Asian football's biggest tournament is coming to Australia. The 2015 AFC Asian Cup takes place across five Australian cities and former Socceroo and current Asian Cup ambassador Ned Zelic says it will enable fans to watch high-quality international football on home soil.
Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Newcastle and Canberra will host Asian Cup fixtures, with the tournament kicking off in Melbourne on January 9 and finishing with a highly anticipated final at Stadium Australia in Sydney on January 31.
The cream of Asian football's international crop will converge on Australia for the 16th edition of the Asian Cup, with reigning champions Japan looking to defend the title it won in dramatic circumstances against the Socceroos in the 2011 final in Qatar.
Since joining the Asian Football Confederation in 2006, Australia has recorded a quarter-final exit and runner-up finish in its two Asian Cup appearances to date, and the Socceroos will be hoping to make it a case of third time lucky on home soil.
Former Socceroos stalwart Zelic – whose glittering club career included stints at Japanese sides Kyoto Sanga and Urawa Reds – says it's "logical" that football fans would get out and support the tournament.
"If you were a football fan, why wouldn't you want to go?" Zelic reasons. "We all want the Socceroos to win the Asian Cup and everyone loves watching them play, but there's also an opportunity to see what our opponents are doing close-up."
The Canberra native is excited about watching football in his former stomping ground, particularly as the nation's capital is not currently home to an A-League side.
"There's a lot of football fans in Canberra, we've seen that in the past.
"If you look at Tuggeranong playing in the FFA Cup, there were 5,500 people there. The Socceroos played (against Kuwait) and there were 20,000 people there," Zelic says.
It's not just Canberra locals who will be expected to turn out in droves. With the Socceroos spreading their group-stage games between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, flights up and down the east coast will be packed with supporters of Australia's national team.
For seasoned traveller Zelic, the tournament offers Australians the chance to explore more of their own backyard while watching some top-class football to boot.
"People can be creative and work something out and combine sport with their holiday," Zelic says. "You can take a few days and combine it with watching some good football."
With Australia now firmly entrenched as a full-fledged member of the AFC, there's also an expectation that football fans will appreciate the chance to watch the region's best teams go around.
"We're qualifying now through Asia and we're playing all these teams in qualifying games," Zelic says. "You've also got clubs playing in the Champions League, so the connection and the knowledge is there."
With China nabbing one of the final qualifying spots for next January's showdown – much to the relief of the Local Organising Committee – a cumulative TV audience of two billion people is a realistic ambition.
Around 45,000 international visitors are expected to attend the tournament, including sizeable contingents from traditional East Asian heavyweights Japan, South Korea and China.
Not since the 1993 FIFA World Youth Championship has a tournament of such magnitude been played on Australian soil, and Zelic says the Asian Cup provides the perfect opportunity to showcase Australian football to the rest of Asia.
"There's going to be a lot of countries (watching), so let's show Asia how fanatical we are about our sport."
The 2015 Asian Cup kicks off with a clash between Australia and Kuwait at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium on January 9.