Socceroo great Ray Baartz says excitement in Newcastle has reached fever pitch ahead of Australia’s Asian Cup semi-final against UAE on Tuesday night, eclipsing even David Beckham's visit with LA Galaxy.
Born and bred in the Hunter, Baartz, a 48-cap Socceroo and Asian Cup ambassador, admits he has never seen such enthusiasm for a game of football in the region.
“I think it’s created a precedent in Newcastle. I’ve never known such excitement for a football game in Newcastle,” he said.
“Everybody’s talking about it, even non-football people are talking about it. It’s fantastic for the area to host such an important game.”
LA Galaxy with megastar David Beckham came to town in 2010 for an exhibition game against Newcastle Jets, which was played in front of a packed-house at Hunter Stadium.
But Baartz, a former Jets chairman, says there is no question which game holds the most reverence for football in the Hunter region.
“It’s been front page news, back page news, four or five pages inside the papers, it’s just saturation point. Every radio station, TV station, everyone’s talking about,” he said of the Socceroos' visit.
“This is certainly the biggest game and the biggest international of any importance that we’ve ever had in regional Australia.”
The Socceroos have not played an international in the Hunter since 1995, when Australia accounted for New Zealand 3-0 at Breakers Stadium.
However, Baartz added he was disappointed with crowd restrictions imposed by the Asian Football Confederation for Newcastle Stadium but remains confident of a bumper atmosphere on Tuesday night.
"The football fans in Newcastle are disappointed that the AFC are sticking to the rule of only selling tickets for reserved seating,” he said.
“The grassed areas behind each goal can accommodate 10,000 people and I just wish there was exceptions to that rule.
“We could allow a lot of families and kids into that area to give people the opportunity to witness a game of this importance.”
Nevertheless, Baartz hopes the fixture will boost the region’s interest in football and welcomed the possibility of hosting more Socceroo games in the future.
“The game at all levels is going to be benefit from it. I think it will stimulate a lot of kids to play the game and excite a lot of the juniors who are already playing the game,” he said.
“Once people experience the atmosphere and the support that the team will get here in Newcastle, there’s no reason why we can’t have other games played here in the future.”
The Socceroos play the United Arab Emiriates in the Semi-Finals of the AFC Asian Cup on Tuesday 27 January with the match to be broadcast LIVE on Fox Sports 505 and LIVE on ABC from 8pm AEDT.