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Australia’s win in the cricket World Cup in March was a reassertion of its supremacy in the game over the past two decades. Other teams have enjoyed spells at being top dog but there was always a sense that they were only filling a breach while Australia regrouped. Yet the more significant achievement for Australia as a sporting nation came two months before that, when its football team was crowned Asian champions for the first time. Best to clarify here that “football" refers to soccer, because Australia play many kinds of football—rugby league and union, and their own “footy" or Australian Rules football, apart from soccer—and are among the world’s best in each.

Perhaps the Asian Cup win was inevitable; Australia’s women footballers have been strong in the region for a decade or so and Western Sydney Wanderers are the reigning Asian club champions. Staging the tournament at home handed another advantage to a team on the way up. Part of that success stems from Australia’s migration in 2006 from Fifa’s Oceania zone, where it was paired with the likes of Fiji, Tonga and Vanuatu, to the far stronger, and more varied, Asian zone, where the opposition includes Iran, Japan and South Korea. Punching below their weight all those years had given Australian football an exaggerated and flawed sense of its own strength; the best (or worst) was a 31-0 victory over American Samoa in the qualification tournament for the 2002 World Cup, a match in which striker Archie Thompson scored 13 goals.

That dual, often surreal, identity—whales in their backyard, minnows on the world stage—also gave Australian football a narrative of heartbreak and despair, which they have celebrated in a fashion that rivals even the British. You only have to read Patrick Mangan’s So Close: The Bravest, Craziest, Unluckiest Defeats In Aussie Sport to get a sense of how football teams were set up only to fail, often spectacularly. Never more so than in 1997, in the play-off against Iran for the next year’s World Cup. Australia had drawn 1-1 in Tehran and were leading 2-0 in the home leg in Sydney. They were 20 minutes from booking their tickets to France. Then Iran scored twice in 4 minutes, silencing the 85,000 crowd and stunning the nation.

Football, though not top of the mind when one thinks of Australian sport, is arguably the one most rooted in the multicultural idea the country projects. It is the true immigrants’ sport, brought in not by the original, ruling class of settlers but by the subsequent waves from Italy, Greece, Croatia, West Asia, even Ireland and Scotland. “The polite term," Mangan wrote, “was ‘new Australians’."

Unable to break through into the elitist world of cricket, or spare time from their punishing work schedules to learn the nuances of the very alien game, they created their own sporting culture, with its familiar references and links to their homelands. You can make this out from the community-specific club names of the 1970s and 1980s: Hollandia, Azzurri, Juventus, Makedonia, Hellas, Hakoah.

Cricket exerted pressures in many ways, subtle and otherwise. There were cultural rules and norms that the migrants had to subscribe to, but which were often overlooked by the public; for example, having to wear sponsor logos related to alcohol or gambling that might go against one’s religious beliefs. The Australian cricketer Fawad Ahmed decided not to wear the brewer’s logo on his shirt, a decision for which he was pilloried by some Australian sporting icons. Or take something as basic as names. Mangan referred to the “Scrabble-friendly" names that populated soccer teams—Lazaridis, Jesaulenko, Viduka. Contrast that with the case of Leonard Durtanovich, the son of Yugoslav immigrants, who changed his name to Len Pascoe and became a cricket star; even then, he could not escape sledges about his ethnic origins.

My colleague and Mint columnist Sharda Ugra, in a 2013 paper on ethnic diversity in Australian cricket (Fawad Ahmed And The Vanishing Of Billy Birmingham) quotes the example of cricket blogger Michael Jeh. He “changed his name from Jehoratnam after an otherwise fair selector for a schoolboys team couldn’t pronounce his family name when calling out a fifty-fifty selection and so picked the player whose name read more familiar". The sport’s administrators, Ugra notes, are now taking steps to break cricket “free of its century-old ‘pale, male and stale’ stereotype" and make it more representative of the national demographic.

That’s what football has long cashed in on, and still does; the crowds at the Asian Cup averaged more than 20,000, which rivals anything the World Cup cricket matches could attract when India were not playing. One factor in this was the expat community, especially the Iranians. The Iranian immigrant community in Australia numbers around 35,000, but there were 17,000 spectators at the tournament opener when Iran played Bahrain, and 22,000 the next week when they played Qatar. Significantly, that passionate support included many women who are, of course, banned from watching the sport in their home country.

The road ahead for Australia seems bright enough. To prove their Asian Cup win was no fluke, the Socceroos held world champions Germany to a 2-2 draw in Kaiserslautern despite missing some of their best players. A relatively simple qualifying programme should see them through to the 2018 World Cup, which would be their fourth in a row. Qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, after 32 years, gave the sport a lift; as national team coach Ange Postecoglou said in January, “I definitely think it’s going to give the code a kick along."

It could be a whole new ball game. Actually, scratch that—they don’t need another.

Jayaditya Gupta is the executive editor of Espncricinfo.

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