It's official, Australia is Asian

Well, not exactly, but the big news in the world of Australian soccer is that the Asian Football Federation has formally invited Australia to wean themselves away from the puny Oceania Football Federation to join the much larger Asian Football Federation.

Normally the province of painters and poets, in this case, it's soccer players who are the harbringers of change. And the future is Asian.

Of course, Australia joining Asia is only the latest episode in the entertaining sideshow Australia gets jerked around by FIFA. But it's precisely because geographically, Australia is located awkardly between the America and Asia, that Australian sport can be jerked around. It's not that FIFA is blind to geo-politics: Israel plays in the European Federation, whereas the rest of the Middle East play in the Asian Football Federation.

In previous years, for Australia to make it into the World Cup tournament, it would have to win the Oceania Federation - in which the only decent opponent is New Zealand - and then Austalia would have to beat the fifth placed South American team. Beating a South American team is always a daunting prospect as South America has produced some of the greatest players ever, Pele, Ronaldo, Romario, Maradona. North America and Asia players do not inspire nearly as much fear.

Over the last few years, the qualification to the World Cup has been a roller-coaster of capricious changes. For the 98 World Cup in France, FIFA changed the rules to help Australia where Australia had to beat the fifth-based Asian team on a wild-card to get in. Australia got so close, leading 2-0 in the penultimate match, only for the plucky Iranians to squeak in 2 goals in the last 20 minutes. But then for the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, Australia got put back into South America, as FIFA had to make room for both South Korea and Japan, thereby reducing the number of places for Asian teams. Australian officials then tried to get an automatic qualification for Oceania. This was accepted by Fifa but then immediately rejected, and rightly so, because the entire population of Oceania barely fits into a province in Brazil.

It's not that Australia lacks talent, players like Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, and Tim Cahill ply their trade in the upper-echelons of European club soccer. But it's hard to imagine these Premiership millionares getting worked up to swat past the amateur players that some of the Oceania nations offer. Now with the tough new Asian teams (South Korea and Asia), Australian super-stars can look forward to qualifying games that will truly test their steel. If they do qualify, it would be due to a steady accumulation of points and not to a sudden-death Russian roulette with the fifth-placed South American team.

So Australian soccer officials finally saw the light that Australia's future is with Asia, an Asia that welcomes us with open arms. Unfortunately, it is a light that our current Prime Mininster John Howard, in his racist myopia, cannot see - that Australia is the gateway, the door, the doorman for the West to the East. This is something that the previous prime minister, the reviled but neverthteless visionary Paul Keating, clearly understood. Under Paul Keating, the Australian government had started to tilt its cultural axis towards Asia - promoting business and cultural exchanges, bringing in the high-flying Asian tourists, and more imporatantly, implementing educational policies such as requiring all high-school students to learn one asian language.

All this has been reversed under the Howard government. Australians are now pasty yes-men to Americans, immigration policies are used to create fear of anyone non-anglo-american. If Australian soccer followed this strategy, they would be playing stodgy defensive football, with the only attacking option being a hopeful long ball lobbed over the midfield. To its credit, Australian soccer can now play entertaining football, passing its way through the midfield, and finishing with aplomb. Such confidence has allowed Australia Soccer to stake its claim in Asia. And if this is a sign to come, the rest of Australia will surely follow.