In sport as you come to the end of your career you have two choices, you either wait until your are dropped from the top team, or you opt to step aside before that day comes. That is a fact in whatever level of any sport you play.
Socceroos captain Lucas Neill has copped an immense amount of flak in the past week because he has not decided to announce his retirement from the international side. Has this criticism been fair? Is Neill playing as well as he was at his peak? Probably not, the key question is who has staked a claim to take his place?
What has been interesting is that other fading international stars have avoided attacks on their performances, which have also not been of the same standard as they were able to produce at their peak. Also many of those baying for Neill’s head, have failed to offer alternatives.
By taking the decision to play on, rather than retire, Neill and many of the other senior Socceroos are no doubt well aware that their international career is going to come to an end when they are dropped from the side. It is therefore interesting that former coach Holger Osieck – who is still listed on the FFA website as national coach six days after being fired! – continually thought Neill was the best man for the job, so too did his interim replacement Aurelio Vidmar for the game against Canada.
If we look at players to have played in defence for the Socceroos of late how many of the following players have the experience and are honestly better than Lucas Neill? Some have the potential to be, and some never will. The players to have played at the back for Australia in recent times are: Robert Cornthwaite, Matt McKay, Ryan MacGowan, Luke Wilkshire, Rhys Williams, Sasha Ognenovski, Ivan Franjic, Michael Thwaite, Jade North, Mark Milligan and Michael Zullo.
Four of these players are 26 or younger, two are 28 years old and six are 30 years of age or older. Age should never be a barrier, but it does have an impact in international football, especially at the World Cup Finals. Spain who won the last world cup in 2010 had an average in age in their squad of 25.9.
Australia in South Africa had the third oldest squad with an average age of 28.4, only England (28.7) and Brazil (28.6) had older squads. Ghana had the youngest at 24.1. Germany’s was averaging just 25.
Going through a transitional period, Australia needs some wise heads in the side to support the new blood coming up so are unlikely to field a side as young as Germany or Ghana, but that should be a goal down the track.
If we look at the Socceroos team its not one individual’s fault that the team has lost heavily to Brazil and France. Despite television analysis showing players out of position before a goal is scored frequently it is several circumstances in the build up to a goal that lead to a goal and rarely is it just one player’s fault. It is a fact Australia is going through a transitional period and many of the young up and coming players have not made the adjustment to international football yet, some never will, and some have been overlooked.
The sad fact for Lucas Neill is as a defender when goals are conceded people point the finger, when a striker misses much less is made of his failings. The truth is whether you like Neill or not by playing in the J-League he is still playing a higher standard of football than what is on offer by playing in the A-League, and with many of the international pool of players struggling for game time he is still one of our best options. If you look at the list of players mentioned and recognise that some of them have played in midfield for the national team, how many would you pick ahead of Neill?
One thing that none of his critics have spoken about is his leadership, something that many who have played alongside him have commented positively on. HIs experience and knowledge has to be an asset to the team, playing or not at this point in time.
Australia has not performed badly because of Lucas Neill. Anyone who claims that has been brainwashed by the certain sections of the media who appear to have targeted him as a scapegoat and have chosen him to pay for issues that go beyond football. Yes, the new coach may well drop him, Neill will be aware of that, and will no doubt take it on the chin when it happens. Will it change Australia’s fortunes? Maybe, the focus however should be on finding a player/players who can come in and perform regularly better than the current incumbents; and currently In Neill’s case there are few names jumping out to be picked.