So the Socceroos saved their worst until last and another FIFA World Cup campaign ends with more questions than answers.
Full credit to a Peru side that played with passion and pride and, most importantly, took their chances in last night’s 2-0 win.
The loss ended Australia’s World Cup campaign with a whimper – although the result was a moot point, since France and Denmark played out a mutually beneficial scoreless draw in the group’s other game anyway.
And after starting with so much promise, the Bert van Marwijk era ended with a frustratingly bitter aftertaste.
The Dutchman deserves a round of applause for doing a decent job overall at such short notice. Had the bounce of the ball and a couple more decisions gone Australia’s way, we might be lauding him in the same breath as Guus Hiddink.
But, as Craig Foster alluded to in his post-game comments on SBS, what attracted Football Federation Australia to Van Marwijk was also his Achilles’ heel. As a European coach with a career built on conservatism, he never really seemed to believe the Socceroos had the talent to take the game to their opponents.
That’s why he held back Daniel Arzani, that’s why Tim Cahill didn’t come off the bench against Denmark, and that’s why Massimo Luongo didn’t see a single minute of action for the second World Cup in a row.
But Van Marwijk is not to blame here. As Foster said overnight, he did exactly what he was paid to do.
And as tempting as it is to rip into the FFA and their executives – several of whom are said to have enjoyed first-class trips to Russia – it’s the football we should be talking about.
But there do need to be some questions asked.
Starting with the rumour about what happened after the game against Thailand in Melbourne last September, when Ange Postecoglou is alleged to have got wind of a plot to replace him before the World Cup with Graham Arnold and, believing he no longer had the backing of those in charge, had to be talked out of quitting with immediate effect.
Because if Postecoglou wasn’t the coach the Socceroos needed playing an Australian brand of football, and a European coach like Van Marwijk prefers the Socceroos to sit back and absorb pressure until it’s too late, what style of football exactly should Australia be employing?
That’s a question that needs answering now – not after we’ve wasted another four-year cycle ahead of the World Cup in Qatar.
And we’d better find a goal scorer quick-smart. Postecoglou never really rated Jamie Maclaren, while Tomi Juric barely seemed fit enough to lead the line in Russia. Is it any wonder we pinned so many of our hopes on Cahill?
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Yet the online reaction to the suggestion Cahill might feature against Peru speaks volumes about our immaturity as a football nation.
It’s all well and good wanting to look learned about football by adopting a contrarian standpoint and forever scoffing at those who supposedly profess a less enlightened view.
The problem with that is when a player like Cahill – the 38-year-old who, as was pointed out ad nauseam, only played 65 minutes for Millwall – comes off the bench and causes panic in the opposition defence anyway.
But hey, you’d have to be stupid to think Cahill could have made a difference against France in the last ten minutes and Denmark over the final 15, right?
At the end of the day, these issues revolve around much more than just three results in Russia. The Socceroos gave their absolute all and did their nation proud on the world stage.
But it’s no good talking about a lack of quality up front against Peru, if it’s not accompanied by a simultaneous discussion about a lack of quality running through many other facets of the game.
The Socceroos need to start planning to do more than merely participate in the World Cup. Otherwise, we’ll all be sitting here in four years having the exact same conversation.