So the Socceroos will play Honduras home and away to qualify for the World Cup finals in Russia next year.
Last night they eventually scraped home against a spirited Syria team. The left hand post of Mat Ryan’s goal, keeping their dream alive and shattering those of the Syrian players and fans.
The 37-year old Tim Cahill understandably grabbed the headlines, as it was his two headed goals that secured an important victory for Australia. Many have said that is all he did in the 120 minutes he was on the pitch. That may be so, but he delivered when he had to, but more importantly when those around him failed to.
When the final whistle sounded it was strange. There was no elation that is usually felt when a team wins a big game. There was a degree of relief, but the overwhelming feeling was one of sadness, tinged with disappointment.
For anyone to have expected the Socceroos to have waltzed past Syria was unrealistic. They were in the play-off game because they had earned that right and put in some strong and spirited performances. Not only that but ranked 75 against the Socceroos ranking of 50th it was always going to be a competitive match.
The disappointment probably stemmed from the way the Socceroos played. They were pedestrian, and their play was in the main predictable. They lacked a spark.
Yet the overwhelming feeling after the match, and today is one of sadness. How could Australian football have fallen so far in eleven years? People say that it is unfair to compare players from different generations but there was no player last night that would have been picked in the starting eleven against Uruguay at the same venue in 2005. Tim Cahill was in the starting line up on that day but the 2017 version of the player would never have ousted his younger self.
The sad thing is the writing has been on the wall for a while, but no one wanted to see it.
Ange Postecoglou has been the man in the firing line as the head coach. He has been lambasted for his tactics, his selections and the formations he has opted to employ. In Football everyone knows that the buck eventually stops with the coach, but is Ange solely to blame?
When the Football Federation of Australia took over the running of the game in Australia in 2005, the Socceroos were their focus to grow the game. This was the brand that they boldly proclaimed was the strongest, and would attract sponsors, television broadcasters and fans. As time has gone by their focus has shifted to the A-League. Was this because the number of players playing top flight football in Europe was the lowest it had been for several decades? Was this because the Socceroos did not have any high profile marketable players any more, with the exception of Tim Cahill?
Or was this due to the administration’s failing to build on the success of the 2006 “Golden Generation?”
Following the Socceroos qualification and performances at the 1974 World Cup Finals in Germany most people involved in the game at that time have said that the game’s administration then was not ready for the impact this would have, and never capitalised on the euphoria and interest. Many of those same people said the same post 2006, and history may well prove them right.
Before moving to Australia I recall their loss to Scotland in 1985 meaning they missed out on qualification for Mexico in 1986. The first World cup qualifying campaign I recall since moving to Australia was in 1989. There Australia drew with Israel when they needed a win, and Israel progressed to the Inter-Confederation play off where they lost 1-0 over two legs to Colombia.
In 1993 for the 1994 Finals there was the 2-1 loss to Argentina over two legs, and four years later probably the most famous loss of all to Iran. Then there was Uruguay in 2001 before the famous victory in Sydney in 2005.
In many of those games Australia were the underdogs. Yet they still had quality players on the park. If you check out the players from these teams many are names that still are regularly raised when talking about the Socceroos. As for the team from 1997, four of the starting eleven, and four of the seven substitutes went on to be a part of the historic win in Sydney eight years later.
This implies that the game in Australia was progressing. That players were improving, and we were producing players capable of competing with the best. Are we doing that now?
To blame Ange Postecoglou is taking far too narrow approach. The blame must lie with the decision makers within the FFA who restructured the coaching in this country, rather than tweaking it. Who came up with “pathways” which appear to be more about making money than actually developing players capable of playing at the highest level? Who introduced a points system in our top competitions underpinning the professional A-League, thereby giving young players more games than their ability deserves, and restricting older players who may have matured late.
Then there was the murder of the AIS, or the Centre of Excellence. This is no more, yet it had for so long polished the diamonds who went onto to become household names in Australia, Europe and around the world.
It has been announced today, but not confirmed by Ange Postecoglou, that he will step down as the national coach when the qualification games against Honduras have been played, whether Australia qualify for Russia 2018 or not. That is a shame, as he has done a good job with a very limited pool of talent, many of whom are not playing regular football for their clubs. As coach he will no doubt accept that he has made mistakes, and knowing Ange will admit some of those, but the administration and the decisions that they have made in the past ten years are more to blame for the situation the Socceroos find themselves in, not the coach.
Let us hope that Ange can deliver, and leaves on a positive note with the Socceroos heading to another World Cup Finals. Whether they qualify or not let us hope that sooner rather than later a committee is formed of ex players and top coaches to review the structures that have been put in place, which are clearly underachieving. The last thing the game needs is another period of 32 years without qualifying for a World Cup; then again FIFA’s expanded tournament may well assist and once again paper over the cracks in the development programs.