Tim Cahill of Australia (second right) will be leading the Socceroos charge at Asian Cup 2015. Can the team and the nation 'get amongst it'?

Tim Cahill of Australia (second right) will be leading the Socceroos charge at Asian Cup 2015. Can the team and the nation ‘get amongst it’?

Disappointing crowds at the 2015 Asian cup show Australia may not be ready to call Asia home, writes James Giggacher.

Does Asia’s benevolence for this nation of ‘white trash’, as Singapore’s PM Lee Kuan Yew once infamously labeled us, know no bounds?

First China’s insatiable hunger for our resources digs us out of the global financial crisis and propels years of suckling high on the (sweet and sour) hog.

Kicking off in Melbourne Friday, the tournament has already delivered, if not world-leading, then at least enthusiastic, hard-working, and good old shin-crunching displays from the region’s top 16 sides.

Running since 1956, it is the world’s second oldest continental football tournament after the Copa America. Television audiences are expected to exceed 800 million across some 120 countries. For perspective, the 2014 World Cup final alone had a possible global audience of one billion.

After the 2000 Sydney Olympics and 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, this is the biggest sporting event to hit our shores in recent times. It is also the first (and possibly only) time we will be able to show off our love of the global game (still Australia’s most played sport at junior level) on the world stage.

Australia has finally taken centre stage in Asia.

It is a rare honour indeed; particularly for the upstart from Oceania which was only formally accepted into the tournament’s overseer, the Asian Football Confederation, in June 2005.

Expectations for our boys in green and gold are high – with hosting rights comes anticipation, and many are hoping we can do one better than our 1-0 loss to Japan in the 2011 final. The expectations, though, have not been matched by recent performances on the field.

It’s been tough going since for the Socceroos, who haven’t leapt and bound so much as become road kill on the global football super highway; falling to as low as 100 in the FIFA rankings. That puts us lower than a bunch of countries most Australians would struggle to locate on a map, including Antigua and Barbuda, Benin, and Malawi.

Coach Ange Postecoglou has experimented with 42 players since our three defeats in the 2014 World Cup group stages, with the national team only winning two of 12 games prior to Friday night’s 4-1 come from behind drubbing of bogey team Kuwait.

There is an expectation that we will at least make the final four, if not win the whole damn thing.

Much like Postecoglou’s squad, Australia as a nation finds itself in a critical stage of re-building, if not re-imaging. In this Asian century, hosting the Asian cup means much for our orientation and place in the region. Will we remain perched on the edges or dive right in?

Public engagement with the festival of football will provide some clue.

From my adopted home of Canberra, the prospects aren’t looking that bright. Only 12,500 turned out for the city’s first game – South Korea versus Oman – on Saturday. The South Korean fans were enthusiastic, their drums and chanting echoing throughout the half empty stadium. But Canberrans stayed away, letting a little light rain trump one of the world’s great football tournaments on their doorstep.

The next day, only 5,000 turned out for a grudge match between Gulf states the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. A near empty stadium witnessed a pulsating end-to-end goal fest. It could get worse. According to organising committee head Michael Brown, sales for the remaining Canberra games, including a quarter final, aren’t that promising.

I accidentally found myself among the Qatar fans for the game against the UAE. Lucky they were more a brood then a horde.

I accidentally found myself among the Qatar fans for the game against the UAE. Lucky they were more a brood then a horde.

Elsewhere, Melbourne and Sydney particularly, ticket sales are apparently running ahead of budget. But even then there are concerns. Friday’s opener featuring the Socceroos in Melbourne was a sell-out, but that was only confirmed mere hours before the game. Games in Brisbane and Sydney (with the exception of Tuesday night’s Socceroos game at Stadium Australia) have only seen 12,000 spectators at best. Newcastle’s only group game had 17,000 fans marooned in a 33,000 seat stadium.

As the tournament progresses, the proof will be in the padding – and whether possibility turns to reality with bums on seats in the five stadia hosting the 32 matches.

Worryingly, for those Australians who don’t make it to the matches live, there are limited options for watching them on television. While Foxtel subscribers will get all the games live, those with free-to-air television will get a more meagre selection.

Friday’s tournament opener between Australia and Kuwait was broadcast on the ABC on delay – at the family friendly time of 10pm. Only group stage games featuring the Socceroos are being aired on free-to-air television (with the quarter-finals onwards to be broadcast live). Meanwhile, online highlights are hard to come by.

This is disappointing. The region is coming to our little patch of the globe in a big way, and we should ensure it is the party it deserves to be.

Some naysayers – myself included – may dismiss the tournament for its lack of perceived quality on the field. After all, Brazil 2014 was the region’s worst performance at a World Cup in 24 years. But this would be unfair.

The cup is like the dynamic and ancient region it covers: full of rich stories, compelling narratives, fierce rivalries, and wonderful potential.

First there are the usual suspects – favourites Japan (who are vying for a record fifth win), South Korea, Iran and Australia. There’s also largely unfancied Uzbekistan who came in fourth last time around.

But for me, it’s the small on-field drama that speaks to larger than life issues which is most appealing.

There’s the prospect of a finals match between North and South Korea (two nations technically still at war with each other); the question of whether the plucky resolve of minnows Palestine can see them progress beyond the group stage at their first cup appearance (unlikely after losing their opening game 4-0 and with Israel detaining players); or scoping out what we can expect from under-fire 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar – not much by this weekend’s performance.

And for those of us more parochial than regional, the question of whether Australia can win the tournament at home should be motivation enough. Will the Socceroos, many of whom won’t have a chance at tournament riches after this, seize their chance in Asia? More importantly, will Australia as a nation seize its future in the region?

A wise man once said football is not just a matter of life and death – it is more important than that. And so it proves in 2015; the Asian cup is about much more than football.

Let’s show Asia we aren’t the bogan neighbours everyone despises, but are just as home in this dynamic, ancient and most populous neck of the woods.

James Giggacher is Asia Pacific editor at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. Besides screaming for (and at) the Socceroos, fond memories of Abu Dhabi see him adopting UAE as his second team at this year’s Asian cup.

A version of this article was also published on The Drum.