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Australian capital’s chance to shine at Asian Cup

January 22, 2015

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Challenged before the Asian Cup to prove it can be more than a footnote in Australia’s crowded sporting calendar, the national capital Canberra has responded with good attendances and an impressive audition for more prominent roles in the future.

In the leafy streets of the capital, quiet in January with the politicians on holiday, Asian football’s biggest event has taken hold. It is a payoff for organizers who took a gamble by giving Canberra — a city of around 400,000 people — seven out of the 32 games, equal to Sydney and Melbourne, cities with populations ten times as large.

The national capital has a Super rugby team in the ACT Brumbies, while the Canberra Raiders are a long-term fixture in the National Rugby League, but otherwise it has little presence when it comes to national and international sporting events.

In the week before kick-off, Asian Cup CEO Michael Brown drew the ire of Canberra residents by telling the city to “put up or shut up” and that the only way to get more sporting events was to show up to the Asian Cup.

“I may have upset a few people but Canberra has been amazing,” Brown told Associated Press. “They have talked for years about having an A-League team or a Big Bash (Twenty20 cricket) team but the only way to do that is to turn up in big numbers for the events that do come.”

China versus North Korea last Sunday was a virtual sell-out and there is not expected to be a spare seat for Friday’s quarterfinal between Iran and Iraq. Canberra has so far averaged over 10,000 for the six games it has hosted, without yet seeing the three biggest drawing teams of the tournament: Australia, Japan and Iran.

Overall, the target of 500,000 tickets sold is almost certain to be met as with eight games to go, the figure is almost at the 400,000 mark. “Australia has been amazing,” added Brown. “We sold out Japan and Jordan, and think we will have up to eight sell-outs across five cities. The best teams have reached the quarterfinals, and with a surprise or two such as China there as well, it is a promoter’s dream.”

Nicholas Amies, 22, is a volunteer at Canberra Stadium and has enjoyed the experience of being close to the best teams in Asia and sampling the atmosphere. “It’s been really good so far. Attendances have been better than expected. There have been a lot of neutrals attending games, the tickets are affordable which is good for families.”

Attendances at stadiums may have been helped by the difficulty accessing games on television, as the tournament is on a newly launched cable channel which most homes, and even many bars, do not have.

Viewing figures on the channel have been mixed. While almost 400,000 watched Australia lose to South Korea, just 26,000 saw Uzbekistan defeat Saudi Arabia 3-1 in a vital Group B decider.

The local media has given a reasonable amount of prominence to the Asian Cup, even as the tournament competes against the familiar mainstays of Australian sporting summers: cricket and the Australian Open tennis.

When it comes to quality on the field, the fare has been fine rather than fabulous but quarterfinals such as Australia against China and Iraq versus Iran are sure to provide drama and excitement. And then it will be time to discuss the legacy.

For Canberra, it is simple: a team of its own in the country’s professional competition, the A-League, to get behind and support.

“It already is a football city and that’s why we have seven games,” said Jeremy Lasek, the CEO of the National Australia Day Council as he watched Australia defeat Oman 4-0 in a Canberra bar. “We love sport. It’s great to see the different cultures here and it really shows what the world game is all about.”

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