seeker politics, demonization of minorities and the unemployed, Tony Abbott’s infantile “Team Australia” rhetoric, and xenophobic scaremongering in the tabloid press, to name a few instances), the Asian Cup represented Australia the country at its best.
In the photo gallery below, my football road trip companion Dr Nicholas Pawsey and I share our personal experience of the Asian Cup…
I found it interesting that only 4 of the 16 teams were from what I would have consider typically Asian countries: China, Japan, North Korea and South Korea. Lots of “Asian” countries didn’t get into the 16.
Your response raises an interesting point in relation to conjecture about how “Asia” should be defined. In the Australian popular imagination, “Asia” is typically thought of as East Asia (China, Japan, Korea etc, as you say), India is the sub-continent and the Middle East is its own separate thing. A broader definition states that “Asia” is everything on the Eurasian continent east of the Ural Mountains. The Asian Football Confederation adopts this latter interpretation, though interestingly Israel, which neighbours a number of Asian Cup participants, finds itself in UEFA for political reasons. Your observation is also a good one in terms of financial power; the teams represented in the Asian Cup generally have the financial resources to spend on football, whereas the ones that didn’t tend to be poorer developing nations.