Australia banking on China to qualify for the Asian Cup
With economic ties between the two growing, the hosts are quietly rooting for the mainland
It is no secret that the presence of China means big business the world over. Anxious Australia, hosts of the 2015 Asian Cup, are now hoping China can clinch one of the remaining three berths for the tournament with a senior Football Australia official promising that the mainland soccer team would receive massive support if they do qualify.
Kyle Patterson, Football Australia's head of corporate affairs and communications, said the mainland would "without doubt" be hugely welcomed if they could clinch one of the last few spots at the regional showpiece, and said qualification would be an "important first step" as China look towards the world stage in the future.
"Without doubt China would be, after Australia, the best-supported team in the tournament simply because of the numbers of Chinese-Australians living in the country. If they can make it, they would have a huge advantage in that every game would be like a home game for them," said Patterson, who was in town this week accompanying the 1973 Socceroos team who made history by becoming the first Australian team to qualify for a Fifa World Cup, in 1974.
China's hopes of clinching one of the last few places in the 16-team finals will be decided in March when they travel to Dubai to play Iraq in their final group game needing a draw at the least to clinch automatic qualification. If they lose, they could still have a chance of clinching one spot available for the best-placed third team from the five qualifying groups.
And quietly rooting for them will be the hosts - "we can't show any bias to any nation" smiled Patterson - who has a lot riding on the presence of China at the Asian Cup in January, 2015.
China is Australia's largest trading partner, accounting for about 27 per cent of its exports - largely raw materials such as iron ore and coal. Australian government statistics reveal that bilateral trade between the two countries annually was worth more than US$100 billion. Patterson agrees that while business ties were strong between the two countries, the bridges built by sporting, cultural and other ties was equally important.
"We have a large Chinese student population and there are many Chinese-Australians living in places like Melbourne and Sydney. Our ties with China are deepening every year," Patterson said. "While everyone knows about the ties in business and other spheres, we have told the Australian government and community it is time they pay attention to football's role as being a bridge between Australia and Asia, and as such China's presence at the tournament would be enormous."
Defending Asian Cup champions Japan, hosts Australia, North Korea and South Korea had secured qualification prior to the qualifiers starting. Three-time champions Iran, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan have now clinched berths leaving four more places still open with one of these going to the winners of the AFC Challenge Cup in the Maldives next year. Hong Kong was all but knocked out after losing 2-0 to Uzbekistan in their penultimate group game on Tuesday night at Hong Kong Stadium.
China missed out on securing their berth this week after they failed to defeat group leaders Saudi Arabia at home. But with a two-point cushion over third-placed Iraq, they still have a good chance of qualifying for a 11th consecutive Asian Cup, played in Australia for the first time.
"The tournament has been underwritten by the federal government as well as the state governments of Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and ACT. Obviously for Australian business and governments (federal as well as states) the importance of China turning up is massive," Patterson said. "Iraq is a good footballing nation and is their [China's] main contender for that second spot [in the group]. Without any hint of bias - we don't want to be barracking - we believe the presence of China would be welcomed by the Australian community.
"It will be a great way to engage those fans and certainly for the governments who have backed this tournament. We are in many ways quietly supporting the Chinese campaign for qualification," Patterson added.