They were the big boys of Oceania – an artificial region composing Pacific area outside Asia. Asia itself is a broad definition – from Syria to Japan and Indonesia. In the past Oceania served as a bin for associations with political complications, like Israel and Taiwan.
In Oceania, however, Australia didn’t make it to the World Cup apart from 1974. New Zealand made in in 1982, and in other occasions they lost the playoffs against Europe (Scotland in 1985), South America (Uruguay in 2001), and even Asia (Iran in 1997). At the same time, the question of Australia’s place in Asia Pacific arose again, at it had been in 1980s and 1990s (and now). Asian students had become a part of Australia’s capitals, Asian Australians were growing in numbers (propelled by Southeast Asians from children of Vietnamese boat people to Malaysian students securing permanent residency), and Sydney stock market is comparable to Shanghai’s (after 2000s), Singapore’s, and Seoul’s.
When I arrived in Australia a decade ago, football was a messy affair of South European rivalry. South Melbourne were a Greek club as Sunshine were Croatian. Just a decade ago, football was seen as a Euro sport, although Anglo-Irish players had appeared, like Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton. Australia did really well in the 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup (the last time Japan beat them in 90 minutes, 1-0 by Hide Nakata), but the team continued a heartbreaking streak of losing the intercontinental playoffs. I remember them went down to Argentina in 1993 (Diego Maradona vs Ned Zelic), Iran in 1997 (equalized from 0-2 down in the first half), and the start of bitter rivalry with Uruguay in 2001 (total 7 yellow cards for the hosts in Montevideo). And that was before Luis Suarez.
So Australia, who held world record for 31-0 (insert verbal noun) over American Samoa, thought it’s better to work their way up against Syria, Uzbekistan, and Thailand before jostling for a ticket with Japan and Saudi Arabia (hey, this was a decade ago. OK, Iran then). Rather than steamrolling Vanuatu, knocking New Zealand on the head, and only to go down again in intercontinental.
They did get their wish in 2005 when Mark Bresciano scored against Uruguay in Sydney, equalizing the aggregate to 1-1. 35 year old Mark Schwarzer failed Dario Rodriguez (who beat him in Montevideo) and Marcelo Zalayeta (Uruguay had withdrawn Alvaro Recoba and didn’t play Diego Forlan), and the overjoyed running of John Aloisi entered the lore of Australian sports. He was seen, thanks to the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup, as a better forward to Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell (who had become a winger at this time). At the same year, the A-League was launched, to close curtains on the semi-professional quality and ethnics division of Australian football.
Then the crack came. As a representative for Oceania, they belonged to the same pot with South America and Africa in the draw – and were put in Group F with Japan. The plot was that Brazil (featuring the ‘golden square’ of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka, and Adriano) would breeze through with Croatia came second. The third place would be either Australia or Japan.
Looking back, the air of confidence between Australia and Japan were quite difference. Australia put in the air of defiance, even portraying Japan as a better favorite. But they didn’t care. Nike chose Mark Bresciano (“More than happy to be there”) while adidas promoted Harry Kewell (“+10”). Japan also had big confidence, but outside Japan only Shunsuke Nakamura was considered dangerous enough. This assumption held on the match day. Masashi Oguro played in a minor club in Serie A. Hidetoshi Nakata was seen as a has-been. I spoke to some Japanese students a week before the match and I was more optimistic on Naohiro Takahara than they were. Actually I worried that captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto raised the nation spirit by organizing a futsal match between Morning Musume vs JAL stewardesses instead of increasing his training regime.
But I felt happier living in the otaku (anime geek) world in contrast to the manly Aussie sports world. At this time I felt I had been lost in touch with the Asian part of Australian life that I enjoyed, and so Japan represented that Asian joy, while Australia represented the reality of Western civilization that I was living in. It was a classical East vs West battle.
And I hated Australia for that. And I knew that everything I counted on Japan was wrong. Cahill was better playmaker than Shunsuke. Schwarzer was a better keeper than Kawaguchi. Alex was always ineffective as an attacking forward. And that Japan’s substitutes were lack of quality. The early morning chants of Australian supporters when they passed to the Round of 16 was the worst rude awakening I ever had (my life’s pretty uneventful, huh?).
When Italy defeated Australia and Fabio Grosso became the Dirty Diego of the tournament, Chinese match commentators screamed ecstatically, cursing Australia to the point of being racist. That’s what many Asian males feel about Australia joining AFC. We have no problems with Iranians or Uzbeks, but you ‘whities’ don’t belong here in Asia.
