As Brazil 2014 gets going, Australian football fans will be trying to forget the fraught process of actually getting there. Though the Socceroos are safely through to their third successive finals – the tortuous route, through two group stages and 14 matches, was worryingly familiar.
Some patchy results – including a defeat to Jordan and a draw with Oman – saw Australia stumble through to Brazil, securing the vital second place in the six team qualifying group with a narrow win over Iraq. Second half substitute Josh Kennedy of Grampus Eight (Jesus to his team-mates, thanks to his ‘biblical’ appearance) scored the vital goal before 80,000 at Sydney’s ANZ stadium,heading in a Mark Bresciano cross with just eight minutes left, though Kennedy failed to make the cut when the final squad was announced.
The huge turnout showed the Australian appetite for the big occasion, but Socceroos fans will know that such victories are no basis for success in Brazil. Australia’s opponents in a horrible Group B – the Netherlands, Chile and no 1 ranked Spain – will be far tougher than a team 46 places below them in the rankings. The Chileans are old foes from 40 years ago, but a repeat of the 0-0 draw the Aussies secured in the 1974 group stage would be a major achievement against a team that played England off the Wembley pitch last November.
Perennial rivals Iran continued their excellent qualification record; Brazil 2014 will be their fourth appearance and the second in three tournaments. Their first, in 1978, was memorable for Iraj Danayfar’s late equaliser against Scotland – with an assist from Alan Rough – that secured an early exit for their hubristic opponents. Some Australians are still trying to forget Iran’s next headline-grabbing performance, in the Asia/Oceania playoff for France ’98. A frantic 2-2 draw on 29th November 1997 before 85,000 in Melbourne, eliminated the Aussies despite the recruitment of Terry Venables as coach, and a team full of UK-based players at the top of their game.
The European contingent in today’s squad can make fewer claims to youth and fitness, putting more responsibility – and pressure – on the A and J-League players The reality is that the Socceroos have relied on too many aging stars. Australia were the second-oldest squad – behind England at South Africa 2010, and change has been slow, though after Mark Schwarzer’s retirement, the goalkeeper’s berth will be contested by Mitchell Langerak and Brugge’s Matt Ryan, who replaced the Dortmund man for the 1-0 friendly win over Costa Rica.
Despite a difficult draw, new coach Angelos (Ange) Postacoglou was upbeat at the prospect of testing his charges against the World’s best. His optimism is far from universal. The ageing squad is a talking point among Socceroos fans, some of whom see the World Cup as a chance to blood younger players in a major tournament. Others see disaster looming in a genuine Group of Death. Without a Rugby World Cup or Ashes tour to distract the public, the Socceroos will be centre-stage this year, and need to return with a victory at least to maintain their profile. The lack-lustre showing against Costa Rica left some fans thinking even this is beyond them.
Qualification was followed by 6-0 defeats against Brazil and France; ominous form given their tough World Cup opponents. The result in Paris earned team coach Holgar Osieck the sack, with Postacoglou, the highly successful boss at Melbourne Victory the logical replacement.
His appointment on a five-year contract will have pleased fans wanting an Aussie with links with domestic football, he faced an uphill task to ready his squad. Qualification was followed by one win – over Canada – and four defeats, including losses to Japan and China in the South Asia Cup, with seven goals conceded. Thankfully, Tim Cahill’s winner against Costa Rica averted a mini crisis. Promising Celtic midfielder Tomas Rogic was Man of the Match, though there were problems for Lucas Neill, whose tenuous hold on his international place had many fans at the Costa Rica game calling for his head. His replacement as captain - by Crystal Palace midfielder Mile Jedinak – surprised no-one,
Supporter unrest is understandable. Australian football has been on a downward curve since the country’s most successful World Cup in Germany seven years ago. Then, the squad was based on a core of players who happened to be playing to international standard in Europe. As the Vidukas and Schwarzers neared retirement, the FFA realised that player development could no longer be left to chance, or sacrificed for the sake of leaky World Cup bids – $AUS 45 million (£25milliion) of public money was spent on the 2022 bid for just one vote.
The answer was the formation of the A-League in 2005. The national setup, sponsored by Hyundai, now has ten franchises, though the league has been a magnet for European players in semi-retirement, and is still weak compared to the European setups which will supply many of the Socceroos’ rivals in Brazil.
Back home, the game is gradually expanding. Regular A-League crowds have increased steadily to an average 13,041 in 2013-14. Football was the only code to improve its crowds in 2012 but has been a magnet for semi-retired European players and is still weak compared to the European setups supplying the Socceroos’ rivals this month.
The A-League had some much-need investment in November 2012, with an agreement for free-to-air network SBS to share coverage with established broadcaster, Fox Sports. The $160 million four-year deal will, hopefully, retain the best players and attract the coaches domestic Australian football needs, so that international standard players come through the ranks on a four-year, World Cup cycle.
Investment or not,many commentators were pessimistic about the Socceroos, even before the draw, rating their prospects in Brazil on a par with the World Cup pioneers of 1974. The ’74 squad, managed by perfectionist Yugoslav Rale Rasic, included soccer legends Peter ‘Big Willie’ Wilson of Safeway Utd, the Durham-born Socceroos captain, and Johnny Warren of St George-Budapest, who became a respected coach, administrator and broadcaster. The team emerged with no wins but plenty of credit for keeping the goals against down to five, and holding Chile to a 0-0 draw; no mean feat in a group also containing East and West Germany.
It was 32 years before the Socceroos’ next finals appearance.The turning point came in 2006 with a switch from Oceania, with no guaranteed finals berth, to the Asian confederation. The decision was understandable. Three successive play-off defeats had kept Australia out of the finals until 2006, when favourites Uruguay were beaten on penalties after a 1-1 draw on aggregate – Mark Schwarzer making the vital save.
The Socceroos have been ever-present since. A 3-1 victory over Japan – their first in the finals – and a vital draw with Croatia took them to the last sixteen in Germany, though a repeat of the group stage exit in 2010 is far more likely. In South Africa, a Pyrrhic win over Serbia wasn’t enough, after a 4-0 mauling by Germany and a draw with Ghana effectively eliminated them.
Things have declined since then, with Australia ranked 62 in the world – the lowest in the tournament and their worst for 11 years. Despite the presence of players like Cahill, Jedinak and sparky wide man Tommy Oar, the culling of the old guard, (Neill, Holman and Wilkshire were all dropped) and a lack of suitable replacements could see the pessimists proved right. Any success may stem from youthful enthusiasm and a nothing-to-lose, cup-tie attitude.
The controversy over Qatar, and the outside chance of a switch of venue in 2022, may placate those fuming at the money spent on Australia’s own thwarted bid. An Australian World Cup is long overdue in a country with the fans and facilities to support it. On the field though, it may be 2018 in Russia before the A-League’s promise is realised and another team emerges to match 2006. Then perhaps, qualification, and the finals themselves, will be less of a trial.