Asian Cup - Lemon or Success?

Asian Cup - Lemon or Success?

EXCLUSIVE: Scott McIntyre

What exactly is a lemon?

There’s been a lot of talk over the past week or so in Australia over whether or not the 2015 Asian Cup will be a success but for me the key is in defining the specific notion of success.

2011 Asian Cup Champions - Japan

I’m currently writing from Jakarta, the venue for that dramatic final in 2007 when Iraq won their first Asian Cup and I can tell you the people here don’t know or care who Eddie McGuire is – the President of an AFL club who made the now infamous claim that the next Asian Cup will be a lemon.

We assume he means a complete failure and while I don’t share those sentiments there’s a lot of work to be done to ensure the event goes off smoothly.

Since I first lived in Japan in 1999 I’ve followed and been to more Asian Cups than most Australians so feel reasonably qualified to look back and assess what Australia needs to do to create a ‘showpiece event.’

There are a raft of measures that can be used to define success – attendance, viewing figures, ephemeral ideas of ‘atmosphere,’ security breaches, safety, infrastructure and on and on.

The first point that’s worth noting is that the FFA actually wanted to and managed to secure the rights.

Australia’s place in Asia has not always been welcomed and there remains a small band of dissenters who’d like nothing more than to see the back of the FFA – for this reason alone it’s important that Australia is seen as fully embracing the region.

Giving and not just taking.

I’ve written extensively on the A-League’s refusal to adopt the 3+1 rule and thus fully integrate itself with the other major leagues throughout the confederation so the fact Australia was prepared to bid to host the AFC’s flagship tournament was in itself a positive move.

However, and to my knowledge it’s never been reported in Australia but the FFA came perilously close to being denied the hosting rights.

A day after the final cutoff for bids (and with rumours swirling that the FFA was forced to provide last-minute bank guarantees to the AFC), Kuwait put forward a rival bid.

Normally, you would have expected this to have been at least explored but some behind-the-scenes maneuvering ensured that the tournament would head to Australia as ‘the sole bidder.’

There’s another story here yet to be fully told about a change in the AFC statutes to no longer allow sub-confederational rotation but that’s for another day.

Suffice to say I think the mere fact that Australia wanted to host the tournament is a positive step forward

The key now is to ensure the groundwork is properly laid.

Michael Brown and Shane Harmon – both with extensive experience at other sports – have snared the top two roles.

These are the key men who will determine whether or not the event is a ‘lemon’ and while I personally believe there should have been someone with organizational experience of football involved it’s perhaps not a fatal blow.

Eyebrows have certainly been raised in some sections of the AFC over just how little ‘football knowledge’ the pair have but there’s still time for that to come together.

By football knowledge I don’t mean an understanding of the laws of the game but more an appreciation of what a football fan wants/needs and to comprehend what is the planet’s most haphazard confederation.

Almost 20 different major language groups; half a dozen differing religions; vastly different socio-economic backgrounds, nations that are at war and those at peace; strings of different football pedigree and heritage.

Will the Australian fans turn up?

The key figures in the LOC have, despite their experience elsewhere, never faced as complicated a challenge as this.

Major decisions have already been made – the call to exclude Perth and Adelaide upset many and there’s some talk that Canberra may be cut from the final list of venues.

The state governments in Victoria, NSW and Queensland are believed to have heavily backed the initial venue list and so the decision was made to cut other key areas and indeed whole states.

On the one hand, it’s a big blow for football lovers in those regions but also a logical one given the geography of the country.

Only twice previously – in Iran and China – have the AFC faced a similar problem.

The first time (1968) Iran hosted Tehran was the sole venue, the next (1976) Tabriz was included but the matches were centralised.

China presented a massive problem by using 4 venues dotted around the country and this is where I think Australia has got it right in a partial restriction.

But, it’s got it wrong by not following Iran’s lead and playing all group matches at the same venue.

This issue really has the potential to up the ‘lemon value’ – rather than using say Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra for the group stages we are now asking people to fly all the way here – and then fly a whole lot more.

It makes the tournament prohibitively expensive; I know from personal experience in 2004 in China there was no way that you’d go to Chongqing or Chengdu when you could simply stay in the east and shuttle between Beijing and Jinan.

Through no fault of the LOC Australia has a woeful rail network meaning flying is the only option and this, in my opinion, will keep away a vast majority of not only fans but also media that otherwise would have travelled.

Which means there is a need to focus on domestic attendances and this is an area where the FFA has struggled in the past.

Again, the value of centralising venues could have meant that specific regions with a large population from that nation could have been targeted – Japan in Brisbane, Iran in Melbourne, China in Sydney and so on.

There are however major pitfalls with simply assuming that the ‘migrant population’ will just turn up. The FFA and A-League clubs have shown a woeful lack of interest in utilizing foreign-language media throughout Australia – in my opinion, to their detriment.

Anyway, attendances have varied widely throughout the tournament’s history; for those that remember Lebanon in 2000 you could count most crowd figures on the fingers of the assembled players.

China reached huge heights – but only for selected fixtures. Indeed the final in 2004, given the historical and political tensions between the China and Japan remains one of my most vivid footballing memories.

2007 was a hotch-potch with 4 venues but still then and in 2011 supporter numbers where by-and-large at historical averages.

The simple fact remains that Asia, in football terms, is a vast region and not everybody can afford to take off and travel to the other end of the planet.

TV viewing figures are also quite often misleading as timezones will determine how many people tune in. Australia 2015 can expect a large audience from the big players in north-Asia and that’s a hell of a lot of people.

Yet, just as importantly the kickoff times will make things hard for those in the Middle East (likely to provide the majority of nations competing)

Similarly, ‘atmosphere’ is often used as a determinant of success but as we’ve seen with the never-ending debate about Qatar’s 2022 hosting rights what one person defines as excitement another derides as inappropriate.

So surely a tournament that manages to get all these ‘little’ things largely right is what we’re aiming for.

Maybe a combined travel ticket that includes flights to and within the venues; targeted cultural events to help promote and enliven the tournament; free-to-air television exposure; fanzones as we’ve seen FIFA implement so successfully; foreign-language tabs on the official website and an organizational approach which ensures no A-League Grand final-type stuff-ups occur.

It may be difficult to judge what constitutes a successful Asian Cup but it’s easy to tell when one goes wrong.

Scott is currently travelling around Asia and you can read more of his opinions and stories on Asian Football Feast over the coming months. Be sure to also read his regular blogs for The World Game.

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