Golden memories and greener pastures for Socceroos
Archie Thompson scored for the Socceroos against Lebanon in the 3-0 win (Image: AFP)
Australia’s 2014 World Cup qualification campaign has thus far asked more questions than it has answered about the present state and future of our national team.
The issues SBS analyst Craig Foster posed on The World Game a few weeks ago were quite scary. They pertained to where we are going as a football nation, and weren’t answered with any degree of certainty.
Centring around the current drive to reach Brazil, concerns lingered over which players are capable of getting us there during qualifying, and which would then be ripe to take the field come 2014.
Not since 2005 has the question of whether Australia will qualify for the World Cup been plunged into such doubt. Post the drought-ending, captivating tournament ride of Germany 2006, Australia was (perhaps unfairly) expected by many to back up and qualify again for South Africa. They did so for the first time through Asia, and convincingly, under the auspices of the now-maligned Dutchman Pim Verbeek.
Following 2010′s unfulfilled desires, with the Socceroos exiting at the group stage but importantly making their presence felt at another World Cup, the expectation has again been ratcheted up. A third successive showing in 2014 is anticipated. But right now, our qualification hangs in the balance.
The Socceroos’ backs are firmly pressed to the wall after their away loss to Jordan. Two goals and just two points from our three games thus far have put serious pressure on the coming fixture against Iraq to produce a win.
The Iraqis are likewise stuck in the two-point logjam at the foot of the group, so a win is crucial to either team for their campaign to progress to Brazil.
Japan are setting the pace in Group B of Asian qualifying, romping through with three wins and a draw from four games, and a staggering eight points above Australia. The one positive is that Japan have inflicted defeat on all opponents bar the Socceroos, creating a wide gap in the field and making second spot an attainable goal for all.
We can’t afford slipping up and finishing third. Awaiting whoever does is the uphill task of playing Group A’s third placed team, with the winner then needing a two-legged playoff with CONMEBOL’s fifth team to pinch a spot at the World Cup.
In identifying reasons for the current plight of the national team, Craig Foster raised an issue stemming from our 2006 success. Swept up in the moment, the ecstasy of reaching a World Cup – 32 years since our last – and the jubilation at how our Socceroos performed on the big stage, did Australian football pay any attention to the future? What foundations, if any, were laid for the sustained progress that would see us in good stead 10 years down the track?
Admittedly, a period of turbulence was always going to follow the sudden surge in enthusiasm for the game. The long-awaited World Cup appearance in Germany coincided with the inaugural season of the newly formed A-League, and the future looked bright.
But Australia has failed to replenish its stocks as the golden generation including Kewell, Viduka, Emerton, Grella and Neill faded. At present we have a Socceroos side in which the old stagers carry the burden.
What we are yet to see is a new generation of players stamp their authority on the national team. So it’s a question of whether to allow chances for the young brigade to come through, or cling to the tried and true abilities of our tiring heroes.
With the upward trajectory of football here so dependent upon consistent World Cup showings from the Socceroos, the luxury of being able to sacrifice qualification for trialling the new blood is non-existent. Here the organisation’s priorities align with those of the national team boss.
It is clear that Holger Osieck will not risk playing unproven youngsters in his bid to qualify us for Brazil. That’s his job after all, and he has the right to go about it whichever way he feels is best.
But where does that leave our future? When are the likes of Nikita Rukavysta, James Troisi and Matthew Spiranovic going to play regularly and contribute? What became of players like Nathan Burns who tried in Europe but couldn’t consolidate? And looking deeper into our talent pool, why not give early chances to the likes of Matthew Leckie, Mustafa Amini and Chris Herd? Even Tom Rogic and Eli Babalj.
It’s a gamble to field such youngsters, but playing them together in a team now is the only way to build a group which will be cohesive and competitive at the top level, and fulfil our future ambitions.
If Australia can qualify for the Brazil World Cup, it won’t be on the back of the aforementioned players. Bresciano, Neill, Cahill and co. will need to get us there, and Harry Kewell will need to find a club so he can maintain his chances of helping the national team. Then what?
What happens after qualifying is over is key. If Australia falls short, then it has to be out with the old and in with the new. As simple as that, a total revamp of the Socceroos, with no more excuses to cling to the heroes of the green and gold.
But even if Australia can qualify for the World Cup, this may still be necessitated. It’s a brutal thought, that those who carried us to the promised land could then be burnt and left off the plane for Brazil.
A complete overhaul wouldn’t fly in the face of the public. But selective trimmings of the aged Socceroos squad to form a hybrid side with that clichéd but elusive ‘blend of youth and experience’ is the only foreseeable way our team can prosper.
A miracle run at Brazil would require just that, a miracle.
Either way, the Socceroos squad just isn’t equipped to throw the kind of punches it did in ’06. So if we’re there in 2014, it’s time we moved positively to benefit our future, while rigorously defending our present. Inject youth and whatever happens, future Australian players will have a priceless source of experience to draw on.
The World Cup in Brazil might not hold glory for the Socceroos, but it could well lay the foundations. The next two years will sow seeds which must be coaxed into blossoming.