The Socceroos have missed out on direct qualification for the FIFA World Cup in 2018. To some this has come as a big shock. They can still qualify, however they will have to do it the hard way. The way so many teams before this bunch of players tried and failed, via play-off games.
Next month Ange Postecoglou’s side will face a motivated bunch of players from war-torn Syria, which has never qualified for the FIFA World Cup. The winner of that game then faces another two legs against the fourth-place CONCACAF nation, which will be the USA, Honduras or Panama.
This was not the way it was supposed to be. By entering the Asian Confederation Australia wanted to avoid the lottery of having to qualify via the play offs, and for the past two World Cup campaigns they did that. However that honour was never guaranteed no matter how many people thought it was. The standard of football in Asia has risen dramatically in the past 4-5 years, while many will tell you that in Australia it has stalled. The facts are plain for all to see, based on how few Australians are playing in the top European Leagues and how many players are returning to the A-League at a time when they should be in their prime.
While many are turning their attention to the coach and the players is it fair that they cop all of the criticism? After all the coach can only work with the players at his disposal.
In the qualification process for the 2010 World Cup Pim Verbeek the Dutch coach was lambasted by sections of the Australian media for the style of play his team employed. Yet they qualified, and topped their group and did not lose a game. It appeared that to many winning and qualification were secondary to the way the team should play.
In 2014 with an ageing side Holger Osciek, the German coach suffered a similar fate. Yet his task was to ensure that Australia qualified for Brazil 2014. He did so losing just the one game in qualification, away to Jordan.
The warning signs were there then that qualification for the World Cup in 2018 was going to be a hard slog, but victory in the Asian Cup in 2015 papered over the cracks. As great as it was to become the Asian Champions, especially at home, this is no measure of how good a side is. It is a weak tournament and in reality only one of four teams was ever likely to win. That win saw many in Australia get ahead of themselves in terms of where the game was, the the talent wearing the green and gold.
Ange Postecoglou the coach for this World Cup campaign has like his predecessor only lost one game in qualification away to the United Arab Emirates. Yet the lack of progression in Australia and the improvement in Asia means that his team now have to try and qualify via the play offs.
Qualification is obviously very important. It is essential for Australian football.
As Mark Bosnich stated on Fox Sports after the Socceroos hard fought win over a spirited Thailand “We are strapped for cash, the game in this country needs us to qualify all the time.”
In fact World Cup qualification has, just as it was under the previous administrators prior to the Football Federation of Australia, become the most important goal. The Socceroos qualification for a World Cup Finals brings with it massive media exposure, as well as huge financial rewards.
The question however is are the administrators, since the game was revamped and the Football Federation of Australia was created, any different to those who went before? Have they not gambled heavily on qualification?
When Frank Farina was sacked following the 2005 Confederations Cup campaign, John O’Neill brought in at far greater expense the tried and tested Guus Hiddink. The FFA Chartered an aircraft off Qantas at a cost of around quarter of a million dollars to fly the players in comfort to and from Uruguay so they avoided commercial flights. Then thanks to Mark Schwarzer’s brilliance Australia qualified for the 2006 World Cup Finals. Hiddink received a substantial bonus for achieving what he was employed to do, and then collected again when the team progressed from the group stage at the finals.
Since then the money from the World Cup qualification has become essential. Fortunately the internationally experienced coaches in Verbeek and Osciek both delivered. They knew that qualification is not about playing pretty football, it is about getting a job done.
Postecoglou took over from Osciek prior to the World Cup Finals in Brazil and impressed with the style of football he had the team playing, but the truth was they still lost all three games, finished bottom of their pool and were heading home.
The Asian Cup was hosted by Australia six months later. Australia lost to South Korea in their pool game, but progressed through the quarter finals and semi finals beating China and the UAE. In the final they met South Korea for a second time and in an edge-of-your seat game pipped their opponents in extra time to win 2-1.
This success sadly made many in the media who do not follow the game, and also a section of supporters believe that World Cup Qualification would be a certainty. Football is not like that.
Mark Bosnich talked about Postecoglou not having a ‘Plan B’ if his original game plan failed. He said that the Australian coach believed that his ‘Plan B’ was to do ‘Plan A’ better. So what is the Football Federation’s Plan B if Australia fails to qualify for the World Cup?
Will we see funding to various programs cut? We have already seen the national Futsal side’s funding cut, and prior to that the Pararoos, so who will be next? Will the number of internationals the Socceroos play be trimmed back considerably? Or will staff numbers at their Darlinghurst head office be culled?
One thing that will almost certainly be guaranteed is that there will be a mass exodus of staff if the Socceroos fail to qualify. Some leaving of their own volition, others may be moved on against their will.
One question that football has asked for longer than the FFA has been in existence is whether the sport has employed the right people to guarantee long term success and expansion of the game. If we look at the FFA the three Chief Executives have all come from other sports. John O’Neill from Rugby Union, Ben Buckley from AFL and David Gallop from Rugby League. Should not such a young organisation have plumped for an experienced man or woman from their own sport? Certainly if Australia fails to qualify they must look to such a move to get the sport back on the right track.
A true football man or woman would have seen the signs a while ago and realised that qualification this time around was never a certainty. That player development in the past fifteen years has not been what it used to be. That maybe the Dutch system that Australia adopted was not after all the best decision.
There are some very good people working in football at the FFA and around the country but regrettably being a fan of the game does not cut it when it comes to the business-side of the game. Too many employees have been there for the wrong reasons. They have not seen the growth of the game or safeguarding its future as a very real responsibility, but have savoured the association. Enjoyed the free tickets, the access to players and stars from other teams, the perks of the job. To some it has simply been a stepping stone in a career in sport. Passion for the game is essential in any sport, but also the skill-set to be able to lift the sport to another level. You are there for the game, and not the other way around.
It was interesting to read recently in Joe Gorman’s excellent “The Death and Life of Australian Soccer,” a quote from an article written in 1976 by Andrew Dettre. It reads, “No other Australian sport, no matter how impoverished or poorly administrated, is quite capable of such masochistic performances. We must really despise ourselves somewhere deep down in our psyche to keep handing top soccer jobs to either complete outsiders or to starry-eyed, unqualified newcomers.”
When you consider that this was written forty years ago how far has the game really traveled?
At the moment the players and the coach are the ones hurting. Do they deserve all the criticism? Are they not part of a whole structure that is there to ensure their success? Certainly looking at the support staff on the bench last night there are a fair few people involved behind the scenes. Sure they squandered opportunity after opportunity, lacked composure, but as all good clubs will say, we win together we lose together. The same should apply with the national team, and the staff at the FFA. As some of the problems on the pitch are undoubtedly due to decisions made off it.