Australian football "moving into scale, critical mass"

Socceroo fans might have World Cup fever but Australia's move into Asia is far more important in the longer term, Football Federation Australia chief executive John O'Neill, told a business luncheon in Sydney reported by The Age (Melbourne). "Whilst World Cup qualification is absolutely wonderful, the long-term effects of the move into Asia are far more significant. We have moved into the largest and fastest growing football economy in the world. We arguably will be the only mainstream sport in Australia to engage in Asia in a meaningful and symbolic way. This hasn't hit people between the eyes yet as much as it will in the future," he said.

"In years to come Australia versus China, Australia versus Japan, Australia versus Iran, Australia versus Vietnam, Australia versus any of the major powers in this massive bloc called Asia, will be equivalent to clashes between England and Australia in cricket. We are moving into scale, we are moving into critical mass."

O'Neill, who recently brokered a seven-year $120 million pay-TV deal with Fox Sports, also forecast the day when the major commercial free-to-air networks would want a slice of the football action. It might take five to 10 years before "free-to-air says we must have that", he said. "But we are on the right path."

He said the chronic clubs-versus-country tug-of-war would continue over the mostly European-based Socceroos, but world body FIFA would insist on player availability for FIFA-sanctioned dates. "I think the full force of FIFA will come down on the clubs to release players," he said. However he also forecast that more A-League players would force their way into the national side and that overseas-based Socceroos would have a greater desire to come home for more meaningful matches in the Asian Cup and World Cup qualifiers, rather than friendlies.

Earlier, O'Neill told The Sunday Times (Perth) that Australia needed "to treat the World Cup qualification as the beginning, not the end." After the World Cup, Australia faces Lebanon, Kuwait and Bahrain in a bid to qualify for the July 2007 Asian Cup finals – to be hosted across Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand and broadcast to 60 countries. Then in 2008, the qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa kick off. O'Neill said a bid was also being considered to host the Asian Cup finals in 2011.

Domestically, he said, while the FFA definitely hopes to expand the eight-team A-League, there is a strong argument for only having one club per city. Instead of introducing a second team for Sydney or Melbourne and "fragmenting fan bases", it might be better to look to unrepresented cities, such as Geelong, Hobart and Darwin, for new teams, he said.

Other planned intiatives are lifting average crowds at A-League matches from the inaugural season figure of 11,000 to 20,000 within five years; lobbying for local governments to create new soccer pitches for grassroots clubs and, controversially, to convert under-used AFL ovals for soccer; dramatically expanding the game in schools, with concerted programs to educate sports teachers in coaching methods; and improving elite training programs that aim to find and nurture the next Harry Kewell, with closer links between the national and states' sports institutes.

See also: FF Australia confirms massive TV rights increase (26 Apr)