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Asia needs Australian win

The sight of Australians with their hands on their heads is not one West Asian fans should wish to see if they want more Asian World Cup spots. (Reuters)
LONDON: Qualification for the 2018 World Cup has not ended for fans in West Asia: They should be getting behind Australia ahead of their second leg against Honduras today.
In the world of football, the Socceroos are an Asian team and after drawing 0-0 in the first leg in Central America last weekend they stand on the verge of making their fifth global showpiece. If Australia are successful, Asia will have five teams at the World Cup for the first time (technically, that happened in 2006 but Australia had qualified through the Oceania region).
There is still work to do, of course. A goalless draw in San Pedro Sula was scant reward for a strong performance by the visitors and while it means a win will be enough at home, should Honduras get that away goal then the situation will look very different indeed.
Australia have the know-how, experience and coach to succeed but will be hoping that the late introduction of veteran goal-getter Tim Cahill (pictured right), still recovering from injury, will not be necessary.
Cahill made the difference, as he so often has done, when he was needed against Syria in the previous round. The former Everton man scored both goals in the second leg of the playoff on home soil as the Asian champions squeezed through.
Perhaps the greatest danger is — apart from a lapse in concentration giving an away goal — is overconfidence. Honduras did not impress at home, giving rise to the expectation of victory from Australians. If any country should understand the unpredictability of World Cup playoffs, however, it is the Aussies after the heartbreak of Iran in 1997 and the ecstasy of Uruguay eight years later.
Should the result go the way of the Socceroos, there will be the usual  congratulations from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) but will the official statement reflect the general sentiments around the continent as a whole?
It is not a given. East and Southeast Asia have been more open to the new kids on the block. In West Asia, there is more skepticism.
Fans in West Asia may have forgotten the comments made back in 2006, after Australia joined the AFC, by Sheikh Talal Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, head of Kuwait’s Olympic Committee, but those in Australia have not.
“We are against Australia joining the Asian continent, even in soccer,” said Sheikh Talal. “This is the biggest mistake made against Asian soccer. This will kill the ambitions of Asian soccer.
“What are we going to benefit from Australia’s soccer team? Is it the experience. We might play with them once every four years.”
It is understandable that there was resentment in some circles. Since Australia entered the confederation, no Arabian team from West Asia has qualified — until Saudi Arabia managed it this year.
With the continent having just four automatic spots to the world’s biggest sporting event, importing a strong nation from outside did result in greater competition for places. Saudi Arabia just missed out in 2010 and had there been no Australia, perhaps it would have been different.
It’s not just about that. Australia could certainly have done more to engage with the rest of Asia, especially the western half. It was always going to take time, effort and patience but talk to officials from Saudi Arabia behind the scenes and they complain that Australia has been slow to help other countries in aspects of the game where they lead, such as sports science.
UAE officials say that the 2015 Asian Cup hosts could have been quicker to come forward to give the benefit of their experience, with the 2019 tournament fast approaching.
The sense that Australia is happy to take from Asia, seeing it as a potential gold mine to be exploited, rather than a continent to engage in deep and meaningful mutually beneficial relationships, still exists.
Yet it can go both ways. Fans in West Asia should be getting behind the Socceroos as a fellow Asian nation. A little continental solidarity would benefit all involved.
Australia are the Asian champions. The side is trying to give Asia five teams at the 2018 World Cup. Having more representatives there can only increase the chances of AFC getting past the group stage and that will, among other things, raise the reputation and standing of Asian football and, in time, it could increase chances of Asia getting another slot at future tournaments. That’s a win-win situation for all.
It’s time to get behind the Socceroos.