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30 January 2015

Angry Gulf nations leading charge to kick Australia out of Asian Football Confederation

Football bosses: AFC President Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa with FIFA President Sepp Blatter.

On the eve of the Socceroos battling it out in the Asian Cup final, Football Federation Australia is about to face an even bigger battle after a movement mobilised among some Gulf nations to have Australia expelled from the Asian Football Confederation.

Speaking to a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, AFC president Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa revealed he was aware that momentum for Australia's removal from the confederation continued to strengthen among Gulf nations after rumours began swirling in recent months, and that "Arabs are not the only ones" seeking Australia's removal.

There are indications that prove that such desire exists among the confederations of west Asia to evict Australia.

The problem of Australia's membership stems from several factors, all of which have been simmering since Australia joined the confederation in 2006. The belief among the agitators is that the relationship sees Australia benefiting hugely from Asian involvement without giving much in return.

Should Australia win the Asian Cup final against South Korea at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night, it will mean they are the region's reigning champions of club and international football, as well as being past female Asian champions. Australia has also proven a dominant force at World Cup qualification time, twice qualifying for the global showpiece event – and is thus seen to be "taking away" a spot from the rest of the confederation. Aspirational Middle East nations, already behind the likes of Japan and South Korea in their football development, and also concerned by the rise of China and eventually India, see their international exposure being affected by Australia's involvement.

"Australia joined the AFC before I was elected as the president. At that time, the AFC general assembly made no resolution about re-assessing Australia's membership to determine whether it will stay or be evicted," Salman told the Dubai-based newspaper Al-Ittihad. "There are indications that prove that such desire exists among the confederations of west Asia to evict Australia. But I also know that the Arabs are not the only ones who are not convinced that Australia's membership in Asia's football is feasible."

Salman added that while he was content with Australia's involvement, the Gulf nations agitating for Australia's removal could raise the issue at this year's general assembly. But speaking to Fairfax Media, FFA chief executive David Gallop was taken aback by the revelations. "We were extremely surprised to hear of these press reports from west Asia. We are newcomers to AFC but our commitment to participate in competitions, membership of important AFC committees and general sharing of ideas and programs increases every year," he said. "We celebrate the diversity of the Asian region and this tournament has shown our contribution can go beyond football to create and foster social and political bridges between key trading partners in the region."

Gallop said Australia also contributed to the AFC economically and said membership of Asia would pave the way for broader links in the future. "Importantly, Australia is also in the top five markets for television rights in the entire confederation," he said. "It has been educational for Australians and Australia's multiculturalism has been on show. We have educated over 50,000 children about Asia through our Asian Cup primary school course."

The FFA hosted a lunch on Thursday to celebrate the ties between Australia and Asia and to highlight future networking opportunities. The key speaker, federal Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb, said football had created connections which hadn't existed until now.

"The more things we've got in common – especially on top of what we're already there for – creates relationships and builds familiarity, trust and an appreciation for cultural attitudes," he said. "We're seen as part of the west by many of those countries and there's barriers to break down but sport has a significant contribution to make."

Asian Cup local organising committee chief executive Michael Brown said Australia had to do more to embrace its neighbours. "Asian communities about are face-to-face relationships and building trust. We've gone a long way with the Asian Cup but it's a long journey," he said. "This [tournament] is a small step."