Football: more than a game

As Australia prepares for the final of the AFC Asian Cup on Saturday night, organisers are celebrating the success of their proactive engagement with newspaper journalists.

A feature of the tournament has been the lack of conflict between publishers and administrators over media access in which arguments flare up over issues such as copyright, archiving of material, restrictions over access to players, video reports taken even outside the ground, and much more.

The inclusive approach of the Asian Football Confederation local organising committee (LOC) has encouraged editors to demand huge coverage of the games and commission off-field stories about the teams.

Local foreign language newspapers elected 200 multicultural community ambassadors across the host cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and Newcastle as part of a joint marketing effort with organisers.

“It’s not been all Aussie, Aussie, Aussie,” says Sydney Morning Herald sports editor Ian Fuge. “We have had so many teams come in and bring us stories we’ve never heard before – Palestine, North Korea, Uzbekistan.”

Daily Telegraph’s Tom Smithies wrote on the difficulties for the Palestinian team playing as a nation that the United Nations designates as occupied. Given the sensibilities of that situation, “you have to be careful with terminology”, he says.

“Just getting there was an achievement for the Palestinians,” says Smithies, who wrote of how players had to continually negotiate checkpoints around Gaza so they could travel for football commitments and then return to their families.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Dominic Bossi also followed the Palestinian team and says he’ll always remember how the local community turned out in their hundreds to see their team, lifting players on their shoulders and dancing joyfully. “It was a superb night,” he recalls, “and you really got the sense that the Asian Cup is more than football.”

Dominic Bossi's piece on Palestine in The Sydney Morning Herald, January 6, 2015

Dominic Bossi’s piece on Palestine in The Sydney Morning Herald, January 6, 2015

The open nature of this tournament – said to be the second largest after the FIFA World Cup – was embraced by smaller newspapers, too. Cessnock Advertiser editor Krystal Sellars says the town had a huge lift by hosting the Japanese team and a media contingent of more than 100.

For her own newspaper, based in the Hunter Valley of NSW, it all provided great copy. “Council coordinated a farewell at the sports ground with native animals from the local zoo, and not only the players but the media got really excited about that – they had their tourist moment,” she says.

“It was really heart-warming to see the players and media’s reaction. Everyone had been so focused on the games and the players, but the moment they saw a baby wombat and joey, it was pure joy.”


Japan’s football team receives a send-off at Cessnock Sportsground with animals from the Hunter Valley Zoo. Photo by Krystal Sellars for the Cessnock Advertiser, January 8, 2015

Northern District Times journalist Matthew Connellan joined several hundred Korean fans who descended on Macquarie University to meet the South Korean team who were training there.

“Fans were getting autographs, waving flags, it was massive,” Mr Connellan says.

“The Asian Cup important for us because we’ve got different nationalities here, so we’re trying to engage them as well.”

Photos of the session made the front page of the northern Sydney paper, providing an opportunity to engage with a section of the community often hindered by language barriers, which editor Colin Kerr described as “very exciting”.

Fans clamour for autographs from the South Korean team at Macquarie University. Photo by David Swift for the Northern District Times, January 9, 2015

Fans clamour for autographs from the South Korean team at Macquarie University. Photo by David Swift for the Northern District Times, January 9, 2015

Sydney Korean Herald editor Peter Lee said the whole community was thrilled ahead of Korea’s appearance in this weekend’s final, with Cup news featuring in every edition of the paper.

Owner of Australia’s largest Arabic newspaper, Al-Furat, Hussein Khoshnow, was an ambassador who helped to rally the expatriate Iraqi community around their team, which beat Iran in a thriller and then lost to South Korea in their semi-final.

“It was a great thing for the team having their fans close to them in Australia,” Mr Khoshnow said. “We had big numbers of fans who went to the airport the day the Iraqi team arrived, who caught buses to Wollongong [to watch them train], and who had lunch with the team.”

Iraqi fans dance before their team's quarter final against Iran in Canberra. Photo by Jay Cronan for the Canberra Times.

Iraqi fans dance before their team’s quarter final against Iran in Canberra. Photo by Jay Cronan for the Canberra Times.

He describes the experience as an important event uniting the Iraqis in Australia. “We have different languages, religions, ethnicities – Christians, Muslims, Sunnis, Shi’ites,” he says, “but that all disappears when they go to the football.”

Coverage of the tournament and its cultural impact has been influenced by the approach of organisers to the media, says Mark Hollands, the chief executive of The Newspaper Works and secretary of the Code of Practice for Sports News Reporting.

“Months before the tournament began, the AFC local organising committee reached out to newspaper publishers to establish a relationship that they promised would have none of the hallmarks of restriction of other international tournaments,” he says. “You can see the benefit of that approach.”

Hollands says publishers are often snared in tense negotiation with international sports administrators over player access, photography and the domestic legal provision of Fair Use, which allows media to take snatches of video of games and post them online.

The best known of these conflicts ended in the refusal of Australian newspapers to sign accreditation documents for the last Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. Effectively, rugby writers covered the games from the grand stand, outside of the organisers’ control.

“The attitude of the AFC has been on the money,” Hollands says. “It has encouraged great media coverage, created huge community interest and benefited the sport and the sponsors. This notion that organisers need to control media coverage instead of embracing it is wrong because no one benefits.”

Daily Telegraph’s Tom Smithies has a similar perspective from the front line.

“The value of the relationship between media and organiser varies enormously and depends on the size of the organisation,” he says. “The Football Federation of Australia and the clubs here know the value of the media. FIFA can be very helpful, if they want to be – they almost operate like a country, and make up the rules as they go along, unfazed by criticism.”

The LOC’s general manager of communications, Alison Hill, says she wanted to create a friendlier relationship with more relaxed policies for non-rights-holders. “The relationship with the media is critical,” she says. “This is the first time the Asian Cup has been played in Australia and the third time Australia has competed, so we were starting, from an awareness perspective, on a very low base.

“We worked with the ambassadors through their community organisations and community media to raise awareness of the competition. It’s an area people often neglect to promote, especially when it comes to the newer migrant communities.

“We’ve seen some really lovely stories that go beyond the football and that’s what we’ve been striving for all along. Media coverage looks after itself once the tournament rolls around.”

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