The passions of some Australians attending games in the 2015 Asian Cup that don’t involve the Socceroos has generated more comment than the crowd at the Australian games.
Most notably, in their first game the highly ranked Iranian team was cheered on by a “raucous” group of fans – primarily migrants to Australia rather than tourist fans – whose extremely loud, celebratory support surprised many of the Australian journalists in attendance.
Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that, in 2013, 27.7% (6.4 million) of Australians were born overseas, up from 27.3% (6.2 million) the year before. Given Australia’s multicultural profile, the ability of some Australians to support two (or more) nations – their place of birth or family heritage and their adopted home in Australia – has already won praise from some commentators.
It is not new for many Australians to feel ties to multiple countries, but the emotions of such migrant fans have been understudied. Nevertheless, recent research suggests that football can be a unifying site for migrants who can come together in their new home to support and celebrate their continuing ties to their old home.
Indeed, for Palestinian Australians, the Asian Cup has provided a chance to come together in joy rather than in grief and protest. But if Iran plays Australia in the semi-final or final, football might become a place of tension as the two “homes” they belong to compete.
Violence is unlikely, but accusations of being “un-Australian” are likely to surface if any Iranian migrants support Iran over the Socceroos. Discord within family groups is also likely as individuals feel the pressure to choose one side.
Research into the experiences of Italian migrants found that although many were excited before Australia played Italy in the 2006 World Cup, the game was intense and distressing for many.
Most first-generation male migrants supported Italy even though they felt affinity with Australia, while the first-generation females and second-generation children tended to support Australia at the same time as feeling fondly towards Italy.
In some family groups the first-generation patriarchs were isolated as the stress of the game increased. And the contentious ending – an Italian victory due to a disputed penalty – left almost no one truly happy.
It was a reminder that while sport can bring about cultural exchange, it can divide as well as unite. It can also spark rivalries and tensions with broader political ramifications, as well as lead to greater engagement and understanding.
But let’s step back for a moment and consider the Asian Cup as a whole. What does it say about Australia’s place in Asia?
Is Australia really part of Asia?
The disjunction between Australia’s geographical location and its recent history as an English colony leads to complex questions of whether Australia is, or should be, part of Asia. At stake in this debate are policies in trade, immigration and defence among other areas.
At times, however, cultural exchange and what some term “soft power” can be as important as government policies and relationships. For example, mass spectator sports – those dominant but often neglected centres of popular culture – can be key sites of engagement, exchange and sometimes even belonging.
Cricket, for instance, has been an enduring site of connection between Australia, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The sporting connections of Australia to countries in other parts of Asia have been weaker, as have other forms of cultural exchange.
The move of Australia to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 2006 was seen as a chance to redress this and create enduring relationships through sport. As the Australian Government’s 2012 Australia in the Asian Century White Paper put it:
[…] for the first time Australia had a significant, ongoing sporting relationship with a large number of Asian and Middle Eastern countries complementing our diplomatic and other links.
The hope, then, is for something termed “football diplomacy”.
Australia hosting the 2015 AFC Asian Cup can be seen as a peak opportunity for football diplomacy. It provides Australia with the chance to make an enduring positive impression and to build lasting relationships with the competing nations and their peoples.
Within a relatively short time (Association) football has become incredibly popular throughout much of Asia. This means that Australia is currently the focus of great attention in important and multifaceted ways.
There are the many tourist fans from Asia with their social media, the mass influx of journalists profiling Australia as well as chronicling the deeds of national teams, and millions of people in countries such as China, Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea who are closely following the games on television and other media and dreaming of their nation winning the cup.
Australia right now is a site of intense football dreams, wishes, hopes and fears for perhaps hundreds of millions of people throughout the Asian region.
Football followers throughout Asia are already becoming more familiar with the Socceroos and individual Australian players, as are football followers in Australia with the Asian teams and players.
How all Australians behave – on and off the pitch – is on show. Respecting and even celebrating the deeds of players from other nations is one step towards engagement and understanding, although the continuing issue of racism in football codes around the world tempers optimism.
There are also intriguing possibilities for the development of positive sentiments and attachments as Australia becomes entangled in long-standing rivalries between the Asian teams.
For example, Korean researcher Seongsik Cho, from Hanyang University, notes that one of the highest-rating sporting events in Korean TV history was when the Guus Hiddink-coached Socceroos played Japan in the 2006 World Cup. And the millions of Koreans who tuned in during the early hours celebrated the Australian victory against their arch enemy. So support by fans for teams representing other countries is not unique.
Cho is in Australia researching the experiences of the South Korean fans who have come over to support their team. One of the key aspects of this research is how the diversity of Australia is experienced by those in Asia.
Some scholars have argued that the round-ball code of football is played by a more diverse group of Australians than any other sport. Yet Australia is still perceived as a largely white, homogeneous nation in many parts of Asia.
When one of us (Brent McDonald) asked audiences of scholars and university students in Japan and South Korea about whether Australia is part of Asia, they responded with a resounding “No!”.
Preliminary findings also indicate that the Japanese media still view Australian football players as bigger and stronger than their Japanese counterparts, despite the fact that the available physical profiles of the two groups of players show them to be of very similar height and weight.
Football then can be a place where stereotypes are reinforced, despite providing evidence to refute these stereotypes.
Nor is the reaction necessarily positive when national stereotypes are challenged. Some Chinese journalists, for example, have responded to the ethnically diverse nature of the Socceroos by complaining that Australia is cheating by importing better players from Europe, not realising that almost all of these players were born in Australia.
Still, as host nation, the diversity of Australia is also showcased through the mix of people who attend the games and the teams they support.
Indeed, the crowds so far have been notably heterogeneous. This might indicate to those visiting and watching from overseas just how many significant Asian peoples now live in Australia, and thus undermine the assumptions of Australian whiteness.
Yet perhaps the hosting of the Asian Cup allows Australia to learn more about itself than about its regional neighbours. Many of the tales to emerge so far have been about the experiences of those who have migrated to Australia from the Asian region.
Thus far the Asian Cup has provided compelling spectacles that have entranced much of Australia along with the rest of the region, but its legacy as a momentary curiosity or something more enduring remains to be seen.
Matthew Klugman, Brent McDonald and Seongsik Cho will be part of a free public forum discussing Football Codes in the Asian Century at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, on Tuesday January 20 at 5:30pm.