Football can lead the way in developing an Australian nation that is proudly both Australian and Asian.

Of the key decisions that have successfully transformed Australian football in the first decade of the “Asian century”, none is more important than Australia’s negotiated exit from the Oceania Football Confederation to become the 46th member of the Asian Football Confederation.  The football opportunities are significant and obvious: a structured qualifying campaign for the FIFA World Cup; inclusion in the Asian Champions League; and involvement in a region which will shortly boast the game’s largest television audience.  There is no doubt that, as an Asian nation, Australia’s bid for the 2018 or 2022 FIFA World Cup has merit. But, just how deep will our engagement run if this is how we define our relationship with the region?

It is a challenge that is not unique to football – it also confronts Australia’s economic development and how we culturally see ourselves as a nation.  We cannot merely be contented with the benefits of Asian engagement – we need to know how we can contribute to the future success of Asian football.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, famously fluent in Mandarin, wants Australia to be the most “Asian literate” nation of all Western societies.  It is a bold and compelling vision that asks much of all Australians as individuals.

The future requires us to develop future generations fluent in Asian languages, at home with Asia’s customs and business practices, knowledgeable of its histories and aware of the immense diversity to our north.  At the same time, we must be comfortable in promoting Australia in the region.

Since Prime Minister Bob Hawke saw Australia’s economic future in Asia in the early 1980’s, Australia’s engagement with Asia has largely been a matter for the political and business elites of our nation.  Our leaders have understood that Australia’s future lies in Asia.  Equally, the Australian people have not been expected to come along for the ride.  The Australian government has seen Asia predominantly in economic and security terms.  Hawke gave structure to the engagement in the form of APEC.  Prime Minister Keating, uniquely, also saw Asia in cultural terms.  To him, the issues of Asian engagement and Australia’s sense of national identity were inextricably linked.  Howard jumped on this by embracing “mainstream” politics, and Keating was thrashed at the 1996 election for being “out of touch”.  However, in what has been called the “Howard paradox”, he continued the relationship with Asia through APEC and a series of trade agreements, most notably with ASEAN.  Howard certainly does not see Australia as an Asian nation.  This, unquestionably, is the view of most Australians and the central challenge for the current Prime Minister. Rudd wants to bridge the gap that presently exists over Asia between the nation’s political and business elites and the Australian people.  Asian engagement is now to become a grass roots project.

Football is as much about culture and identity as it is about sporting and commercial success.  For Australian football, we cannot engage in Asia without being clear about who we are as a football nation.  I firmly believe our long term football identity lies in bringing together our cultural diversity and commitment to sporting excellence with a deep and reciprocal engagement in our region.  The opportunity this presents to educate the Australian people about Asia is unique.

The players are certainly playing their part.  FIFPro Asia’s new and developing architecture, through the development of players’ associations and a series of agreements, now extends to 25 of the 56 nations of Asia and Oceania (see map on the FIFPro Asia section of  Our work is driven not so much by western industrial relations values but a burning desire to boost the professionalism, international competitiveness and economic stability of Asian football.  This can only benefit Australia.  The technical quality shown recently by South Korea in defeating the Socceroos in Seoul reminded us of how much we can learn from a nation which boasts Asia’s oldest established professional league and a record of having qualified for every FIFA World Cup Finals since 1986.  South Korea also remains the only Asian nation to qualify for a FIFA World Cup semi-final.

If Australia hosts the 2022 FIFA World Cup, our national team players will have been travelling through the region representing their club and country for the best part of a decade.  Some will have played most of their professional club football in Asia as the Leagues of Japan and, possibly, China and South Korea become among the biggest in the world.  The development of competitions in Indonesia, India, Australia and other nations will add depth and excitement to the Asian Champions League.  These players can become the champions of Asian literacy and, in so doing, leave a legacy that goes well beyond football to help shape the very fabric of 21st century Australia.

Brendan Schwab is the Chief Executive and General Counsel of Professional Footballers Australia (PFA).  He also Chairs FIFPro Asia, the Asian Division of the world players’ union.