Low expectations, but high hopes for Aussies
Nonetheless, the boys from Down Under will be playing next month in the country’s first World Cup tournament since 1974, a feat that one of its diplomats said has generated great excitement and anticipation in the country.
“Australians are pretty sport-minded people, and they take a keen interest in all sports,” said Peter Rowe, the Australian Ambassador to Seoul, in an interview with the JoongAng Daily. “Thirty-two years is a long time to wait, and the qualifying brought a real sense of achievement and excitement.”
The squad qualified in November by defeating Uruguay on penalty kicks.
Mr. Rowe, who is in his third tour of duty in Korea and has been the ambassador here since January, said the success of the national soccer team has significance beyond athletics.
He said soccer is “an expression of real success of multiculturalism in Australia,” because the sport joined the ranks of rugby and cricket in popularity only in the last 30 years, after immigrants from around the world brought their soccer heritage with them.
“Now [the success of soccer] has come to fruition with our qualifying,” Mr. Rowe said. “It’s a real tribute to the success of our migration policy.”
The Aussie soccer team isn’t about to rest on its laurels. The country is one of several nations that have expressed interest in hosting the 2018 World Cup. Australia has never hosted the event.
“Hosting the World Cup would help boost the profile of soccer in Australia and attract many new players, spectators and sponsors to the game,” Mr. Rowe said. “I think Australia has a very strong argument.”
Australia certainly doesn’t lack experience in hosting international sporting events. In 2000, Sydney was home to the Summer Olympics, making Australia one of only five nations to have hosted multiple Summer Games. Earlier this year, Melbourne hosted the 28th Commonwealth Games ― for the country’s fourth time.
These events, Mr. Rowe said, have been “both profitable and attracted considerable world attention” to Australia. He said the World Cup would bring much more than financial gains.
“The Sydney Olympics stimulated such interest in the community spirit and the sense of volunteerism,” he said. “The Games brought out real dedication and commitment [from Australians], and I think the same thing will happen if we were to host the World Cup.”
In the meantime, the focus is on this year’s World Cup. Australia has a tough challenge in the preliminary round, having been paired with defending champion Brazil, Japan and Croatia in Group F. All three are ranked among the top 25 in FIFA’s rankings.
Still, the Aussies can afford to keep their hopes high because of their head coach Guus Hiddink, who guided Korea to its improbable semifinal World Cup berth four years ago and now hopes to lead the Down Under squad to a similar success.
“Guus Hiddink is a wonderful coach with a Midas touch when it comes to World Cup qualification,” Mr. Rowe said. “I have no doubt that much [of our team’s success] is due to his talent and expertise as coach. I take my hat off to him.”
Beyond the presence of the Dutch coach, there are other sporting connections between Australia and Korea. The last two head coaches for Australia’s national archery teams have been Korean, with Korea’s strength in the sport having been a factor. In addition, Australia is the newest member of the Asian Football Confederation and has been included in the Asian group for the next World Cup’s regional qualifying. That will likely mean more friendly matches between the two countries.
Sports are just a part of the relationship between Australia and Korea. Although Mr. Rowe said both nations try to encourage all aspects of their relations, the trade relationship is especially important.
“I think our relationship is at an all-time high,” Mr. Rowe said. “Trade has never been bigger, and there’s enormous potential for energy and commodities [in Korea] for Australia, and for automobiles and electronic goods in Australia for Korea.”
The envoy added that he would like to see more open trade between the two sides.
“We will continue our advocacy efforts to explain the benefits of a free trade agreement for both Korea and Australia,” Mr. Rowe said. “We’d like to see progress on our free trade pact,” after Korea finishes its free trade talks with the United States.
Mr. Rowe added that the significance of the free trade deal will not merely rest in the trade side, saying the deal will be “a real expression of commitment to the whole relationship between the two.”
The fans in the two countries might have different expectations ahead of the World Cup. Korean followers are more than likely spoiled after the team’s shocking success on its home soil four years ago, and perhaps expect nothing less this time. In contrast, Australian fans may have that “happy to be here” outlook on their national team, and its grouping certainly doesn’t inspire much confidence.
Mr. Rowe himself expressed cautious optimism. When pressed to predict how Australia will perform, he said, “The team will make us proud.”
No matter how the team does, Mr. Rowe said Australian fans will be in a jovial mood during the tournament ― with just one downside.
Sydney, Australia is nine hours ahead of Berlin, Germany. And as in Korea, many of the games will be shown very late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. Still, Mr. Rowe said, fans will not be discouraged.
“There will be a lot of very tired Australians and Koreans in June, including at this embassy.”
by Yoo Jee-ho