The Olyroos’ hopes of qualifying for Tokyo 2020 could rest on how they adapt to “a pig of a pitch” in Cambodia, amid warnings of the searing hot synthetic surface which awaits them at Phnom Penh’s National Olympic Stadium this week.
Denounced on social media, the artificial grass on which Graham Arnold’s young guns tackle Cambodia, Chinese Taipei and Korea Republic in the AFC Under-23 Championship qualifiers is a molten, rutted black and green patchwork quilt of burning rubber.
Former Socceroo turned Malaysia Under-23’s assistant coach Brad Maloney has first-hand knowledge of what Australia can expect in their opener against the hosts on Friday evening.
His side lost 1-0 to Cambodia in a friendly tournament last month on the risk-laden surface and he wasn’t impressed with what he saw.
“It’s not the sort of quality you’d want to play on,” Maloney said.
“The ball doesn’t have a natural roll, or bounce, and that’s something the players will have to adapt to quickly.
“Also, with the heat expected to be around or above the mid-30s, playing on that type of surface it makes it feel even hotter.
“It’s very hard to play decent football on it ... there are a lot of small rubber granules all over the pitch which adds another dimension and affects how the ball behaves.
“It takes players time to get used to and It’s not conducive to attractive football, let me put it that way.”
Social media scribes have scathingly denounced it as “a pig of pitch”, but Arnold isn’t buying into the debate ahead of clash to be played in front of a partisan 50,000 sell-out crowd.
“These sorts of things are all excuses ... it’s about preparing properly in terms of acclimatisation and we’ve worked hard at that,” Arnold said.
With Australia seemingly unable to source a duplicate surface on which to train during their week-long camp in nearby Kuala Lumpur, Maloney stressed the significance of adding that layer of preparation, whenever possible.
“My philosophy would be to train on something as similar to that as possible, as much as possible, leading up to a tournament,” he said.
“Once you arrive in the host city you might get one official session on that actual pitch - but training pitches other than that are governed by the hosts and you don’t get a choice where to train.”
Arnold has already seen the Olympic Stadium in person, having watched Cambodia beat the Malaysians last month.
And Maloney believes they will present a significant obstacle.
“They’re a technically good team and tactically now they’re also pretty adapt,” Maloney said.
“Obviously Keisuke Honda is the head coach of the senior team, and being a FIFA window I’m curious as to whether he will be be there.
“They play together lot and they’re used to the surface and the conditions. They will be difficult to overcome.
“It will be a packed stadium, with another five or 10 thousand outside.”
Andrew Clark, FFA’s head of sports science, has been spearheading the nitty gritty of preparing the players for the endurance test ahead, with three games in six days.
“This journey is really difficult and important. We’re here trying to play a part in bringing the junior national teams to where they need to be to push Australia forward,” Clark said.
“In terms of the surface we’ll be playing on we know how sheer heat can affect players feet. We have strategies in place for burning feet and blisters.
“The pitch is next level ... Arnie has seen the pitch but these are the challenges you face.”
Clark, once a defender with Central Coast Mariners, sees the tournament as the opportunity for many of the squad to broaden their horizons and experience.
“There are some of the A-League kids who will benefit greatly from international football, be able to benchmark themselves and get a reality check of what they need to do to go beyond,” he said.
“The Asian Champions League and international football are our opportunities to experience this.
“Many don’t yet have a concept of football outside of Australia.
“Also from a medical sports science perspective it’s a test - and the boys will be well prepared. This group desperately want to go to the Olympics.”
With Australia needing to top the group to be sure of reaching the final phase of qualifying in Thailand in January, Maloney warned: “The pace of development in south-east Asia in general is picking up".
“The investment in the game is enormous in certain areas.
"Football is the number one sport. People want to succeed and be part of it.
“Youth development is a huge thing here. A few years back we might’ve felt we were far superior to a lot of these countries.
“These days you can’t underestimate them and if you don’t look over your shoulder they will surpass Australia.
“These countries are playing more competitive matches than us and that just adds to their growth.”