Monday 23 May 2022 | 12:37 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 May 2022 | 12:37 | SYDNEY

A new metaphor for Australian diplomacy: How about football?


Nick Bryant


21 November 2012 15:45

Ed. note: the Lowy Institute is hosting a conference this Friday on Football Diplomacy: Australia's Engagement with Asia Through Football.

For me, Australian diplomacy has never been about the punch, however much DFAT is portrayed as the departmental equivalent of the boxing kangaroo. It is more about the pull.

Were one to look for an appropriate sporting analogy, the tug of war does not really work, because Australia is yanked in so many different directions, and pushes in them, too. Eastward towards America. Northward towards China. Westward towards Britain. Recently, India has also exerted a certain draw.

Instead, Australia requires a national metaphor that captures its diplomatic multi-directionalism. Might I humbly suggest football?

First off, the game here has adopted both the American and British nomenclature. It is widely referred to as 'soccer' but is run by Football Federation Australia. It has decided to ditch Oceania and pitch its tent firmly in Asia. However, it also retains a uniquely Australian flavour. This, after all, is the land of the Socceroos, the Matildas, and, at the junior level, the Olyroos.

Football Federation Australia knows it should orientate itself towards its near neighbours, hence the 'Gateway to Asia' theme of its failed World Cup bid. But Australia also considers itself to be part of the footballing Anglosphere. Australia's finest players head for the Premier League. Manchester United and Chelsea are followed with just as much enthusiasm, if not more, than the Perth Glory or Adelaide Roar.

Of all Australian sports, football is by far the most demographically representative. The national team is packed with the sons of immigrants: Schwarzers, Aloisis, Ognenovskis, Brescianos. Its star player, Tim Cahill, was born in Sydney of a Samoan mother and an English father of Irish descent. In a nation of immigrants, it is the migrant game. Rare among the footballing codes, at the school level girls are as heavily involved as boys. Needless to say, it is also the only truly global team game.

The worldwide dispersal of Australia's footballing talent is also representative of the country's high-achieving diaspora. Current members of the national squad make their living as far a field as Russia, Uzbekistan, Holland, South Korea, Denmark, England, Qatar, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Germany and the US.

When it comes to global benchmarking, football is also usefully analogous. Up until 1974, the Socceroos failed to qualify for the World Cup, but the expectation now is that Australia will always make the finals. The best the Socceroos can normally hope for is to reach the last eight. But they would be disappointed not to make the final 16. A middle ranking power, should not Australian diplomats also be looking for top 16 status, while occasionally enjoying final eight influence? Occasionally, they might even pull off a bigger upset.

But the main reason I think the game works as a metaphor is because the Socceroos are great exponents of 'pragmatic improvisation', a phrase Graeme Dobell used in a recent post which rang true for me. They have been known to play 'home' fixtures in Britain. In Australia, in another sign of its flexibility, the team has no fixed abode (it has played at the MCG, Etihad Stadium, the new AAMI Stadium, the ANZ Stadium, Sydney Football Stadium and Suncorp). Often it cannot call on all of its best players, but usually makes the most of what it has got. In another demonstration of its adaptability, soccer has not been unafraid to call on outside coaching talent: Guus Hiddink, Pim Verbeek, Holger Osieck.

The Socceroos are flexible, nimble and geographically wide-ranging, three attributes that could also serve Australia well over the course of the Asian Century.

So no more let it be said that Australia punches above its weight in the diplomatic arena. Instead, it criss-crosses the field like a globe-trotting Socceroo.