Party time for Melbourne as Asian Cup kicks off in Australia

'World sporting hub' has opportunity to showcase Australia's embrace of football, writes Ali Khaled

Australia players jog during their final training session ahead of the Asian Cup in Melbourne on January 8, 2015. William West / AFP
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MELBOURNE // The drive from Melbourne airport into the city takes you past many billboards and banners advertising the Asian Cup. One simply asked “Who will you unite behind?”

Supporters of the 15 visiting nations will have their own say. Friday should see just how much the Australian public rally behind their team.

When Ange Postecoglou’s men take to the field against Kuwait for the competition’s opener at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium, it will mark the biggest international football tournament to take place in this country.

It could also be a watershed moment for a sport that, in Australia, has always lived in the shadows of bigger attractions.

“We’re very proud to be playing a key role in hosting Asia’s biggest sporting event – the AFC Asian Cup,” said John Eren, the Victorian minister for tourism and major events.

“We are particularly pleased to host the opening match between Australia and Kuwait, and the AFC Congress with delegates from all 47 AFC football nations.”

A major international football tournament has finally come to Australia, and it is fitting that Melbourne is where the Asian Cup should begin.

The capital city of the state of Victoria has long been the country’s sporting capital, home to the Australian Open tennis tournament, the Formula One Australian Grand Prix and horse racing’s Melbourne Cup.

Matches in the 2003 Rugby World Cup were played in the city and, for the next two months, the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) will host cricket World Cup games, including the final.

Football has often struggled to compete for attention in the country. Not any more.

“Victorians are on board for the Asian Cup,” Eren said. “This week in particular the excitement level has reached fever pitch with teams arriving into Melbourne, the Asian Cup live site at City Square and the Socceroos hosting open training sessions at Olympic Park.”

Three other teams have their training bases in Melbourne: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and ­Jordan.

“With an estimated international television audience of approximately 800 million across Asia, the tournament is an excellent opportunity to showcase Melbourne as a destination, as well as reaffirm Melbourne as a world sporting hub,” Eren said.

“The Asian Cup gives us an outstanding opportunity to meet and work with our friends from around Asia in promoting and developing the world game as well as strengthen our business and economic ties.”

It has been a long, difficult road for football to gain acceptance in this sports-obsessed nation.

It all changed when Australia broke a 32-year drought to qualify for the 2006 World Cup not long after the Football Federation of Australia was established and the local professional league – the A-League – began competition.

Australia joining the Asian Football Confederation and a "golden generation" of Europe-based players, such as Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka, led to continued World Cup qualification and kept interest in the game growing.

The city has two A-League football clubs, Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City.

As the game’s popularity in Australia keeps rising, beyond Asia, top European clubs see it as a potentially lucrative ­market, which is the main reason Manchester City bought a controlling stake in A-League team Melbourne Heart last year and changed the club’s name to Melbourne City.

“Football is certainly part of Australian culture,” Eren said. “In recent years Melbourne has hosted Fifa World Cup qualifiers, Asian Cup qualifiers and international friendly matches, including the Melbourne Victory v Liverpool FC match at the MCG in 2013 attended by 95,446, which is the largest crowd Liverpool has played to in its history.”

This summer, Manchester City, Roma and Real Madrid are to take part in the International Champions Cup in Melbourne, which is expected to pack out the 100,000-capacity MCG.

Anything approaching such numbers for attendances at the Asian Cup would be a dream come true for the organisers and – the success of the home nation aside – the early signs are good.

“I am advised that there has been a very good take up of tickets across the tournament,” Eren said.

From Jordan to Japan, fans have been landing in Australia, but it is the local support that will carry the tournament.

A win for the host nation on Friday, as ever, would help set the tone for what could be the best Asian Cup yet.

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