Australia’s relationship with Asia in football stretches as far back as 1923, when a Chinese side toured the country to enormous crowds, but for almost a century there were peaks and troughs when it came to engagement. Opinions differ on why this is the case. Many point to the historical resistance of key Asian powerbrokers to Australia joining the Asian Football Confederation, while others say Australia has never done enough on the diplomatic front to truly warrant Asia’s respect.
The first official overture from Australia to join the AFC was in 1960, during a period in which Australia was banned from FIFA for poaching overseas players. Despite this ban, the 1960s were a boom period for Australian football as thousands of new, football-loving migrants from Europe settled in Australia. However, the governance of the game was still highly fractured and disorganised, and many initiatives that might have given the game a strong foundation were stymied by self-interest from clubs and the federations. Engaging with Asia was one of these wasted opportunities.
The great Australian soccer boom during the 1960s was set amid larger tectonic shifts occurring in the region. Large parts of Asia and Africa were in the last stages of decolonisation, and Australia – in its own unique fashion – was grappling with the gradual decline of the British Empire. By 1968, Prime Minister John Gorton noted ‘a commendable emptiness in Australians about their place in the world’. With more diverse migration Australia was becoming an open, multicultural society, and no other sport was more representative of this than football. The new ethnic clubs with emotional and cultural links to parts of Europe had wrested control of the game from the established Anglo-British order, and were steering it in exciting new directions. ‘The air was infused with the spirit of triumph which encouraged innovative and sometimes extravagant thinking, a kind of dreaming aloud,’ wrote football historian Trevor Thompson.
In Asia football reflected a new sense of identity, yet unlike Australia it was used to greater effect by politicians to help shape this new focus. In August 1957, as the Malaysians celebrated their Independence Day, a new Cup competition was established to mark the historic occasion. The Merdeka Cup – merdeka meaning ‘freedom’ – quickly became one of the most prestigious tournaments in Asia, and was backed by Malaysia’s first Prime Minister and father of Malaysian football Tunkul Abdul Rahman. As early as 1965, Australia was invited to participate. Initially, the Australian Soccer Federation accepted the invitation, leading Soccer World journalist Lou Gautier to predict ‘a new era in Australia’s soccer relations in Asia’.
Chaos ensued. By early 1966 the ASF was informed that airfares to and from Malaysia wouldn’t be covered by Kuala Lumpur, but Rahman was so keen to keep Australia in the tournament that he approached Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt to cover the shortfall. When Holt declined the ASF decided they couldn’t justify the expense and withdrew. In a curious twist, in 1967 Western Australia decided they would venture where the ASF wouldn’t. Led by Julius Re, the Western Australia Soccer Federation raised $8000 to fund the trip, and when the ASF requested five players from the eastern states be included in the party, its request was turned down. Having raised the money and taken the gamble, the Western Australians were going it alone.
At Soccer World, journalists were apoplectic. ‘We have said it before, and say it again,’ wrote Lou Gautier after the 1967 tournament. ‘Australia must take part in the Merdeka [Cup] every year.’ Later, Gautier revealed that local clubs would not release their best players for the tournament, which clashed with the domestic seasons. Club self-interest was more important that Asian engagement. In his strongest criticism of his countrymen, Gautier wrote,
Our officials, and a majority of our fans, however, are ingrained with a ‘European’ or ‘British’ complex. They are looking at it from the wrong end. European soccer shouldn’t be our yardstick – not yet anyway. It’s in Asia that we have to prove ourselves.
It was a battle Soccer World would not win. While the rest of Asia turned its focus to Malaysia every year, little Australia busied itself with provincial suburban kick-abouts between Sutherland and APIA Leichhardt, for example, or exhibition tours by British and European clubs. Soon the invites from Malaysia stopped coming.
In 1967 New Zealand, and by proxy Australia, was rejected from being part of the Asian Games. ‘Australia is a continent in itself and by no stretch of the imagination can be labeled “Asian”,’ commented the Bangkok Post. ‘The Asian Games are run by Asians, for Asians.’ Yet while there was resistance to Australia joining the multi-sport Asian Games, football always presented a unique opportunity to break down barriers. Later that year, the Liberal Holt Government sent an Australian side to the 1967 Friendship Cup at the height of the Vietnam War. In his biography Johnny Warren bluntly called the event ‘a public relations exercise to help win the Vietnamese people to the cause of the United States-led forces’. Australia won the tournament, and Warren was part of a nucleus of players that later travelled to the 1974 World Cup. It is often said that the 1967 Friendship Cup, set among bomb blasts and landmines in the battlefields of Vietnam, is the birthplace of the Socceroos.
According to research by football historian Roy Hay, Australia were referred to as ‘Uc Dai Lois’ and the ‘Con Son people’ by the Vietnamese. Both names have some bearing on Australia’s budding relationship with Asia. The former means ‘those from a land of great interest’, while the latter referred to the name of Vietnam’s largest prison. Despite being curious about Australians, the Vietnamese saw us as imprisoned by British imperialism. Perhaps they knew us better than we did ourselves. Valiant efforts by players were not followed up with diplomacy by the ASF, and another opportunity to break free from a colonial football mentality was wasted.
It was Soccer World, more than any other newspaper or individual, that led Australia’s charge into Asia. As early as 1960, Andrew Dettre (writing under the nom de plume ‘Paul Dean’) was recommending that Australia affiliate with the AFC. In 1972, five years after the Friendship Cup in South Vietnam, Dettre set off with Tibor Kalman on a mission to Asia.
‘Tibor Kalman was a well-to-do man, he offered to pay the expenses,’ Dettre told Leopold Method. ‘He was my friend and my host. We went to Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Thailand, everywhere. It was three weeks or something, on behalf of the Australian Soccer Federation. When I came back, I wrote a report, saying every effort should be made to become part of Asia, because they will not come to you begging you to join, but with the right approach, they will let you in.’
The right approach. Those words would haunt Australian football for nearly three decades, as the Asians repeatedly refused to accept Australia into their confederation. Most famously, in 1974, the President of the ASF Sir Arthur George was humiliated at the AFC Congress. Before his passing George spoke about a representative from Kuwait referring to ‘the murderers of Taiwan, the criminals of Israel… and the super criminals of Australia’.
Australia was a nation caught between territorial realities and the imagined community in Europe and the UK. When we looked around at our neighbours, we didn’t much like what we saw. Imagine, for a moment, that a European or British head of state had invited Australia to take part in a continental football tournament, as the Malaysians had with the Merdeka Cup? Heaven and earth would have been moved to get the best players there in green and gold. Still yet to dismantle the White Australia Policy, Australia resented its isolation from ties to kinship in Europe and the UK. In his seminal book The Lucky Country: Australia in the Sixties, noted historian Donald Horne wrote,
If the impression has been given that no one in Australia ever thinks of Asia, it should be pointed out that this is now far from true. Over the last ten years or so there has been a huge shift in attitudes. Sensations burst into the newspapers, seminars are held, articles are written. But the interest is sometimes that of someone momentarily attracted to an idea: Fascinating stuff I must find out what it’s all about sometime. There is not very much real feel for Asia.
Horne, of course, was not referring to football, but his musings might as well have been published as an op-ed in Soccer World. We were far too big and ambitious for our pithy surrounds in Oceania, but not yet seen as a part of the continent on our doorstep. Asia was an exercise in exotica, a hobby horse of a few frustrated journalists.