Eddie McGuire is virtually unknown to South-East Asian audiences and rightly so. He’s club president of the Collingwood Football Club, a largely hated but fiercely supported team in the Australian Football League, more commonly known by its acronym, AFL, or its common nickname, Aussie Rules. Aerial pingpong to its critics. A sport with as much traction in Asia as sepak takraw has in Australia.
But McGuire is a name you should get used to hearing because it is McGuire who this week said the 2015 Asian Cup, to be held in Australia, could well be a “lemon”.
And, unfortunately, when McGuire speaks, most of Australia listens. His inoffensive, pally, ordinary everyman charm has taken him far.
McGuire is in fact so popular if (in my opinion) blindingly mediocre a talent he has, in addition to his Collingwood gig, hosted a bunch of TV and radio shows including Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, run a network, recently stepped in as CEO of the Melbourne Stars Twenty20 side in the Big Bash League and even helmed coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics, most notable for this exchange in Vancouver with comedian Mick Molloy about the sexual orientation of American figure skater Johnny Weir.
“They don’t leave anything in the locker room those blokes,” said Molloy, apropos Weir’s competition garb.
“They don’t leave anything in the closet either, do they?” replied McGuire.
McGuire later went into damage control and took the unusual step of inviting Weir to stay at his home in Melbourne. It was breathtaking to watch a man backpedal so furiously.
But on these latest comments, made in an interview he conducted with FFA chairman Frank Lowy and said to be reflective of a wider view in sporting and political circles, McGuire owes no one an apology.
Let’s call a spade a spade: the Asian Cup has not been a hugely successful tournament in recent memory. Outside of matches featuring the big teams at the business end of proceedings, attendances have been for the most part poor. The 2007 event in South-East Asia was badly organised among four hosts. The 2011 event in Qatar overall was another fizzer.
Apologists for the Cup, like Australian broadcaster Les Murray, might point to nebulous “brand enrichment” (cough) and the big TV audiences in East Asia as measuring sticks for success but a tournament’s true impact should be judged by the enthusiasm, passion, fraternity and number of people passing through the turnstiles, not the viewing figures thousands of kilometres away. That’s why USA ’94, nearly 20 years on, is still remembered so fondly.
And therein lies the FFA’s threefold challenge. Hosting a tournament at the height of an Australian summer, competing with a bunch of other sports (not least international cricket and the Australian Open tennis) and convincing the country’s notoriously fickle sports fans to turn up to games not involving the home side. Even with games involving the Socceroos, local fans haven’t always turned up in droves.
Australia 2015 is going to be a serious ask of what Asian Cup organising committee CEO Michael Brown calls “passionate football supporters”.
The situation isn’t helped, either, by the fact Australia’s three biggest ethnic communities (who reliably turn out for big events involving their countries of origin) are non-Asian (British, Italian, Kiwi); of the Asian communities that number over 50,000 (Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Filipino, Malaysian, Lebanese, Sri Lankan and Indonesian) only China looks guaranteed qualification; the sad reality of the FFA being so unprofessional of late they even managed to get the name wrong of the Joe Marston Medal in the A-League Grand Final; and the odd decision to bypass Melbourne altogether for the semi-finals and final (Melbourne is Australia’s greatest sporting city and Melbourne football fans the most committed).
Collective confidence in and goodwill for the organisers (led by Brown, a man with considerable experience only in AFL and cricket) is at an all-time low – even among diehard fans of the sport.
So is McGuire entitled to brand it a “lemon” this far out? He might want to lock it in. With the FFA in charge, anything could happen.
This column was originally published by ESPN STAR Sports. Please check for new columns by me every Thursday at www.espnstar.com. Love to see you there.