You hear it all the time, but it seems like the message never gets through. You often have to wonder also how much the messengers even understand or believe it themselves.
“We are falling behind our rivals in Asia.”
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard it, I could probably fund Australian football for the next decade…and treat myself to an early retirement at the same time.
But what does it actually mean when, at senior national team level at least, we’re still one of the top four ranked nations in Asia? So how exactly are we falling behind?
It manifests itself in various ways, and while the performances of the Socceroos and Matildas is still generally of an elite level, the same can’t be said of our club sides.
It seems like a lifetime ago that Western Sydney Wanderers were lifting the AFC Champions League trophy on a balmy night at the King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh. In the fullness of time, their achievement becomes even more remarkable.
But it’s almost like once that mountain was conquered, we moved on and lost interest. While Australian football has had it’s share of issues to deal with in the ensuing years, our attitude to the AFC Champions League has fluctuated between apathy and outright contempt.
Which brings us to the decision this month from the three A-League clubs – Melbourne City, Sydney FC and Brisbane Roar – to withdraw from this year’s AFC Champions League competition. While the clubs will argue they were left with little choice, they are also yet to provide a proper explanation for their decision beyond it being “COVID related”.
But how much that stacks up when three clubs travelled to Qatar last year, and we have our national teams spread across the globe at the moment, remains to be seen. Withdrawal does leave Australia open to sanction from the AFC, although I suspect it won’t come to that.
What it will do, however, is decimate Australia’s standing on the AFC Club Rankings, which is already a lowly 18 and now behind not only Thailand, but also DPR Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines. By not competing this year and consigning ourselves to earning zero rankings points we are almost certain to slide even further.
Doing some calculations, it appears almost certain that Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia will also overtake Australia once the rankings points earned from this year’s AFC Champions League and AFC Cup are tallied up.
That would leave Australia ranked 12th in the East Zone. Twelfth. The nations below us would be Hong Kong (who will likely be hot on our heels), Myanmar, Macau and Cambodia.
In practical terms, what that will mean come 2023 is that our allocations for AFC competitions are drastically changed.
Say goodbye to an automatic spot in the AFC Champions League. We will be just holding on to one playoff spot, but the path to qualify will be difficult. That means we will be playing in the AFC Cup, but so low will our ranking be that our third club, whoever that may be, will even have to qualify for the AFC Cup.
Looking even further ahead, there are more dark clouds on the horizon.
The AFC Club Rankings are calculated across rolling four-year periods. The slot allocation for 2023 is determined based on rankings points from 2018-2021. For 2024 it will be determined based on 2019-2022, and so on and so forth.
The issue for Australia is that 2016 was our last decent campaign in Asia, with both Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory making it out of the group.
When the points from that year are wiped as we move forward, and with no points at all earned in 2020 or 2021, our ranking risks sinking even further. We need a bumper campaign in 2022 from all teams to boost our ranking, otherwise…well, it doesn’t bear thinking about.
While it seems most fans, or at least a sizeable majority, have given up caring about competing in Asia, the implications are bigger than just what continental competition our clubs are competing in.
While the pull isn’t as strong as it is in Europe, when trying to attract foreign talent, the pull of being able to compete in the AFC Champions League and compete in continental competition is significant. As are the potential commercial benefits. While clubs haven’t fully maximised this in the past, the potential is real and you can imagine this would, or at least should, be a key plank for the APL as they move into their new era of control of the professional club game in Australia.
It’s harder of maximise that potential when, instead of playing Guangzhou FC or Kawasaki Frontale, you’re playing Boeung Ket of Cambodia or Hanthawady United of Myanmar.
While one would expect Australian clubs to do well in the AFC Cup, it will take a few years of good performances for Australia’s ranking to rise significantly enough that we get back to where we have been over the past decade.
It’s somewhat ironic that as some in Australia demand a merit-based promotion and relegation system, that the AFC’s own version of that sees Australia as one of its biggest casualties. This is what promotion and relegation looks like.
But the area often mentioned when it comes to ‘falling behind’ is youth development, or more to the point, the money being invested in youth development.
It is no secret that over the last decade or two, our youth development systems and pathways have fallen into a state of decay. A lack of investment, in facilities as much as programs, has put Australia on the back foot.
While there is finally ground being made, and broken when it comes to new facilities and academies – something the 2023 Women’s World Cup should fast-track – there is still a long way to go.
At varying degrees others in Asia have got the jump on us. Take Vietnam as an example.
Those in the know in Asian football have known of their emerging quality for a good little while now, but it seems everyone else – including FIFA – is finally starting to sit up and take notice.
As far back as 2007, Hoang Anh Gia Lai partnered with English Premier League giants Arsenal to develop the HALG-Arsenal academy, and while it closed down a few years ago it developed a good portion of the current Vietnamese national team, including stars such as Vu Van Thanh, Luong Xuan Truong and Nguyen Cong Phuong.
The PVF Academy, opened in 2009 just outside Hanoi, and which until recently was overseen by respected Frenchman Philippe Troussier (he has since been replaced by Belgian Eric Abrams), is now the leading academy in the country and was last year awarded Three-Star status by the AFC, just the third academy in Asia after Aspire (Qatar) and Jeonbuk (Korea) to achieve such status.
It’s sprawling complex consists of a number of high-quality football pitches, live-in facilities for their for the students and elite level indoor facilities including gym, rehab, swimming and state-of-the-art sports science facilities.
This investment in youth development is bearing fruit, with Vietnam finishing as runners-up at the 2018 AFC U23 Championships in China and followed that up with a victory at the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup and a quarter final appearance at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in the UAE.
And just this past week they advanced to the final round of FIFA World Cup qualifying for the first time in their history.
This is just one example, and there are countless others across the continent of clubs, federations and even entire nations throwing their weight behind developing their next generation of football stars.
The facilities enjoyed by JDT in Malaysia are already some of the very best in Asia, and there are plans for an even bigger and better junior academy in the pipeline, and of course we know of the investment that is taking place in China.
Singapore recently announced a national project, backed by all levels of Government, to invest in facilities, infrastructure and programs to enhance their youth development pathways and that is being backed up by the ambitious Lion City Sailors project, which has also announced the development of its new state-of-the-art training facility.
Let’s not forget, also, just how much improvement there has been in Thai football over the last decade, although they will be disappointed not to have advanced to the final round of FIFA World Cup qualification.
But this year they will have four teams in the group stage of the AFC Champions League for the first time, and while there still remains plenty of room for improvement in Thailand, the advancements are already clear to see.
Heaven help Australia if Indonesia, the true sleeping giant of Asian football, ever gets its act together.
With so many emerging nations, who will only get stronger over the coming years and decades, the challenge for Australia is to keep up.
While the assumption is qualification for a 48-team World Cup will be a walk in the park, as more and more nations develop there becomes a larger pool of teams in Asia capable of achieving qualification and providing a sterner test for the ‘elite’ of Asian football. A slip up here or there, as Uzbekistan saw in their qualification recently, is sometimes the difference between qualification or not.
If anything the performances of our senior men’s and women’s sides is masking the true problem that lies beneath the surface.
The question is how long can that continue before the reality of the situation is truly laid bare?