Nestled on the south-west coast of India is the state of Kerala, which despite a land mass roughly half the size of Tasmania is home to an estimated 33 million people. A football stronghold in a country dominated by cricket, Kerala was home to India’s first ever professional football club, FC Kochin, before they dissolved in 2004, and is now home of the Sachin Tendulkar owned Indian Super League side, Kerala Blasters.
With almost 600 kilometres of coastline, which naturally makes it an attractive destination for tourists, Kerala will also be the location for
an Australian government-funded football development program to be run by Football Federation Australia.
It marks, perhaps, a shift in the relationship Australia has with Asia which, for the first 10 years of their formal relationship has been, at times, anything but rosy.
When I spoke to then AFC General Secretary Dato’ Alex Soosay at the Asian Cup last year, he admitted there was some animosity towards Australia when they first joined the AFC.
“At the beginning there was a little bit of doubt, why Australia, because they’re not Asian traditionally,” he said.
Realising this, FFA knew they had to take a more active role in the region and according to Mark Falvo, FFA’s Head of International Relations, after years of sitting on the sidelines, Australia is now ready to do just that.
“I think there’s always a period where you’re the new kid on the block and you kind of hang back and listen and understand how things work and build a rapport,” he said.
“We’ve done that and (now) we’ve started to become more active.”
The development program in Kerala, following on from a similar program three years ago in Goa, is just one element of that.
The FFA have linked up with the newly formed Australia-ASEAN Council, backed by the federal government, to develop the ‘ASEAN Women’s Football Administration and Coaching Development Exchange’.
With funding to the tune of $114,000 from the Australia-ASEAN Council, the FFA will host female football administrators from various ASEAN nations for two weeks later this year allowing them to gain “work experience in a number of different departments within Football Federation Australia, giving them experience with managing women’s football at national/grassroots level.”
Meanwhile, female coaches from ASEAN nations will visit Australia in November and shadow W-League or Women’s national team coaches to “experience coaching practices in an elite environment.”
According to Falvo, it was the hosting of the AFC Asian Cup last year that really opened up the eyes of the federal government to the possibilities football offers.
“If they were uncertain before the Asian Cup they were certainly convinced afterwards of the merits of football and what the game can do,” Falvo said.
“I think the Asian Cup helped crystallize the opportunity, the sorts of things only football can do, we can provide reach all around the world.
“At all sorts of different levels with the support of government and our own dedicated focus we’re starting to make some really good progress and really strengthening those relationships.”
The Japan Football Association and J.League have made significant investment in the ASEAN region in recent years as part of a push to grow the profile of their domestic league and raise the standard of football in the region, knowing that the only way Asia will get stronger is if the base level improves.
With a dedicated department inside JFA House, the league and clubs have made various links with clubs and other associations across South East Asia, which has seen some question what Australia, as a full member of the ASEAN sub-confederation, is doing in this area and whether they are doing enough.
There is a school of thought that Australia views the relationship with Asia as that of a ‘gold digger’, only interested in what it can get and not interested in giving back, with one example being the reluctance from the FFA to introduce to +1 rule for an Asian player in the A-League, a rule widely adopted across the entire continent.
Falvo doesn’t agree but does concede the FFA could do a better job of promoting the work they do across the region.
“I think that’s a fair point,” he said. “I think for whatever reason there’s always been greater focus on domestic affairs whether that be the A-League or nights like Australia v Tajikistan.
“But there’s a story to be told about all the work that is happening internationally. We’re in the process now of developing quarterly newsletters that will explain everything that we’re doing, similar to what the JFA and the J.League do.
“I think that will help highlight (the work), some of them perhaps aren’t as newsworthy as some other topics we do, but I think you’re right we do need to tell the story better and we’ll start to do that.”
One country where Australia’s off-field expertise is badly needed is Indonesia, currently suspended by FIFA, but Falvo said they look forward to the PSSI returning to the international fold and resuming the relationship that had begun being built.
“We obviously want Indonesia to re-join the fold as soon as possible,” he said.
“They’re an important member of AFC, they’re a close neighbour and have a huge level of football support and passion in that country. The sooner they come back the better and when they do we would very much look forward to it.”
Falvo explained that before their suspension last year, they had hosted some Indonesian officials at the FFA as part of an exchange program.
“We had some Indonesian administrators come early last year,” he said. “They spent six weeks with us and we rotated them through different departments at FFA.
“Unfortunately we’re not able to have any sort of official contact while they’re suspended, but we would look to resume that no doubt once that’s lifted.”
Falvo confirmed Australia, as a full ASEAN member, would not participate in the biennial AFF Suzuki Cup in the immediate future, preferring instead to focus on what Australia can do to help develop the game in other ways.
“Never say never but it’s not on the agenda in the immediate future,” he said.
“It was one of the things that was discussed when we joined ASEAN that it probably wouldn’t be the best thing, but I think in the meantime there’s a role for Australia to play as a more developed football nation to share expertise and experience to help develop football in the region.”
That includes a greater involvement from A-League clubs.
“We’re in discussions around some events around ACL matches abroad which would involve A-League clubs, and again that would be in partnership with government," Falvo said.
“Some of the discussions that were having with other associations and leagues around cooperation agreements naturally involve a technical element where (A-League) club’s youth teams in particular might be able to challenge themselves against other countries in Asia.
“So absolutely that’s part of the plan, it makes sense that our clubs are also engaged across the region.”
After a slow burn in the first 10 years, in this next decade perhaps we will finally see Australia properly engage and integrate itself into Asia and play the leading role many expected it to when it joined.
Who knows, maybe one of the expected 8000 children to go through the development program in Kerala might one day line up for India against Australia, or better yet even play in the A-League.