The 2015 AFC Asian Cup is the biggest football tournament ever held in Australia, so what bearing does the host status have on the Socceroos’ chances of success? A lot more than you might think.
When econometricians from PricewaterhouseCoopers looked at many factors that might determine a country’s footballing successes, they found that demographics such as a country’s population or per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) were not significant as predictors.
While large, affluent nations such as Germany were successful, so were smaller nations such as The Netherlands and economically poorer nations such as Brazil.
The one factor that they did find to be greatly relevant was geography and the advantage of hosting a tournament, or having it held in a neighbouring nation.
Quite how strong an impact the tournament location has is perhaps surprising. Looking at the FIFA World Cup, of 21 host nations (20 tournaments with one co-hosted by two nations), a staggering 17 hosts equalled or bettered their previous best performance. Relative heavyweight nations France and England have lifted the trophy only once each, on both occasions on home soil.
Looking at Asia’s premier tournament, the home advantage is even more striking. Of 18 previous host nations (15 tournaments with one co-hosted across four nations) only one host (2007’s co-host Thailand) did not at least equal its best previous performance.
What does this mean for Australia’s chances in the 2015 Asian Cup? The bar is certainly set extremely high if the Socceroos are to match or equal their best tournament result.
Having joined the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) only in 2006, they were runners-up in their second tournament back in 2011. To emulate that performance would mean qualifying for the final on January 31 at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium.
But the 2015 AFC Asian Cup represents a golden opportunity for the sport in this country.
It comes at a time of unprecedented success for the code, both on and off the field. The national team, the Socceroos, have qualified for three consecutive FIFA World Cups and the A-League domestic competition finally seems to be striking a healthy balance between ambitious expansion and long-term sustainability.
The tournament arrives only a matter of months after an Australian club side conquered the Asian Champions League for the first time. Hopes are high that the national representatives can match this achievement.
A game of near misses?
But it is difficult not to conclude that the game in Australia has already suffered two recent unfortunate missed opportunities, one sporting and one political.
A late capitulation in Montevideo in 2001 cost the Socceroos a place in the following year’s 2002 World Cup, the first ever held outside the established strongholds of Europe and the Americas.
The tournament, jointly held in Japan and South Korea, proved to be a platform for non-traditional powers to succeed. In the only games held in Asia to date, the quarter-finals featured four sides that had not previously gone that far before: Senegal, the USA, Turkey and South Korea, the last two of which went on to the semi-finals.
Historical data trends certainly suggest that an Australian side would have a significantly better chance of progressing in an Asian-hosted tournament than one in either Europe or South America.
Given the huge boost that hosting a tournament is to a country’s chances of progress, Australia’s ill-fated attempt to secure the 2022 World Cup – controversially awarded to Qatar – surely represents not only a cultural loss but also a major blow to the Socceroos’ chances of progressing to the later stages of that tournament.
The potential legacy of a successful campaign
If Australia wants to see how the sport can benefit from succeeding on home soil, the United States arguably provides the clearest example.
As host of the 1994 World Cup, the USA went further than it had ever previously gone. The home side advanced beyond the group stage for the first time before being eliminated in the second round.
Since then, and on the back of an ever-strengthening domestic league, the USA has qualified for every World Cup and appeared in five successive CONCACAF Gold Cup – the North American equivalent of the Asian Cup – finals (although it did have home advantage in all five of those tournaments). Like in Australia, the game is unlikely ever to become the nation’s dominant sport, but it is establishing a sustainable mainstream supporter base.
Australia is now in a strong position to secure the right to host FIFA’s flagship tournament, the World Cup, within the next couple of decades. The world body is increasingly hosting the finals in regions to which they have not gone before.
After intense criticism of its decisions (and the process by which they were reached) to host the next two World Cups in Russia and Qatar, a tournament in a more transparent Western-style democracy seems a likely move.
If this month’s Asian Cup manages to capture the nation’s attention, this will likely only strengthen Australia’s case.
The simple fact is that history suggests that Australia has never had a better chance of securing a major footballing title. When the final whistle blows on the Asian Cup at the end of January, if the Socceroos are not on the field that night, they will have squandered what may be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to advance the standing of the game in the country’s hearts.