If 2008 is any guide, Australian soccer appears to have dodged a bullet and gained a gun. A year ago, Dutchman Pim Verbeek took over as Socceroos coach as a virtual unknown here and second choice after countryman Dick Advocaat turned his back on an already agreed deal.
The rebound relationship has been a marriage made in heaven.
And 18 months out from the 2010 World Cup finals, Verbeek’s Socceroos find themselves within touching distance of a second consecutive finals campaign.
Under Verbeek, the results have been spectacular, even if the performances have often been more workmanlike than wondrous.
Verbeek has eight wins, three draws and just two defeats from his 13 matches in charge – a better win-loss record and ratio than his revered predecessor Guus Hiddink.
Already he has guided the Socceroos through a difficult initial qualification phase past Qatar, China and Iraq, with the highlights impressive 3-0 and 3-1 wins over Qatar home and away.
In their last hurdle in qualification, the Socceroos now sit two points clear at the top of their Asian World Cup qualifying group with three wins in three games.
Two of those wins have been away from home, and a victory against Japan in Yokohama in February would virtually guarantee the Socceroos a ticket for South Africa.
Verbeek has made no secret his aim is for Australia to qualify for the World Cup finals – no matter what it takes.
“My first job was to get enough points to qualify for the next stage of the World Cup (qualifying) which we did,” Verbeek told reporters in Sydney on Thursday.
“The second was to create a bigger squad of players to pick from and pick up some new players on the way and we have done that.
“But until we qualify for the World Cup I cannot be happy with what I have done because until then, the job is not complete.”
It seems the powers-that-be believe Verbeek’s results-driven agenda will work and are making plans accordingly – Football Federation Australia bullish on every front over the past 12 months.
A 2018 bid to host the World Cup finals is gathering pace, while the sport’s governing body has turned a modest surplus in tough economic times.
Crowds have dropped slightly in season four of the A-League, though a spike is expected once teams from the Gold Coast and North Queensland boost the competition to 10 clubs in 2009-10.
But FFA chairman Frank Lowy says despite predictions of the A-League losing its lustre and the global economic slowdown adding to the risks of expansion, there will be no backing away from growing the game.
“Nothing will put the brakes on expansion. I certainly hope by 2010-11 we will have 12 teams and I think at that time we’ll need to reassess our capacity and our future,” Lowy said.
“The plan is expand next year and then the year after.
“We are talking to Melbourne … and we are talking to a Sydney syndicate that may materialise in the next few months.”
“We have our broadcasting revenue fixed, our sponsors are fixed for the next few years in advance and we have the World Cup coming up.”
Australian soccer’s bold leap into Asia has also brought respect through an unexpected quarter in 2008 – Adelaide United’s march through the Asian Champions League.
The Reds stunned all by reaching the final of Asia’s premier club competition, beating Japanese giants Kashima Antlers and petrochemical-rich FC Bunyodkor from Uzbekistan.
But United came undone in the final, whipped 5-0 on aggregate by Japan’s Gamba Osaka – effectively having played their final by getting there on a shoestring budget and with a far smaller squad compared to their rivals.
The Reds weren’t even strictly speaking the best team in the A-League.
Newcastle Jets took out the 2007-08 grand final beating Central Coast 1-0, with Mark Bridge’s goal the difference.
In a controversial finale, Mariners keeper Danny Vukovic was sent off for striking referee Mark Shield.
He first received a 15-month suspension, then a shorter ban split in two to allow him to play at the Olympic Games, before FIFA intervened to ensure the goalkeeper was not able to play in Beijing.
Vukovic missed little there – the Olyroos failing miserably under coach Graham Arnold and departing at the group stage.
Australia’s overseas stars had a varied year.
Tim Cahill and Mark Viduka were plagued by long-term injury problems, while Harry Kewell completed a surprising transfer in July from Liverpool to Turkish giant Galatasaray and got among the goals again.
With World Cup qualification looking increasingly likely, Australia’s next step in proving itself a serious soccer nation is gathering support for its World Cup bid.
The 2018 and 2022 hosts look like being decided at the same time, and Lowy admits how seriously our bid is taken will be a huge test of how far Australian soccer has come in terms of international recognition.
“To get the World Cup here is a mammoth task and if we are successful it means that we have been recognised internationally that Australia is a place to be,” Lowy said.
“That will be a very, very big achievement but we’re being considered, and I think we are being considered as a very strong candidate by the authorities-that-be.”