Australia has always thought of itself as a special country, they even have a mantra about being ‘the lucky country’. This ideology has not helped Australia’s perpetual identity crisis, and has resulted in the country questioning where it belongs. Can the answer to this come from football (soccer), and is it a decision that Australia gets to make?
Every now and then the question pops up, where do we draw the continental boundaries? With the expansion of the European Union many have asked what countries actually make up Europe, and what characteristics should make a common continent. Is it culture, history, geography or trade? In Australia and within Asia the question is currently being asked which countries actually make up Asia? What started this most recent discussion was when the Australian football team (The Socceroos) won the Asian Cup, and the response from some, was that Australia is not part of Asia and should be kicked out of the Federation.
During 2006, the Australian Football Federation made the decision to actually take the world game seriously, as it has just occurred to Australia that the rest of the world does not want to play Australian Rules and Rugby. Their first step towards embracing regular football was moving from the Oceania Football Confederation to the Asian Football Federation (AFC). By doing so Australia could play in a bigger league with better opponents, and have a longer competition for qualifiers. The move worked, football is becoming more popular in Australia and the quality of the game has improved. Since the move Australia has qualified for two World Cups, won the Asian champions League, and now hosted and won the Asian Cup. For a country that only enjoys playing sports that they win at, football is becoming a more popular choice.
However, even though Australia felt like things were going well within their new Asian club, it seems that some countries within Asia have different ideas. During the Asian Cup some nations within the Gulf region voiced that Australia should be evicted from the Asian Football Federation, as it is not part of Asia. AFC President Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa stated that this idea is not only apparent in West Asia, but among other nations within the continent. This apparently came as a shock to the Australian Football Federation and these comments have since been retracted. After Australia won the tournament the AFC president stated that he was misquoted.
Less than a fortnight has passed since the AFC’s Presidents remarks but already the discussion about which club Australia belongs to has come up again. This time Europe wants a piece of Australia as for the first time Australia will compete in the Eurovision Song Contest and Australian’s will also be able to vote. No wonder Australia is in a perpetual identity crisis! However, despite this one off appearance in Eurovision, Australia has decided that its future does not lie hand in hand with its old colonial past, but instead within the Asian region.
Australia is also using tactics other than sports to further integrate within the Asian club. Attempts to strengthen its position in the region include greater immigration from Asia. This was a big move forward for Australia as up until 1975 Australia was still implementing the ‘White Australia Policy’, which used language tests to keep out certain ethnic groups. Now the leading groups of immigration are the UK and New Zealand, but also China, India, Vietnam and Thailand. Increasing trade with Asia is another way Australia has moved towards the region, as Australia recently signed free trade agreements with China, South Korea and Japan. Even Australian schools will see change as Australia moves away from promoting European languages and instead they will focus on teaching Asian languages.
However, wanting to be a part of Asia is a new idea for Australia. Since Australia became a unified country in 1901 there has been a culture built around a fear of an Asian invasion. Over time it seems that no one in the Asian region was really serious about taking the continent for themselves, (except maybe Japan during World War Two). Ironically, the concern for Australia is now that Asia does not want Australia to be in the Asian club. One reason for the exclusion is that Australia is very culturally different to Asia, which is something that Australia does not want to change any time soon.
Australia has always been aware that it is an outpost colony, too far from Europe to really belong there, but feels like a big fish in a little pond in Oceania. If Asia is the way forward for Australia it goes to show that it is not always fun to be on the periphery. If football is a precursor for society as a whole we can expect Australia to integrate even more with Asia in the future. That is, if the other Asian nations let them.