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Asian Cup a window on the region and ourselves

6 February 20151 comment

Crowds at the 2015 Asian Cup soccer tournament held in Australia last month have presented a unique window on the nature of Australia’s multicultural makeup.

Victoria University researchers Matthew Klugman and Brent McDonald analysed the spectators attending the tournament and produced some surprising observations.

They found an unexpectedly high number of Australians attending games that didn’t involve the Socceroos.

“Most notably, in their first game the highly ranked Iranian team was cheered on by a raucous “group of fans – primarily migrants to Australia rather than tourist fans – whose extremely loud, celebratory support surprised many of the Australian journalists in attendance,” Mr Klugman said.

Figures from the ABS show that, in 2013, 27.7% (6.4 million) of Australians were born overseas, up from 27.3% (6.2 million) the year before.

“Given Australia’s multicultural profile, the ability of some Australians to support two (or more) nations – their place of birth or family heritage and their adopted home in Australia – has already won praise from some commentators,” Mr Klugman said.

Many Australians feel ties to multiple countries, but the emotions of such migrant fans have been understudied. But recent research suggests that soccer can be a unifying site for migrants who can come together in their new home to support and celebrate their continuing ties to their old home.

“Indeed, for Palestinian Australians, the Asian Cup has provided a chance to come together in joy rather than in grief and protest,” Mr Klugman said.

Research into the experiences of Italian migrants found that although many were excited before Australia played Italy in the 2006 World Cup, the game was intense and distressing for many.

Most first-generation male migrants supported Italy even though they felt an affinity with Australia, while the first-generation females and second-generation children tended to support Australia at the same time as feeling fondly towards Italy.

In some family groups the first-generation patriarchs were isolated as the stress of the game increased. And the contentious ending – an Italian victory due to a disputed penalty – left almost no one truly happy.

It was a reminder that sport can divide as well as unite. It can also create rivalries and tensions with broader political ramifications, as well as lead to greater engagement and understanding.

The researchers said Australia hosting the 2015 AFC Asian Cup can be seen as a peak opportunity for football diplomacy. It provides Australia with the chance to make an enduring positive impression and to build lasting relationships with the competing nations and their peoples.

“Within a relatively short time (Association) football has become incredibly popular throughout much of Asia. This means that Australia is currently the focus of great attention in important and multifaceted ways,” they said.

“There are the many tourist fans from Asia with their social media, the mass influx of journalists profiling Australia as well as chronicling the deeds of national teams, and millions of people in countries such as China, Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea who are closely following the games on television and other media and dreaming of their nation winning the cup.”

The researchers said there were intriguing possibilities for the development of positive sentiments and attachments as Australia becomes entangled in long-standing rivalries between the Asian teams.

“For example, Korean researcher Seongsik Cho, from Hanyang University, notes that one of the highest-rating sporting events in Korean TV history was when the Guus Hiddink-coached Socceroos played Japan in the 2006 World Cup,” they said.

“The millions of Koreans who tuned in during the early hours celebrated the Australian victory against their arch enemy. So support by fans for teams representing other countries is not unique.

“Cho is in Australia researching the experiences of the South Korean fans who have come over to support their team. One of the key aspects of this research is how the diversity of Australia is experienced by those in Asia.

“Some scholars have argued that the round-ball code of football is played by a more diverse group of Australians than any other sport. Yet Australia is still perceived as a largely white, homogeneous nation in many parts of Asia.”

But the researchers say that their work has shown people in Japan and South Korea do not believe Australia is part of Asia.

“Preliminary findings also indicate that the Japanese media still view Australian football players as bigger and stronger than their Japanese counterparts, despite the fact that the available physical profiles of the two groups of players show them to be of very similar height and weight,” they said.

Football then can be a place where stereotypes are reinforced, despite providing evidence to refute these stereotypes.

“Nor is the reaction necessarily positive when national stereotypes are challenged. Some Chinese journalists, for example, have responded to the ethnically diverse nature of the Socceroos by complaining that Australia is cheating by importing better players from Europe, not realising that almost all of these players were born in Australia.”

So perhaps the hosting of the Asian Cup allows Australia to learn as much about itself than about its regional neighbours.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Senior Journalist