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The Socceroos are set for their easiest World Cup qualification ever - but will that hurt Australian football?

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15th November, 2023
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When the Socceroos beat Peru 5-4 on penalties at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Doha last June, it ended the most gruelling qualifying campaign the team had ever undertaken.

The next campaign, which begins against Bangladesh on Thursday night, will be entirely different and potentially forge the most routine path the team has ever enjoyed to a World Cup, to be played in North America during 2026.

While certain to be remembered for the gutsy call made by Graham Arnold to replace captain Mat Ryan by sub keeper Andrew Redmayne before the shootout, the 2022 qualification campaign and the performances of the team were far more heroic as a whole.

The path to Qatar 2022 comprised of 20 qualification matches in the final three stages of confederation play, as well as the eventual standalone fixture against Peru.

Across 1,008 days – and with just four fixtures on home soil – our Socceroos battled the tyranny of distance and absurd travel times, as well as the lingering effects and pressure placed on them and their immediate and extended families by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Somehow, despite the third stage of qualifying appeared have the team on the brink of disaster, the Socceroos did just as they did 50 years ago, defying the odds to find a way to the world’s biggest football tournament with the odds stacked against them.

DOHA, QATAR - JUNE 13: Andrew Redmayne of Australia interacts with Mathew Ryan of Australia during the 2022 FIFA World Cup Playoff match between Australia Socceroos and Peru at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on June 13, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Mohamed Farag/Getty Images)

Andrew Redmayne replaced Mathew Ryan for the penalty shoot-out and the rest is history. (Photo by Mohamed Farag/Getty Images)

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This Monday passed was the anniversary of the famous long-range effort from Jimmy Mackay in Hong Kong that advanced the Socceroos to the World Cup for the first time in 1974.

Mackay’s strike was the only goal of a game that saw South Korea crestfallen and the Aussies on their way to a tournament that only catered for 16 teams.

Subsequent editions saw participation expanded and, after five successful qualification campaigns from 2006 to 2022 in a 32-team structure, the template is about to change dramatically again – much to the Socceroos’ benefit.

With 48 teams headed to the North American staging of the tournament, the Socceroos must simply grab one of eight spots available to them for automatic qualification via the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

Head Coach Graham Arnold (L) and Mitchell Duke

Graham Arnold has the Socceroos hitting unprecedented heights. (Photo by Marvin Ibo Guengoer – GES Sportfoto/Getty Images)

The number of teams headed to the tournament from Asia has doubled and the additional play-off spot that has been maintained – something the Socceroos know everything about and would prefer to never have to deal with again – meaning that the Australians should qualify at a canter.

Bangladesh, Palestine and an improving Lebanon will put up a fight in the Second Round of qualifying, yet Australia, now ranked 27 in the FIFA rankings, will be expected to brush them aside with ease in two-legged group stage play.

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Even a stunning loss should be easily overcome across the six matches by Arnold’s men.

Advancement to the Third Round will see three groups of six fight for a top two spot and automatic qualification, with losers having the comfort of knowing that the Fourth Round will see a further two World Cup slot decided in a repechage for the third and fourth-placed teams in the groups after the Third Round is completed.

It is unlikely the Socceroos will be relying on the Fourth Round to advance their cause, yet beyond that lies yet another opportunity through the potential Inter-confederation Play-off after seeing off the final Asian nation in contention.

Australia’s path will be set in stone before that point and one could argue that the hardened and brave performances seen during previous campaigns will simply not be required this time around.

I wonder if that is a good thing for the Socceroos and Australian football in general.

Arnold now has a younger team with burgeoning talent and promise for the future, who will potentially care a little less fervently about toppling Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and/or Iran in group play.

Young stars like Garang Kuol are ready to explode on the international scene, yet will an easier path to the finals hold them back? (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

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With the knowledge that the top five or six teams in Asia will walk into the tournament, the effect on the Socceroos and the lack of a need for the desperation shown during qualification across the last five World Cups could be a concern.

As one of the last teams to lock in a spot during the previous two cycles of qualification, the team did appear to enter those World Cups on a high and with momentum.

Grit and a never-say-die attitude has been a hallmark of their play. Yet, with an expectation to advance and potentially a little less on the line, will Arnold be able to keep up a level of intensity that the Socceroos need to match it with teams above and around them on the world rankings?

We have learned to trust Arnie and he will no doubt be well-organised for the upcoming campaign and the Asian Cup in the New Year.

Yet the AFC World Cup qualification has strengthened us as a football nation, precisely because it was tough, cut-throat and relentless. Now, it looks like becoming simply a walk in the park.

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