The Matildas enjoyed a raucous and triumphant homecoming with a thrilling 3-1 defeat of Brazil at CommBank Stadium on Saturday.
Graham Arnold won’t have fond memories of the last time he took an Australian team into an AFC tournament in Bangkok.
After the Socceroos’ success at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, Arnold was handed temporary reign of the national team for the AFC Asian Cup the following year, played across Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.
With a star-studded squad including Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka, Australia were one of the heavy favourites going into their maiden continental showpiece.
But rather than waltzing in and walking away with the continent’s highest honour at the first time of asking, they were given a rude awakening as to the difficulties of playing in Asia.
Their failure at the 2007 Asian Cup, with claims of arrogance and boozy nights hanging over the team, came to define Arnold’s coaching career until he was able to re-shape his image with incredibly successful stints at the Central Coast Mariners and Sydney FC.
Twelve years on, Arnold is back in Bangkok and the task ahead is arguably even tougher, as Australia tries to qualify for their first Olympics since Beijing 2008 – which, coincidentally, came with Arnold as coach.
The 2020 AFC Under-23 Championships, which doubles as qualifiers for Tokyo 2020, kicks off tonight with Australia playing in the opening match against Iraq. The Olyroos need to at least make the semi-finals to have any chance of reaching the Olympics.
While the media – and perhaps even Arnold himself – underestimated the tournament in 2007, there can be no underestimating the challenge this team faces. Australia has once again been drawn with Thailand and Iraq, with Bahrain rounding out Group A.
For some time now, Australian youth teams have struggled in Asia, a fact fans here struggle to accept. They have fallen back to the pack at a rapid rate and now sit some way behind the leaders at all underage levels.
At the corresponding tournament two years, dubbed a Mickey Mouse tournament by some A-League owners, the Olyroos failed to make it past the group stage, with a win over Syria followed by losses against Vietnam and South Korea.
Of course, the biggest problem facing our younger players is a lack of opportunity and game time. So few of our 23-man squad are regular 90-minute players in the A-League, and the way we view young players in this country is out of kilter with the rest of the world.
This was a point I observed on Twitter last week, when someone tweeted about Melbourne Victory defender Ben Carrigan being a kid. He is 21. In a domestic Australian sporting context like the AFL or NRL, a 21-year-old might be considered a kid – an up-and-comer ready to break into the first team.
But in football, if Australia is to excel on a global stage and the A-League is to be the league we want and need it to be, by 21 our best young kids should not be considered kids – they should be established first-team players with years of experience under their belt ready to move on to bigger and better things.
Too many players have their careers stalled by lack of opportunity, which in turn hurts our national teams.
Which takes us back to the Olyroos and the U23 Championships.
While many bemoan youth international tournaments – especially those played in-season, and I’m sure we’ll hear a lot from coaches and clubs this month about players missing crucial games in the A-League – international experience is invaluable and increasingly rare for Australian players.
The U23 Championships, especially with Olympic qualifying on the line, is one of the best tournaments in Asia. We’ve seen so much talent emerging from Asia in recent years, and most have demonstrated their wares at this stage.
A look back at the alumni from the 2016 and 2018 tournaments shows the serious talent that is on display, which only serves to highlight the monumental task confronting the Olyroos.
In 2018 there was Almoez Ali (2019 AFC Asian Cup golden boot), Akram Afif (2019 AFC Player of the Year) and Nguyen Quang Hai, who is one of the most exciting talents anywhere in Asia. If he can break free from the clutches of Hanoi FC, who refuse to let him leave, his potential is limitless.
Go back to 2016 and the names get even better.
Shoya Nakajima (now at FC Porto), Hwang Hee-chan (Red Bull Salzburg, and heavily linked with a move to Wolverhampton), Eldor Shomurodov (second-leading scorer in Russian Premier League) and Takumi Minamino (recently completed a move to Liverpool).
This is the cream of Asian football we are talking about – players who now have leading roles in guiding their countries through World Cup qualifying.
The question for Australia is who from this Olyroos team has it in them to take the tournament by storm and add their name to that list in the years to come?