For 32 years, Australian football fans waited patiently to resume their place with the world’s elite. Five years after the 2006 World Cup and now entering the second stage of 2014 World Cup qualifications, can Australia fight off the Asian threat and make headway in Brazil?
A nation not known for its love of the beautiful game, Australia’s successful qualification to Germany sparked football resurgence. The moment when John Aloisi slotted that vital penalty shot into the top right hand corner to guarantee a place at the World Cup is etched in Australian sporting history. It was the moment the entire nation united in celebration; the moment Australians began to believe in football.
These baby steps back into the football wilderness were at the hands of a talented European-based squad and a Dutchmen, Guus Hiddink. The national slogan became ‘ No Guus, No Glory’, but while Guus is no longer at the helm, the core group of Socceroos still remain. Five years on and with a mix of young and old, can Australia be a viable bet for qualification?
There is no doubt that quality and experience are two of the most vital factors in success. A team full of youngsters can break under pressure; and on the world’s biggest sporting stage, the pressure is immense. But while the likes of Lucas Neill, Brett Emerton and Harry Kewell are perfect experienced names to have on your squad list, their current football careers are no longer long-term starting eleven prospects.
Lucas Neill, captain of the Socceroos, is 33 years old and no longer the feisty Blackburn defender that arrived in Germany ready for battle. Some would say 33 is still young, Rio Ferdinand and Didier Drogba are proof that age is not a factor. But while some players hit their stride near the end, Neill and his ageing compatriots are in the other, populated, category of having their careers fizzle out.
In the last five years, Neill has been a part of a near-relegation West Ham, a short and mediocre stint at Everton, an unsuccessful attempt at Galatsaray and now, the captain of Middle Eastern club, Al Jazira. Australia-bound Brett Emerton and Harry Kewell may be doing wonders for the promotion of the domestic competition, the Hyundai A-League, and are ending their careers in heroic fashion. But should the Socceroos still rely on these notable stars so heavily?
The Hyundai A-League is still a young competition. The league gives youngsters the opportunity to build on their talents before being shipped off to Europe. For the older stars, such Emerton and Kewell, it is a chance to kick the ball a few more times before hanging up the boots. They were brought over to build on the Australian football success story; Kewell and Emerton have become the poster boys for European-based players ending their careers on home soil.
But Australia’s biggest international sporting name, Harry Kewell, has failed to shine. Once again, injuries and lack of goals are hindering the star’s ability to be at his best. Yet Holger Osieck is keeping the Victory star on his national squad list, whether it is on the starting pitch or warming the bench.
There’s no denying that these players continually put their hands up for national duty due to the pride, honour and dedication to represent Australia. But when is it time for the manager to say ‘No’? Is it because there are no quality replacements to fill the void? Or is it because Australian football fans still have 2006 etched in their hearts and letting these heroes go has become football sacrilege?
Australia’s disappointing run in South Africa had the blame placed on then-manager, Pim Verbeek. But after the squad failed to beat bottom of the group Oman in their 2014 World Cup qualifier, and then unflatteringly managed only a 1-0 victory over Thailand under new manager, Holger Osieck, maybe the blame should be directed at the players.
The 2006 World Cup 24-man squad saw eleven top-flight European clubs be represented. The English Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga and La Liga all featured Australian World Cup stars.
Unlike the Socceroos of the past, the current crop no longer show an impressive array of European football talent. Only seven top-flight English, Scottish and Dutch clubs have members of the World Cup qualifying squad. Whether it’s due to demand, financial incentive or Australia’s new place in Asian football, the Socceroos predominantly line-up in Japan’s J-League and China’s Super League.
With average performances as of late, the pressure to perform against stronger Asian teams in the second round of qualifications will be Australia’s biggest challenge. Holger Osieck has started the qualifications with six players over the age of thirty. With Brazil still three years away, would it have not been a better option to start fresh with young players who could be guaranteed starters in three years time?
There is a long held assumption that those that begin the qualifications journey should be in contention to make the 24-man World Cup squad. This would mean Australia could possibly go to Brazil with seven players over the age of thirty-two and one over the age of forty.
Maybe it’s time to move away from the experience and start focusing on youth. Australia’s first stage qualifications group was made up of minnows such as Oman, Thailand and Saudi Arabia. This, ultimately, saw Australia somewhat ease into the second stage of qualification. But veterans were still chosen, barring injury, over Australia’s future stars.
Even with the inclusion of experienced footballers, the consistent line-up of Neill, Emerton, Kewell and Cahill may in fact lead to these big names running out of legs.
Two years of qualifications may provide plenty of time for fiddling with the starting line-up. But in order to achieve the full potential of the younger squad members, more playing time and more responsibility is key.
Michael Zullo, Robbie Kruse, Adam Sarota and Tommy Oar are all up-and-coming names in European football and are certain availabilities in 2014.
Zullo, Oar and Sarota started their trade at Brisbane Roar and quickly impressed European football directors. The three, now at FC Utrecht in the Dutch Eredivise, are potential stars for the national team. The three, who fill the positions of left back, midfield and striker, have yet to get adequate game time. More experienced heads, such as Sasa Ognenovski (Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma), Brett Holman (AZ Alkmaar), and Joshua Kennedy (Nagoya Grampus) take their place.
Fortuna Dusseldorf striker, Robbie Kruse, is another player that began in the Hyundai A-League. The former Roar and Victory striker was a regular in the ‘A-League’ national team call-ups. Now plying his trade in 2. Bundesliga, Kruse is still receiving call-ups, though his spot as striker is usually handed to Kewell or Shimizu S-Pulse striker, Alex Brosque.
With such young potential in the squad, taking some risks and playing youth could provide these youngsters with greater confidence in both club and country colours.
Many in Asia believe Australia is a certainty to feature in Brazil 2014. So in the chance of international friendlies and qualifications clashes with Asian minnows, is starting with youth such a bad idea? Placing older squad members on the bench would not only preserve their fitness, but also give the younger players more game time.
Maybe the new national slogan should be ‘No Youth, No Glory’; for there is no use having talented youth sit on the bench.