Opinion

Give fresh-faced Socceroos clean slate ahead of international return

Socceroos Source: Getty Images

By the time the Socceroos take to the field against Kuwait tomorrow morning, it will have been 563 days since they last competed in a FIFA World Cup Asian Qualifier.

It’s a welcome relief for football fans and Graham Arnold alike who have endured a long and frustrating wait for any national team activity.

For anyone who knows the Socceroos boss, he’ll be the first to tell you that it’s been a particularly challenging period for him and his coaching staff, for ‘Arnie’ is a man who loves nothing more than to be on the pitch with his players.

But since that 1-0 win over Jordan in Jeddah on the 19th of November 2019, the world has changed beyond belief and plunged the global sporting community into the wilderness with no guarantees beyond the present day.

Despite the uncertainty, fortune currently sits on our side, with Australia well-placed and blemish free coming into this clash, sitting atop group B, two points clear of Kuwait and Jordan.

When we last faced Kuwait, ranked 148 in the world, Australia comfortably defeated them 3-0 in Kuwait City with Matthew Leckie scoring twice, while Aaron Mooy dispatched the third - all inside the first half.

So on the eve on this highly anticipated and welcome match, as we look to replicate those heroics, it is important to ask just what will constitute success for this Australian national team on the road to Qatar 2022?

Will it merely be World Cup qualification?

Or are we hoping for something more? And if we are, is it reasonable to do so?

If we are to collectively express disappointment and hurl endless criticisms, it must be because we expect this team to win comprehensively - a pressure that Arnold and his coaching staff must absorb.

However, if there is a reluctant acknowledgement that the road beyond this second round of qualifying will be paved with far more challenging pastures then the onus of that responsibility falls on the shoulders of those who failed the youth development system decades ago.

Whatever the answer is, the Australian football community, together with the media, must formulate our responses according to the expectations that have been set - whether unspoken or otherwise.

When we defeated Uruguay on that magical night in 2005, the nation surrendered to the euphoria of qualifying for our first World Cup in 32 years but perhaps on reflection, it was what we should have expected.

15 years on from the historic 2006 World Cup heroics, we still love to revel in the enormity of the achievement and marvel at the playing squad we had at our disposal.

Harry Kewell, Craig Moore, Mark Schwarzer, Lucas Neill, Tim Cahill, Marco Bresciano, Marko Viduka, Stan Lazaridis, Vince Grella - the list goes on.

We were blessed with a generation of footballers who carved out enviable international careers, playing top flight European football, who would go on to become some of the game’s most celebrated icons.

Under the tutelage of Guus Hiddink, who’s coaching staff boasted the likes of Graham Arnold - we were able to achieve something truly special and it begs the question if we’ll ever experience something like it again.

It goes without saying that Hiddink was a fantastic coach but perhaps we have given him too much credit and elevated him into prophet-hood when what we should have done, was say “with this group of players, we expected nothing less.”

Conversely, the same theory could also be applied to the heartbreaking 2-2 draw with Iran in 1997.

At just 17 years old, Harry Kewell was finding the back of the net and mixing it with the likes of Mark Bosnich, Robbie Slater, Steve Horvat, Alex Tobin, the Vidmar brothers, Moore, Lazaridis, Viduka and Ned Zelic - all of whom had stellar playing careers abroad.

But much like life, football too can be so utterly cruel.

I remember watching my mum and dad cry at MCG when the full-time whistle blew and while our hearts will tell us that the pain of that ill-fated night cannot be forgotten, our minds might also say that we should have qualified then given the calibre of the playing squad.

Fast forward to the qualification phase ahead of the World Cup in Russia in 2018, we were able to rely on the legendary Tim Cahill, an exceptional leader like Mile Jedinak and national team stalwart Mark Milligan to deliver during our qualification journey.

But my goodness, it was tough and so too was the realisation that we could no longer just expect to qualify alongside the world’s most elite.

Now that the giants of this national team have retired, opportunities have arisen for this current crop of players who will be able to shape the identity of this national team through their performances and their displays of leadership on the pitch.

And so it’s only fair to ask: just who will take us to that next phase of qualification?

Who will stand-up in those crucial moments when our backs are up against the wall and we need a result?

Who can the team look to lead them into battle?

With new faces emerging and those cast out into the wilderness making their return, never before has the moulding of this team been more malleable or open to change than now.

But what we must accept is that this is a different team, with players deployed across our own backyard and all corners of the globe, doing what they can to live out their dreams of playing professional football and representing their country.

What must not change, however, is their willingness to fight, our desire to win and to do our nation proud.

Take the 2018 campaign, which was the perfect example of everything that we are not.

The fact is, we didn’t go to that World Cup to win, we went there not to lose and if we can take anything away from that experience, it’s that it was nowhere near a representation of our nation’s spirit or the type of team we hope to be.

From a personnel perspective, I am particularly looking forward to seeing how the likes of Nikita Rukavytsya and Fran Karačić fare given that they narrowly missed out on a place in Bert Marwijk’s squad in 2018.

Rukavytsya was in exceptional form this season in the Israeli Premier League for Maccabi Haifa, winning back-to-back golden boots and securing the club’s first league title in a decade, while Arnold has applauded Karačić’s efforts since arriving into camp from second tier Italian-side Brescia Calcio.

A special mention must also go to 32-year-old LASK Linz midfielder, James Holland who returns from a seven-year exile and will be looking to put on a good show should the opportunity present itself.

However, the absence of talented midfielders Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic will be felt greatly and the lack of match minutes afforded to goalkeeper Maty Ryan during his spell with Arsenal and Danny Vukovic who remains clubless will also contribute to concerns.

For the uncapped newcomers like Central Coast Mariners defender Ruon Tongyik, Blackpool’s Kenneth Dougall, Macarthur FC’s Denis Genreau, Birmingham City’s Riley McGree, Melbourne City’s Connor Metcalfe and SønderjyskE Fodbold’s Lawrence Thomas now is their chance.

Not only will they be given an opportunity to impress but to also introduce themselves to the Australian public and prove to Arnold why they deserve to wear the green and gold because in football, there is no greater honour.

Now, as we stare down the barrel of recommencing this qualification voyage, I want to take this opportunity to wish Graham Arnold and the lads all the very best.

So much has changed, both in the world, and with who represents this national team but one thing will always remain the same - the undisputed love we all have for the game.

And, when it comes to setting expectations - perhaps we should leave it up to the team to decide what’s best.

Source SBS The World Game