The word ‘fan’ derives from the longer form ‘fanatic’ and being a Socceroos fan is an exercise in fanaticism.
At 4.00am on a very cold Sydney morning, this fan, along with thousands of others in homes or pubs or fan sites, huddled under a blanket, decked out in green and gold, more hopeful than confident, as the Australian men’s national team walked out onto an air-conditioned Qatar stadium to face Peru in their last World Cup qualifying game.
There’s little sense in pretending anyone reading this doesn’t know the final outcome, but after 120 tense but goalless minutes of football, the Australian team’s 1,087 day, 20 game sporting odyssey came down to that most gut-wrenching of football deciders – the penalty shootout.
But let’s rewind a little.
Many Australian fans were pessimistic about the team’s chances of progressing to the 2022 World Cup Finals (a tournament I should remind you that we were bidding to host 12 years ago). They had seen the Socceroos stumble after a stirring start to the qualifying campaign had yielded eleven straight victories. Defeat to Japan, dropped points at home to Saudi Arabia and then a seemingly fatal blow with a draw in China had sent the campaign careening off the yellow brick road to Doha.
The knives were being sharpened and Graham Arnold, Socceroos coach, was at the pointy end of those verbal blades. There was talk of removing Arnold before the final two games of the qualifying campaign, an opinion I argued against in an article on this very site. Football Australia were out of quick fixes and stuck with a man who, regardless of opinions, could not have been a more committed or dedicated Australian football figure, ever since he led the line as a striker (very often a LONE striker) back in the 1980s against some truly fearsome defences, in the days when the dark arts of defensive muscle were overlooked far more than they are today.
Much has been made of the drying up of talent since the days of the “golden generation,” the lack of Australian men’s players in the top European leagues, endless arguments over the lack of talent production, youth pathways, coaching curriculums – you name it, it was debated in football circles. Yet none of that would’ve been solved by removing the coach, and there is NO comparison with predecessors that can quite do justice to the immense roadblocks that this campaign has thrown in the way.
In the 20 games played in qualifying, Arnold only had the luxury of having 5 in Australia.
The COVID pandemic played havoc with being able to schedule games due to Australia’s border control and quarantine regulations. The last of those home games, against Japan, saw the ending of a 40-year record when the Socceroos lost for the first time on home soil in a live qualifier since 1981, and in that game, the squad Arnold had at his disposal was wrecked with Covid drop-outs, injuries and non-availability.
It has been, without doubt, the toughest, most unrelenting journey since the astonishing tale of the 1969 Socceroos led by Johnny Warren were forced to travel many thousands of kilometres through Africa, Asia and the Middle East, just to get to the same moment as their modern counterparts faced in Doha this morning. Arnold has hardly had opportunity to set foot in Australia in the last 12 months due to those aforementioned restrictions, and has had to deal with two bouts of the dreaded virus himself at wildly inopportune times (not that there’s an opportune time to catch COVID).
A 2-1 victory over United Arab Emirates last week set up the final showdown with the fifth-placed South American team to decide the penultimate place in the World Cup finals (New Zealand and Costa Rica playing 24 hours later to finalise the draw).And that led us fans to our couches, pubs, clubs, live sites, or, for a hardy and fortunate few thousand, all the way to 47 degree Doha. Hugely outnumbered by Peru fans, who had known for months of their side’s involvement as opposed to the mere 5 days that Australian fans had to prepare, we all sat in grim anticipation as the game unfolded in cagey, cautious segments. It took 81 minutes for a shot on target from either side when Ajdin Hrustic curled a long-range free kick into the midriff of Peru goalkeeper Pedro Gallese. Australia had had the better of the game but only marginally, and the tension was felt under every blanket, on every couch.
From MY couch, there were heedless pleas for the injection of someone like Marco Tilio to perhaps open the game up and provide a point of difference. But as the game rolled towards the end of extra time, Graham Arnold had a different strategy in mind… With three minutes of extra time to be played, the introduction of Craig Goodwin for an ailing Aziz Behich was rudimentary. But it was the other substitution that had jaws dropping with disbelief. Andrew Redmayne, back-up goalkeeper, replaced captain and custodial mainstay Mat Ryan. “This is nuts,” I texted a fellow fanatic who was also hiding under a blanket at his home, hardly daring to look.
Okay, it’s not an original tactic on Arnold’s behalf. There were strong indications that Guus Hiddink was contemplating a similar strategy in that other famous penalty shootout against South American opposition, when he was warming up Zjelko Kalac to possibly replace Mark Schwarzer against Uruguay back in 2005. Graham Arnold was his assistant that night. The Netherlands employed the tactic in the 2014 World Cup quarter final against Costa Rica, and it worked. Chelsea tried the same thing in this year’s League Cup final against Liverpool and it backfired miserably when Liverpool scored all 11 of their kicks and the only Chelsea player to miss was…goalkeeper Kepa Arizzabalaga. It was later revealed that this was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Arnold had planned for the “what if” scenario of penalties and Mat Ryan was clearly aware of the impending move as he came off, hugging Redmayne as he departed the pitch.
But it was a huge gamble, and had Peru won there would have been no hiding from the backlash, especially considering the antics Redmayne employed on the goal line to try and keep up his end of the bargain. Like a dancing Wiggle in grey, he waved his arms, hopped, bounced and jumped, and for three Peruvian penalties, frankly looked like a clown to the uninitiated, who might have been unaware of his heroics three years ago in the A-League Grand Final (on that day he wore pink).
Today, on an even bigger stage, he became a hero in grey, as he dived to his right to parry Peru’s sixth penalty from Alex Valera and cue celebrations of joy and madness on this and thousands of couches like it. At the end of 1,087 gruelling days, Arnold’s final play-off qualification decision became his most defining, and he will become the first Australian-born coach to lead the Socceroos right through the qualifying campaign and into the finals.
Us fanatics have some early November starts to look forward to.