No one can deny that the performances by the Socceroos at the World Cup in Brazil were better than many expected, but we cannot forget that the team has returned to Australia having lost three games. Not only did they lose three games but they conceded three goals in all three games.
Reading some of the reports from Brazil and watching some of the pundits on television one would almost be lead to believe that it had been three wins. Maybe it is time for a little perspective.
Australia were the lowest ranked team at the World Cup. Their qualification for the finals had been less than convincing and the two 6-0 defeats against France and Brazil had many fans very concerned. The Football Federation of Australia sacked the incumbent coach Holger Osciek and opted for the hugely successful local coach Ange Postecoglou. A man many of in the media had been campaigning to take over for almost 12 months prior to Osciek’s departure.
The question was with so few players playing top flight football in the best competitions in the World how could Australia compete against the likes of Spain the defending World Champions and the Netherlands the losing finalists from four years ago.
That was the one thing that Postecoglou managed to do, he made the team competitive. He also showed his tactical nous, as he managed to negate the Netherlands for almost an hour in the Socceroos second match of the tournament. In fact had his players possessed a little more football maturity they could well have won that game, but once the Dutch equalised it was always only going to go one way.
However for all these plusses, international teams cannot afford to leak three goals and hope to win. Australia looked good going forward but they looked very shaky defensively. The old we will score more than we concede attitude will not work in international football.
We must also acknowledge that going forward two of the team’s best assets were veterans Mark Bresciano and Tim Cahill, two players who played at the highest level in the best leagues. With only four Australians contracted to English Premier League clubs heading into this season and none holding down regular first team spots (correction as below- Mile Jedinak is!)experience needs to be gained in the next for years.
The sad truth is the A- League is a long way off European football and is no match for the second tier of English competition, the Championship, despite what some scribes and pundits may claim. So too the Belgium league and the Eredivisie. Unless you are playing for one of the top sides in the Netherlands the league is more about development and the national team selects few from these sides. In fact in the demolition of Spain only two clubs in the Dutch domestic league were represented in the starting eleven, Ajax and Feyenoord. In fact only PSV Eindhoven has two other representatives in their squad.
One has to ask how much Australia would have gained had Mark Schwarzer been in Brazil. At the age of 40 he still held his own in the Champions League and the Premier League. Mat Ryan may have had a great first season in Belgium, but that is light years from International football, and sadly his understandable inexperience cost the team. What was baffling was that come the game against Spain Postecoglou did not give Mitch Langerak a game. A player playing in a better league than his team mate, and we were told that this competition was about blooding young players and giving them experience. Surely Langerak would have benefitted from a run in the final game?
Finally we come to Tim Cahill, whose volleyed goal against the Netherlands was without doubt one of the great World Cup goals; a goal up there with Marco van Basten’s volley for the Netherlands against Russia in the 1988 Euros. IT may well be the best goal ever scored by an Australian player on the international stage. Cahill also joined a unique band of players at the World Cup, having found the back of the net in three successive tournaments. He truly is a player for the big occasion. However is he Australia’s greatest player as some have tried to make out?
Of course when people talk about greatness it is subjective. What do you judge greatness on? Is it the most trophies won, it it purely on skill, is it a player’s influence on the team and those around him? Or is it a combination of all of these. Australian football has always classed Joe Marston as a great, so too Johnny Warren, but is Tim Cahill on a par with these? Is he on a par with Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka in terms of skill and ability? If Cahill is to be classed a great then surely a craftsman such as Bresciano deserves that accolade too? At the end of the day it all comes down to personal opinion, but it is often best to make such judgements when the emotion of a situation has dissipated.
Australia did perform better than expected and some young players showed potential, but in terms of international football this group of players has a long way to go before they match the class of 2006. The next two years before qualification for 2018 in Russia will be an interesting journey. Postecoglou is going to need a great deal of time with his players to mould them into a competitive side, and the FFA need to use all the international windows to aid their coach. More importantly Australian football needs its players to be playing first team football in better leagues than many are playing in at the moment. Then and only then are these players likely to live up to all the hype and fulfil their potential.