If football was a popularity contest, Graham Arnold would arguably be up there with West Ham United’s newest manager Nate Shelly from the hit American TV show Ted Lasso.
Arnie is one of Australian great football’s great survivors. He’s earned the right to be after winning more than 50 caps for the Socceroos – at a time when travelling back from Europe was no easy feat – before stepping up for his second stint as national team coach in 2018.
The first spell didn’t go particularly well, but it says something about Arnold’s character that he even accepted the poisoned chalice of taking the Socceroos to the 2007 Asian Cup on the back of Guus Hiddink’s heroics in Germany a year earlier.
Since then he’s won two A-League titles as a manager – one with the Central Coast Mariners and one with Sydney FC – taken Australia to the Olympics for a second time, and now stands on the brink of World Cup qualification with the Socceroos.
But it won’t stop his detractors, and there are plenty, from bagging Arnie’s positive mental attitude and penchant for making bold statements that don’t always seem to reflect reality.
And despite winning a record-breaking 11 World Cup qualifiers on the trot – all but one of which came outside of Australia – the pressure has been ratcheted up a notch or two once again by Japan’s latest 2-1 win over the Aussies in Saitama.
So much the better. Qualifying for World Cups was never meant to be easy and the loss in Japan just means Thursday night’s clash with Saudi Arabia will be the most meaningful game the Socceroos have played on home soil in years.
Ticket sales have been flying, the New South Wales government has come to the party and provided a state-of-the-art stadium with a pristine surface and all things being equal, the Socceroos should run out in front of a boisterous sold-out home crowd in Parramatta.
And when they do, it will be a reminder once again to football’s staunchest critics that for all the issues of the past few years, the sport remains one of the most popular in Australia.
Say what you will about Australia’s domestic codes, but it’s still football that excites the masses and opens doors across the globe.
Which is why we should be poring over Arnie’s selections for the two upcoming games against Saudi Arabia and China.
The fact that there’s no Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic or Aaron Taggart will surely throw a spanner in the works, but it might also help answer the question of whether the Socceroos are a balanced line-up with Mooy and Rogic in the same starting side.
Meanwhile, Jamie Maclaren, Mitch Duke and Andrew Nabbout have all been knocking on the door for a starting role up front for a few years now, while Nikita Rukavytsya has earned a recall after scoring a boatload of goals in the Israeli Premier League.
Mat Ryan is on the verge of taking over as Real Sociedad’s number one after Alex Remiro’s horror show in the Basque derby, Trent Sainsbury and Harry Souttar are both playing regularly, Aziz Behich will be keen to make up for his nightmare in Saitama, while Ajdin Hrustic and Martin Boyle are genuine game-breakers.
And it’s Hrustic the Socceroos will be sweating on after the Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder missed both the 2-1 win over Olympiacos in the Europa League and a clash with Greuther Fürth in the Bundesliga through what Eintracht called “a heavy ankle knock”.
Despite his goal Hrustic was kept quiet in Saitama, but he’s the player most likely to bust open the Saudi defence in the absence of Rogic and Mooy.
The Saudis have some injury concerns of their own, with Yasser Al-Shahrani, Abdullah Madu and Mohammed Al-Kuwaykibi all missing out.
But more than squad personnel or Arnie’s latest match-day mantra, there’s one thing we should all be genuinely excited about.
Football is back. Now it’s up to us to turn up, tune in and remember why we love this game.