Wednesday, July 26, 2006
It is true that we can field quite a competitive team from the A-League contingent. It is true that the AFC scheduling is often insensitive, and awkward for nations that have several players based in Europe. But the idea that we can be a dominant force in Asia even with sub-par teams is misguided, and could damage our reputation in the region.
The 3-1 victory over a dispirited Bahrain in February, and Asia’s poor overall showing at the World Cup, have engendered some triumphalism among Australian supporters. Perhaps this over-confidence has infected the FFA, because their current diplomatic stance on call-ups for the European brigade is in sharp contrast to their decision to enforce club bans on Mark Viduka and Scott Chipperfield, after they failed to attend the foolishly-arranged friendly against Venezuela in early 2004.
Now, it appears, the policy is to avoid clashes with the European clubs if at all possible.
Commendable, up to a point. In the past, the stubbornness of Australian administrations in calling players away from Europe for ill-considered friendlies made us somewhat unpopular, and arguably even had a detrimental effect on the careers of some young Australian players.
But now, thanks to the skilful political manoeuvres of Frank Lowy and John O’Neill, we have the opportunity to play regular, competitively relevant international matches against opposition more substantial than the Cook Islands.
In my opinion it would be a mistake to adopt a locals-if-possible policy for competitive matches on Australian soil, for a number of reasons. Firstly, Asia is more competitive than many seem to think at the moment; our qualifying group for the Asian Cup is not especially challenging, but World Cup qualification will be another matter.
Secondly, there is the matter of the fans. One of the great positives of the move to Asia, in my view, was that the fans were now likely to see our “star” players - some of them, at least - on a far more regular basis. The absence of the Europe-based elite will surely adversely affect the gate takings, and may bring into question some of the prices currently being demanded for seats at an Australia game.
And lastly, let me return to the matter of our reputation. We have been accepted into the AFC with great warmth and enthusiasm (publicly, at any rate…my private opinion on the likely Asian attitude to our inclusion is somewhat different). We cannot afford to repay them with contempt. And as much as an A-League squad would give our opponents a better chance against us, it is likely to be perceived as a snub.
August 16 is a “friendly” date, and a release from Euro club duty in time to join the squad fit and ready would be difficult, if players were required for club action on the weekend prior. But many of Europe’s leagues do not commence until late August.
It should be added, in fairness, that some players may risk their place in the starting eleven at their various clubs if they sacrifice pre-season preparation time for an international match half a world away. But is this really the case for all of our players? Let’s not forget that we’re not just talking about the Vidukas, Kewells and Neills; there are plenty of players milling around the less glamorous leagues of Europe who should perhaps be preferred to similar candidates from the A-League (who will not have played a genuinely competitive match for some time).
Let it not be forgotten, the key figures in our victory against Bahrain were Josip Skoko and the half-time substitute Brett Holman. Both are based in Europe - just not Fox Sports One Europe.
Ensuring that we field a strong selection while not causing too much friction with the European clubs - or threatening our players’ first-team status therein - will be a delicate balancing act. But the FFA must not swing the scales too far in the opposite direction, after the over-reaction of February 2004.
Still, I'm hoping to see at least a handful of recognised top-shelf internationals against Kuwait.
Not that it's all that expensive (certainly not as bad as the Turkey series, for instance, which was ridiculous - they won't do THAT again), but when you're paying to see Australia play you don't want a virtual third eleven (which is what it would be) taking the park.