A year later, I was back in Indonesia and Australia were favorites to win the 2007 Asian Cup. In Thailand, Australian supporters wore the bamboo farmer cone caps, something that Thais or any other Southeast Asian supporters never wear (and all the Aussies were white). Indonesia hosted Korea, who played badly against Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Korea needed to defeat Indonesia to pass and Koreans in Jakarta supported them from behind…faaar behind from the safety of gated communities and bulgogi joints. While the Australians felt comfortable in Bangkok (they also did badly against Iraq and Oman), eating rambutan and drinking Chang beer, the Koreans were too terrified to visit the stadium. Too many ‘brownies’ for their comfort. Korean expats are happy for a family outing in Doha or Dubai but not Djakarta.
Australia, in the end, counted their first Asian Cup as bad experience. Aloisi repeated his achievement in scoring against Japan, but Takahara came back with a vengeance. Kewell and Neill failed to defeat Kawaguchi, but Takahara threw away his chance. Australia did have a hope, but Nakazawa scored. With the ousting, David Carney and Nick Carle failed to become Australia’s next big stars. Japan later found out that while Australia had no desire to kill them, Korea did. The next year, Adelaide United reached the AFC Champions League final, only to be shot down 0-3, 0-2 by Gamba Osaka. 2008 proved to be the zenith point for both J-League and A-League in Asia.
My hatred for the Socceroos continued in the FIFA World Cup qualifications, but two things happened. 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup was forgettable because Asia was represented by Iraq. Secondly, watching Australia facing Bahrain, Qatar, and Uzbekistan, part of me wanted them to lose and part of me were irritated with the quarrelsome and vain West Asians and their stadiums that were devoid of women. I began to see the common point between Australia and Japan. It was in Japan’s interest that Australia went well against the West Asians. I also always want Japan to play as passionate and dominating the way Australia do (Australia scored 12 goals, two on Japan, while Japan scored 11. The big difference was Australia conceded only one – the scorer was Tulio Tanaka).
Then came the day Australia’s supremacy and defiance ended. Schwarzer was looking forward to face the country of his parents and Tim Cahill was one of the best playmaker in England. They scared Germany in the first five minutes. Three minutes later, Podolski scored. Then Klose. Then forward Cahill received red card. Then Muller scored again. Kick off, then it’s the turn of substitute Cacau.
Looking back, Australia did as well as they did in 2006 – draw with Ghana and victory over Serbia, with Brett Holman came into prominence. Problem was Ghana had the better goal aggregate. And so Pim Verbeek was deemed as a failure.
Was I happy? Absolutely. Of course, United States vs Australia would have become an ultimate soccer game. But everyone needed a lovable African team and they were Ghana.
In 2011, my dilemma of Australia vs West Asia returned. Disappointed that Korea failed to defeat them but happy that they defeated Bahrain, Iraq, and destroyed Uzbekistan. Tim Cahill, as always, could become Japan’s nemesis. He came close to score but he didn’t, and Tadanari Lee’s volley made Japan, once more, the Kings of Asia. Unfortunately, Lee’s moment failed to spark renewed respect for the Korean-Japanese. Worse, his fellow Korean-Japanese girlfriend left him for Okinawan geek girl’s god Gackt and he failed to settle in Southampton.
Two other things happened recently. The hostile nationalism gripping all Asian nations, including Japan and Korea, and their disdain for liberalism and green issues, has made me wide awake at nights. Australia has become a standard for everything right about society and politics (compared to Japan, Korea, and Singapore, my Australian friends).
Second, I’m teaching Australian cultural studies and I’m loving it. I prefer Girls’ Generation but I play Gotye and Sia. My students enjoyed Packed to the Rafters that I showed while I like Dream High and Working!! better. From advising nervous and excited teenagers how to enjoy life in Australia, I’ve come to fall in love with it again.
The cordial atmosphere between Japan and Australia last week has become a point where I’ve come to accept Australia as one of the East Asians. But not yet. Australia still have no footballer from Asian background. Australia still has almost no athlete from East Asian background (only diver Melissa Wu comes into mind, plus some badminton players). The only Asian Australian footballer I know (discounting those of Lebanese backgrounds) is Brendan Gan, who played for Sydney FC and now is with New South Wales Premier League’s Rockdale City Suns (formerly a Macedonian club). If the chance comes, he opts to play for Malaysia rather than Australia.
And so the quest for Soccer Australia’s Jeremy Lin still afar. It can be ten years from now, or it can be soon after 2015. Or much longer, the way United States still yet to find the heir to Brian Ching and Canada with Issey Nakajima-Farran (and both players are half-white). When he comes and plays for the green and gold, I’ll completely support the Socceroos.