How the Socceroos should be judged
Archie Thompson celebrates the winning goal with Tim Cahill during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Qualifier match between Iraq and Australia in Doha, Qatar. (AP Photo/Osama Faisal)
Much of the aftermath of Australia’s 2-1 win against Iraq in Doha on Wednesday has been, somewhat misguidedly, directed towards what the result says about Australia’s true worth on the international football stage.
Currently ranked 34 in the world, down from 22 in August this year and a long 20 places below its all-time high of 14 in September 2009 (did that really happen?), the Socceroos have faced plenty of derision following their efforts in leaving it to the last ten minutes to defeat Iraq, ranked 46 places below Australia at 80.
This has followed criticism of their performances earlier this year in drawing against Oman (0-0) and Japan (1-1), and losing 2-1 to Jordan.
Criticism of the latter result I can understand. It was an inept performance that the team should have been very disappointed with. However the results of the other games were not that bad, in the circumstances. Let me explain.
Watching the 0-0 away draw with Oman in June left me feeling flat, as most scoreless draws do. Both teams had their chances and had it not been for Ali Al Habsi in the Oman goal, Australia would probably have won. The Wigan goalkeeper is a class above most of his teammates.
However adding the difficulty of the temperature during the game to the difficult in getting points from Middle Eastern teams away from home paints a picture different from the one painted by many in the media and among supporters, who see any result which is not a win as a failure no matter who the opposition.
Yes, a win would have been better, but getting a draw from a place like Oman is not an easy task. I consider that result a pass mark.
Drawing with Japan 1-1 in Brisbane was also a satisfactory result. Teams always try to expect to win their home games, but the Japanese team at the moment are a top-notch outfit and Australia did well to steal a point from them, especially after going down to ten men in dubious circumstances just after halftime.
Australia had a number of good chances to win the game and from that perspective some might consider the result insufficient, but I disagree. The result left us with two points after two games which on paper looks a slim return, but given the teams we played and where we played them, is acceptable.
The Jordan loss, even though away from home, was disappointing. A draw would have been a good result from this one and Archie Thompson’s late strike gave the Aussies a sniff, but they couldn’t find that second goal.
The Jordanians were jubilant and rightly so – they’d caught us unawares, outplayed us and Australia paid the price dearly. This result left the Socceroos on two points from three games which was not good, but looked a lot worse than what it was.
Had we lost to Iraq, there would have been pandemonium. Two points from four games would have been unacceptable and left the team on the bottom of the table with a mountain to climb to reach Brazil. Thanks to the two late goals we don’t any such problems… yet.
Had we drawn the game, similarly, all would not have been lost – three points from four games would not have been ideal but it wouldn’t have been terrible. Instead, Australia are now second on goal difference, with five points in the bag and, importantly, three of the last four games at home.
Let’s be honest: it is not easy to qualify through Asia. We made a cakewalk of it for 2010 because we had a better team at the time. Over the course of that campaign, Australia had the benefit of playing Asian teams who were just beginning to improve their standards of professionalism and had not yet worked out how to unlock Australia’s collection of talented players – many of whom were playing regularly in the world’s top leagues at the time.
This is no longer the case. The players who make up Australia’s first-choice XI are now less concentrated in Europe and more scattered around the globe, many in lower-quality leagues than the ones their counterparts of four years ago were playing in. The average age of the squad is higher. Our Asian opponents are working out how to exploit us.
I’ll say it again – It is not easy to qualify through Asia. These are the reasons why.
For what it’s worth, I think the team will qualify for Brazil. I can see the Socceroos winning two out of their three remaining home games (against Iraq, Jordan and Oman), drawing the other, and losing to Japan away from home. This would give them 12 points.
Of course it depends on the results of the other games in the group but as the other teams have shown a tendency to either draw or take unexpected points off each other – and remember we’re the only team to have taken points from Japan – 12 should be enough for the Roos. This is not to say that they should aim for seven points from their last four games: obviously they should aim for 12.
However, seven would do the job and if we qualify for Asia with 12 points, it should be celebrated because each of those points will have been worked extremely hard for.
Some negativity surrounds Australia’s focus on finishing second in the group rather than trying to win it. I would say that is not entirely correct: the focus is on qualification for the World Cup. Winning the group or coming second doesn’t matter.
It would be nice to top the group but Japan have streaked ahead by five points and although the Socceroos might still catch them, finishing second should not be derided if it happens: valuable points should not be risked in the pursuit of top spot just for the sake of winning the section, nor should finishing second be seen as an inferior performance.
Japan have shown over recent years that they, along with South Korea, really are a class above the other Asian nations. Australia can only tenuously lay claim to being part of that bracket now, which is why the draw with Japan in Brisbane earlier this year along with a second-place finish in this group should be seen as a good result.
Although surprises happen all the time in football, there are different levels of achievement that apply to nations around the globe. All things being equal, the top bracket of Asian teams would not beat the top bracket of European (e.g. Spain, Italy, Germany) or South American (e.g. Brazil, Argentina) teams in a tournament match.
I would equate the top-level Asian teams to the second-tier European ones such as Croatia, Serbia, Ukraine with whom a draw in a tournament would be an acceptable result, and a win a good one. Which is why Australia can only weakly claim to being on that level; in all honesty, can anyone see us beating one of these second-tier European teams if we played them in a competitive game next week? Probably not.
The only downfall of Australia’s qualification for the 2006 World Cup and subsequent entry into the AFC has been the widespread expectation that the national team will make every World Cup from 2010 on.
As a nation we’ve gone from being excited about qualifying for the big tournament to being brutally critical of anything less. Qualification for 2010 wasn’t celebrated like 2006; rather, it was accepted as a fait accompli.
Similarly, not advancing past the first round in South Africa was deemed a failure when only other results of the group prevented the Socceroos from progressing with a win, a draw and a loss in the bag: the same return as 2006.
2010 wasn’t a terrible result. The Germany result aside, the team did well to draw with Ghana whom many expected us to beat and beat Serbia with whom everybody probably believed a draw would be a good result. Nobody would honestly have expected us to beat Germany in any case, so four points was a haul worthy of acceptance if not high praise.
I want the Socceroos to make the 2014 World Cup. I want them to win every game they play to get there and I want them to not just make the second round, but to win their quarter final, semi final and be the first non-European or South American nation to take it out.
But let’s be realistic – it won’t happen.
Just like the A-League will never catch up to the top leagues in Europe, Australia’s national team will always be playing catch-up with the big guns.
That’s not to say improvement shouldn’t be aspired for; rather, that the team and its supporters should take stock of where on the relative scale Australia’s national team sits and judge its performances accordingly. This would mean being proud of them if they make the World Cup whether in first, second or third place in the group or regardless of how many games they lose in the process.
We could all do well to appreciate what many followers of the game in Australia currently don’t, and that is that it is not easy to qualify through Asia. We can’t expect to make every World Cup and there will be hiccups along the way, such as the Jordan game. We can’t rely on the Socceroos’ 20- or 30-something world ranking and assume this means we’ll beat every Asian opponent bar Japan and South Korea because rankings go right out the window in the hazy atmosphere of World Cup qualification. There’s a lot more to consider than just that.
If the Socceroos don’t make it to Brazil I’ll be disappointed, but if they do I’ll be celebrating. It will have been an effort that should not be underestimated nor undervalued.
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