x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Asia has made Australia stronger, says Lucas Neill

Captain Lucas Neill is glad his national side made the switch from Oceania region to Asia

DOHA // From the other side of the world, Australia's decision to join the Asian Football Confederation in 2006 seemed perverse.

It was geographically and culturally jarring, but the biggest question was this: why would they give up perennial domination of the Oceania confederation for the uncertain prospects of a sprawling continent with several rising football powers?

Now we see why: Australia as an Asian footballing nation have been a huge success.

When other global football powers were honing their skills against rugged continental opposition, Australia were doomed to lopsided matches against New Zealand and tiny Pacific islands.

Lucas Neill, the Australian captain, made his first appearance for the national team in 1996, when the Socceroos were lording it over a wide, watery world.

He strongly prefers the current set-up, and not just because Australia play Uzbekistan tonight in the semi-finals of the Asian Cup.

Moving to Asia "has been very good for us", he said yesterday. "It gives us a lot more competitive games to play.

"It's never easy to go out and play against Fiji and be respected for winning 8-0, 10-0. It's seen us go up in the rankings, it's seen us go to the World Cup."

Australia are ranked No 26 in the world and were as high as No 14 two years ago.

"We learned a good lesson in the last Asian Cup, and here we are now on the verge of playing in our first Asian final," Neill said.

"It's a massive confederation, with two thirds of the world in it. And we have the opportunity now to be champions of it. It's good for the game, it's great for our confidence and for raising the bar in the level of performance in our country."

And consider this: Australia will host the 2015 Asian Cup.

"It would be great to be host as the defending champions of Asia," Neill added.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

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