As the Socceroos begin life post the Ange Postecoglou and Bert van Marwijk years, expectations are varied.
2015 has been a busy year in international football. There have been four major continental championships this year in Asia, Africa and both Americas, all of which have featured semi-surprise winners.
Australia’s tournament came when we hosted the 2015 Asian Cup here in January. When a team wins the tournament it hosts, there is a feeling of completeness. We hosted it, we won it, it was therefore our tournament in every sense.
It was an odd month which, in my case in Melbourne, featured traipsing to the rather lovely, artificially starlit AAMI Stadium with its distinctive football balls shape. It was a summertime with long twilight, the air was fresh, the tickets were cheap as chips and the Melbourne crowds got to know unknown quantities such as North Korea, an emotional tournament for Palestine and the bellowing cry of “OOz-bek-i-STON!” (Uzbekistan).
I wonder what a North Korea player thought, jogging past and looking at my Dad and I sipping beers in the front rows?
Australia played its part as hosts, contributing minimum 10,000-person crowds to every match and providing a relaxing atmosphere. There is debate about how well Australia integrates into the Asian Football Confederation, but we staged a fine tournament.
There is no doubt that Australia reaching the final captured the country’s attention, evidenced by Sydney’s tense, packed yellow stadium in the final. Beforehand we frankly had no idea how the young team would go.
When the boys conceded a soft goal in the first ten minutes to one of the weakest teams in the field (Kuwait), it was a shock but hadn’t seemed impossible. But Massimo Luongo became a new star and coach Ange Postecoglou got it right with a young team whose priority was the clever short-passing game which has taken over the world elsewhere.
Asia is in something of a rut, with poor appearances at the 2014 World Cup and flagship team Japan eliminated in an odd travesty of a quarter-final here in Australia. The depth in Asian football is not so great.
But the final between Australia and South Korea was the best international final for quite a few years. We arguably outdid ourselves in beating the Koreans and can cherish the result of this tournament. It will never stop being ours.
At the same time, the 2015 African Nations Cup was being played. Egypt’s domination of this tournament last decade gave the African continental championship a bit of gravitas it no longer possesses.
For ten years neighbours Ivory Coast and Ghana have repeatedly almost won the African title but each time they have lost traumatically. It made sense that the two eventually end up in the final against each other.
Both this match and the South American final boasted the perfect match-up but neither game delivered. First Ivory Coast and Ghana, and then Chile and Argentina, would play featureless goalless draws.
Ivory Coast incredibly then won the penalty shootout after missing their first two kicks. The game of chicken went on for more than double the length of a normal penalty shootout.
All 22 on-field players took a kick before Ivory Coast’s keeper Boubacar Barry decided the final against his Ghana counterpart, saving his kick and then beating him with his own penalty.
Ivory Coast’s decade-long anguish, one of the sub-stories of international football, was finally over, as Yaya Toure lifted the trophy.
But it was a poor tournament that only featured three quality teams. It was hoped that Algeria would add to their great World Cup with the African title. Their 3-1 loss to Ivory Coast in the quarter-final virtually decided a lopsided, somewhat forgettable tournament.
June featured the 2015 Copa America in Chile, the South American championship. South American teams had featured strongly at the World Cup and it was intriguing to see if Chile and Colombia could continue their dazzling progress, and if Argentina and Brazil could get over last year’s trauma in each losing to Germany.
This became Chile’s tournament in the same way the Asian Cup belonged to Australia. Chile won their first ever continental title (after 100 years) in front of a bevy of Chilean flags and national feeling. Like Australia but more so, Chile had revolutionised their team to play in a particular, skilful way, and for their efforts deserved a hometown South American championship.
But it was difficult and came with a cache of sour incidents. Arturo Vidal, the on-field leader of the team, probably should not have even been there. He went out drinking at a casino mid-tournament, drunkenly crashed his Ferrari and injured his wife. If Chile weren’t so desperate to win this once-in-a-lifetime tournament he would certainly and deservedly have been kicked out of the squad.
Nonetheless, for barren Chile it was win at any cost, so he stayed. Chile’s title was mostly then won by the newer players, forward Eduardo Vargas and midfielder Charles Aranguiz.
Argentina produced the international display of the decade in beating Paraguay 6-1 sumptuously in the semi-final. Yet in the final they could not flex muscle against Chile, who matched up to them relatively well and whose crowd got them over the line. Lionel Messi was devastated to lose, only a few days after his Paraguay masterpiece.
The international carnival was wrapped up by Mexico winning the North American championship this week. But they did in comically controversial circumstances, gifted three penalties to win the quarter and semi-finals, two in the last minute of each match.
In those circumstances, while steering clear of conspiracy theories, their title win cannot be seen in a positive light.
Australia and Chile, who played an entertaining 3-1 Chile win at the 2014 World Cup while Australia were just starting their rejuvenation, may now have a rematch at the 2017 Confederations Cup. On the international agenda now is Euro 2016 in a year, and then the distant 2018 World Cup in Russia.