One year on, the Asian Cup demonstrates the potential for sports diplomacy

Football’s Asian Cup dominated Korean-language news coverage of Australia over the past year. AAP/Mitchell Burke

This month marks one year since Australia hosted – and won – football’s Asian Cup. The tournament, our research suggests, also boosted Australian football’s contribution to our international reputation and relations.

Football Federation Australia (FFA), the sport’s Australian governing body, recently announced that it is working with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to develop MIKTA, a forum of middle powers involving Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia. This suggests that both the FFA and DFAT think that football might be valuable in Australia’s diplomatic toolkit.

Our research suggests they might be right.

The relationship is more important than we think

Ask many Australians what they know about South Korea and the replies are likely to highlight electronic mega-brands Samsung and LG, bygone pop sensation PSY, or the pungent cabbage dish kimchi. Or they might pivot their response to the authoritarian renegade nuclear aspirant to the north.

South Korea is woefully under-reported in Australia, especially given its position as Australia’s third-largest export market after China and Japan. The two have close security ties; South Korea is the only country other than the US with which Australia has a 2+2 meeting (involving defence and foreign ministers).

South Koreans are consistently Australia’s third- or fourth-largest source of international students and working holiday-makers, and eighth-largest source of international tourists.

Similarly, as our research suggests, the representation of Australia in South Korean media is scant. Given the relative importance of the two countries to one another, this is troubling.

What we found

Our research included analysis of six months of South Korean online news coverage and interviews with editors and journalists. We know of no comparable study.

We analysed more than 400,000 online news stories. We first searched for stories that included a set of key terms relating to Australia, then parsed these (more than 8000) news articles through semantic analysis programs to reveal which terms were dominant and/or significant.

Our top-line findings are perhaps unsurprising. Coverage of Australia was greater, and different, in English than in Korean. This implies that it is not sufficient to rely upon English-language media sources when considering Australia’s image.

Trade relations between Australia and South Korea featured highly. This reflects the importance of the economic relationship and coverage of the recent Free Trade Agreement. Media coverage of strategic and security matters, including North Korean belligerence, is less prominent. Australia appears less important than (in order) China, Japan and the US.

Heung-Min Son is one of Korea’s finest football exports. AAP/Paul Miller

More surprising was the extent to which football was prominent. In the Korean-language news, the Asian Cup’s dominance was especially pronounced. The highest-ranking terms – whether measured by frequency, degree centrality (number of connections) or betweenness centrality (importance of connections) were mostly those relating to the tournament.

South Korean footballers Heung-Min Son, Du-Ri Cha, Ki Sung-Yueng and Jeong-Hyeop Lee are all in the 15 most frequently occurring name-like words in the corpus. Of note is Tony Abbott’s absence from the list and the ranking of South Korean President Park Geun-hye (54).

The findings show how Australia struggles to rise above the fray in Korean news, instead being consigned to one of a number of countries that form an international community. Football, specifically the major Asian competition featuring both Australian and South Korean teams, seems to be the one clear exception.

Our research demonstrates there are good reasons be positive about the impact of hosting the Asian Cup, and being in the Asian Football Confederation. The level of coverage exceeded expectations and overshadowed other major topics like trade and security.

Sport – especially major events and competitions in which both countries compete – provides an opportunity to create a shared story. Australia’s membership of the Asian Football Confederation was always meant to result in more than just easier World Cup qualification.