The civil war in Australian football has ended – well, in theory at least – and now it’s time for a new start and a new chapter for the game.

With an independent A-League seemingly a foregone conclusion in the next 12-18 months, the A-League clubs will have control of their own destiny.

With power comes great responsibility, however, and it will be curious to see how Australia’s and the A-League’s relationship with Asia develops with the clubs afforded greater responsibility.

Some, including myself at times, have accused the FFA of doing too little to foster the relationship with Asia, a part of the world where Australia’s reputation still struggles. But in recent times I believe there has been an improvement in the work done, mostly behind the scenes, to integrate Australia into the AFC family.

For James Kitching, the former Head of Sports Legal at AFC, and now managing director Kitching Sports, providing increased resources for international relations is the key.

“Relationships are built over time, they can't happen overnight,” Adelaide-based Kitching told FootballToday.

“Relationships are also meant to be reciprocal. Many of the decisions or political shifts which occur in Asian football are a result of years, or decades, of time spent on building relationships.

“The type of work being done now by the FFA in the IR (international relations) space is great - work which rarely gets publicised - but it is also significantly under-resourced when compared to the top-tier and politically-strong nations.”

As with anything though, there is still room for improvement.

My eyebrows were raised when Socceroos defender Milos Degenek said from the Socceroos camp in Dubai, “We’re not taking any backward steps…we expect to dominate countries here in Asia and the world.”

One would expect the players to be confident, but that sort of brashness should be kept behind closed doors. You would have thought that after 12 years as a member of AFC we would have learned the value and importance of language.

A high-ranking AFC official once told me, when discussing Australia’s attitude and reputation in Asia, that they (being FFA and players) still didn’t understand the importance of language – both verbal and body. Comments such as those from Degenek, or the surly and disinterested nature with which previous coach Ange Postecoglou and Mile Jedinak conducted their press conferences, do not portray Australia in the best light.

I am 100 percent certain that isn’t the intention of Degenek or anyone within the FFA, but respect is valued highly in Asia and comments and behaviours in the past have certainly demonstrated a lack of respect.

“Generally the disconnect is cultural,” Kitching said.

“This has included consistent (foul) language used by national team coaching staff when coaching at underage tournaments, or general arrogance when dealing with AFC and local staff at tournaments.

“The 'lobster-gate' story raised eyebrows not because of the sensational headline but for the simple fact that the club failed to properly provide meals for match referees. This had never happened before in 60 years of AFC competitions.”

Which bring us to the clubs and their attitudes towards Asia. Over the years we have seen numerous unsavoury and disrespectful comments levelled towards competitions in Asia and the quality of Asian players.

Last year Adelaide United, one of just two A-League clubs to make the final of the AFC Champions League, refused to release players for the AFC U-23 Championship qualifiers in July – at the start of the A-League pre-season.

“We always try to get our young players to get pushed into the national team and then we get punished for, let’s be honest, a joke of a tournament,’’ Kovacevic told the Adelaide Advertiser.

Diminishing the value of AFC competitions isn’t going to win any friends. It will only further isolate Australia.

Another criticism levelled at the clubs in recent years has been their lack of effort in recruiting Asian players, with only a small handful having come to the A-League in the last few years.

This year Keisuke Honda, admittedly one of the biggest names in Asia, is the only Asian player in the league.

To remedy this situation, FFA proposed introducing the +1 rule that is standard across almost all of Asia. This saw an immediate rebuke from the clubs.

“There is strident objection from the clubs to any change to the existing visa rules,” then Adelaide United owner Greg Griffin told AAP in January 2017.

“That objection will remain; we see absolutely no point in going 4+1 and compromising the product we provide in some attempt to curry favour with the AFC.”

The term “compromising the product” is the one that stood out to me. I saw that as a disrespectful slight on the quality of Asian players, and I called Griffin out on it in an article by Mike Tuckerman in which I was quoted, which received a bizarre and belittling response from Griffin in the comments section to that article.

Despite it looking like the FFA would push ahead with the introduction of the +1 rule irrespective of the grievances of the clubs, it appears they have acquiesced.

Speaking on the FOX Football podcast recently, Head of Leagues at FFA, Greg O’Rourke, said the following:

“We were talking about having a 4+1, an Asian marquee and all these sorts of things a year ago and the clubs pushed back on us and said ‘we don’t think that’s the right strategy. We don’t think having ten Asian players brought into the A-League is the right strategy for us now’.

“But we said what if we, at this point in time, went after one of the biggest names in Asia and bought him as a marquee and hit our Asia strategy in that way and then opened up Asian broadcasters etc, and everyone was fully supportive.”

Asked by host Simon Hill if that satisfied the AFC, O’Rourke replied:

“No, it doesn’t satisfy the AFC. But the AFC in this position are more about what’s your strategy rather than why don’t you lock it away. So if we have a strategy to involve ourselves in Asia and to do things, and that’s a sound strategy, then they’re comfortable.”

Taking O’Rourke’s comments at face value, if what he says about the clubs not wanting to sign Asian players, presumably because they think they are sub-standard, and that is consistent with Griffin’s comments from almost two years ago, that is disappointing in the extreme.

Too often there is a misconception about the level of Asian players that could be attracted to the A-League. Yes it is true that there are higher wages on offer in other parts of Europe, but not every player is motivated purely by money.

Southeast Asia is right on our doorstep, and has some of the most exciting talent in Asia that could do wonders with the right nurturing and professional setup.

I asked the Australian Professional Football Clubs Association (APFCA), the collective group that represents the ten A-League clubs, for their position on the +1 rule and further engaging with Asia and received this statement from their spokesperson and CEO, Greg Griffin.

“Contributing to Asian Football meaningfully and further building ties that help ensure the ongoing success of the AFC, is a fundamental priority for APFCA members. The arrival this season of Keisuke Honda at Melbourne Victory and Yukari Kinga at Melbourne City demonstrate the ongoing desire and potential for Asian players in the A-League and W-League respectively. There is significant potential for wide-ranging and mutually beneficial on-and-off-field opportunities, which we are committed to exploring and developing.”

Griffin is right to point out the success of the W-League teams in recruiting Asian players to the league, and there is genuine excitement at some of the players that will take part in the league this year.

But this isn’t matched by their A-League counterparts, and in my opinion, it’s something that needs to change.

And let’s hope one of those opportunities he mentions isn’t expanding the A-League into Southeast Asia, as some club owners have floated in the past. The less said about that the better.

While O’Rourke claimed the failure to introduce the +1 rule didn’t satisfy the AFC, it’s not something the AFC were willing to comment on publicly.

A spokesperson for AFC said:

“The foreign player quotas in the A-League are a matter for the League themselves and the FFA.”

They are sentiments echoed by Kitching, based on his years of experience within the AFC.

“(It’s) not an issue,” he said of the A-League’s failure to introduce the +1 rule.

“Associations are free to set their own rules. The biggest leagues in East Asia (China) and West Asia (Saudi Arabia) don't currently have a plus one rule.”

When looking at the changing landscape of Australian football, just as important for me is the credentials of the new FFA board that will be voted in next month.

How many will have business experience in Asia? Are any fluent in an Asian language? How many have a history of engagement with Asia, and knowledge of the important cultural differences that exist across the continent?

These are important questions and important qualities that those leading our game need to possess as we look to further establish ourselves into Asia.  Leadership and culture start at the very top.

With a new governance structure in Australian football, let’s hope that furthering Australia’s position in Asia is at the forefront of their thinking.

Categories: Opinion | Asia

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