Community ambassador program could prove to be the legacy of 2015 Asian Cup

One team: Mohammad Othman of Melbourne at Canberra Stadium to see Iraq take on Palestine in the Asian Cup

The 2015 Asian Cup could have a legacy far greater than covered benches at football grounds as Football Federation of Australia are in discussions to maintain the community ambassador program that helped make the tournament a success.

An ambassador program run by Red Elephant Projects and funded by the 2015 Asian Cup LOC was a major driving force behind the high ticket sales for games not involving the host nation and it could now help boost support for the A-League and other games. Members of the program, most of them volunteers, worked for more than 18 months with Australia’s ethnic communities to help make the 2015 Asian Cup popular among expatriates from competing nations.

In promoting the tournament, Iraqi-Australian Abrar Al Salehcan claim to have achieved something no Iraqi government has in uniting the various religious and racial backgrounds of her community behind one cause. Whether Shi’as, Sunnis or Christians, Assyrians, Kurds or Arab-Iraqis, Al Saleh and her team of ambassadors drew the various backgrounds of the broader Iraqi community together for the sole purpose of supporting their national team.

Unity: Abrar Al Saleh played a key role in bringing together Iraqi fans

As the convenor of the Iraqi ambassador program, Al Saleh oversaw the operation of building support for her team by promoting the tournament and arranging tickets and travel for thousands of supporters. With the diverse background of the Iraqi community – one at times fraught with tension – the job was “not a full-time job, but a 24/7 job” as it could be as simple as handing out flyers and as complicated as organising community events.

“Difficult, challenging – extremely challenging, there was a lot of politics going around… I have to admit, it was very challenging but extremely rewarding,” Al Saleh said. “Look at today [Iraq v Palestine], we’re all sitting on the same level and you don’t know what our backgrounds are, we’re just all here for Iraq.”

Invited into the program because of her communication skills, Al Saleh faced struggles as a woman leading her program and sought to assist Iraq’s female supporters by arranging specific transport for them to attend games interstate. There were constant challenges but she says her reward was seeing thousands of Iraqi supporters stand together.

Events such as community Asian Cups organised by specific A-League clubs were part of the multicultural engagement programs that promoted the tournament among communities. Since March 2013 the program used multicultural media campaigns, targeted language advertisements, futsal events for ethnic communities and involvement of film festivals to drive support that attributed to an average attendance for non-Australia games of 14,727.

The program primarily worked with Chinese, Iranian, Japanese, Korean and Iraqi communities and is set to remain in place up until the A-League finals series in April. It could be expanded to other cultures to ensure Australian football retains a strong multicultural foundation.

“The FFA are very interested in continuing the legacy of the community ambassador program. If it’s going to be a multicultural program, then we have to bring in non-Asian ambassadors as well,” Red Elephant’s Patrick Skene said.

Taka Sasaki became the community ambassador for Japan after having organised a cultural football team and ticket arrangements. He was personally credited with distributing 1,000 tickets for Japan’s opening game against Jordan in Melbourne on top of the immeasurable publicity raised within the Japanese community of Australia. Sasaki worked tirelessly in promoting the tournament in Japanese-Australian media and events in Melbourne and was rewarded by the AFC to become the official team liaison of the Blue Samurai for the tournament.

“It was a precious time for me working with the national team. I was with [Keisuke] Honda, [Shinji} Kagawa and eating together and joking around with them, seeing them playing and practising just in front of me,” Sasaki said.