Australia suddenly ‘bad at soccer?’ my response to Harrison Stark

Since we have been able to qualify, FIFA World Cups are often a strange experience for the average Australian football fan. Our sport that is somewhat ignored for four years bursts into consciousness in the media. Not only it get noticed by those who hardly know what a corner kick entails at home, but people overseas note that we play the game as well.

One example was Harrison Stark, a writer that has written The Global(ized) Game: A Geopolitical Guide to the 2014 World Cup
and obviously is a football fan in the USA. He is writing for the venerable internet magazine Slate, a guide to each team in the World Cup. And he began with the one he thought is the bottom team which as you would have guessed is Australia.

This article, titled Why is Australia suddenly so bad at soccer? Created quite a bit of a stir here in the land down under. I noticed it when it was linked on twitter, then it was picked up by News Limited Anthony Sharwood in an article titled Well, that’s not very nice. US soccer writer tips Socceroos to be worst team at 2014 FIFA World Cup. Subsequently Harrison was invited on Channel10 ‘The Project’ and on 2GB and he proved to be quite a nice guy.

I don’t really think most Australian football fans really disagree with the main point of the article. We have a team with young unproven players going against two of the best teams in the world and arguably one of the most underrated teams in the World Cup (that is Chile). The only people who have any illusion that we may do well are those who never follow football and become enthused by the big event and feel somehow driven by some sort of jingoistic imperative, or those connected with sponsors which of course want to push the good feel factor until reality sets in.

The players themselves naturally say things that underdogs always say. ‘Mile Jedinak says Australia can surprise’ or Leckie stating that “We go out there and give it our all” which is understandable. No player is going to the World Cup and say publicly ‘Actually teams will be playing are so much superior that it’s not funny. I reckon we’ll be smashed’. We can leave that sort of stuff to ex-players. Us fans will hope that the headlines will read something like ‘Plucky Aussies bring out their best in an honourable defeat’ rather than ‘Hapless team smashed out of the park in humiliating loss’.

So yes, we can all agree with Harrison that the chances in Australia are as much as the proverbial snowflake in hell. But it’s not so simple. Parts of his article were, in my opinion, not accurate or perhaps needed a bit more research.

 

In both, (USA and Australia) soccer has been the sport of recent immigrants, and tends to be most popular in Western outposts: Seattle and Portland in the U.S., Perth in Australia.

Maybe Harrison saw that there a lot of Brits in Perth and from there deduced that football must be more popular there? Any football fan in Australia would know that Sydney (and in fact NSW) is the place where football seems more popular (and where most of its media is concentrated, much to the chagrin of us non NSW football fans).

 

Whereas the United States has been steadily, if slowly, improving its soccer pedigree, Australia seems to be headed backward.

Roughly a decade ago, the Aussies seemed to be on a steady upward trajectory. A number of the nation’s top players, like Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill, and Mark Viduka—members of the so-called golden generation—starred for the biggest teams in England. In 2006, Dutch tactician Guus Hiddink, one of the world’s best coaches, led the Socceroos at the World Cup, and he didn’t disappoint.* Australia played wonderful soccer, got out of its group, and only went out to eventual winners Italy on a dubious penalty. The U.S. headed home in the first round, winless.

Those years now look like a fluke.

 

The fact is that in World Cups teams’ performances come and go. If we want to take the Harrison’s example the USA went backwards after the great performance in South Korea/Japan 2002 where they came second in their group (with a Hiddink led local team South Korea) and beat Portugal to advance into the next round, beating arch rival Mexico and losing in the quarter finals to the eventual champions Germany by one goal. But even France after winning their World Cup bombed out in that tournament winless and at the bottom of their group.

 

Australia’s squad still contains many of the same names it did in 2006, though these increasingly bedraggled fellows are now playing their club soccer at elephant’s graveyards like the Australian league and the Qatari professional league.

 

Now, I’m sorry. Many of us Aussie football fans really admire the MLS, and in fact think that it is a great model for the A-League to follow, but calling our domestic league an ‘elephant graveyard’ is both uninformed and to be truthful a bit insulting. I would argue the opposite, that in fact it is a kindergarten, not a graveyard.

Yes we have had players like Emerton, Kewell and Aloisi play in the A-League, but the idea was for these older player to mentor the younger ones. The A-League is inevitably a development league. The best will leave. The captain for the National Team, Mile Jedinak played for the Central Coast Mariners. A player that is mentioned in Harrison’s article as the ‘Rising Star’ (which unfortunately got injured) Robbie Kruse played for Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory. And Australian football fans are in that bitter-sweet situation where they are anticipating many others will go after the World Cup if A-League players do well and show what they can do.

 

Australia crashed out of the East Asian Cup, losing to Japan and China. A series of high-profile friendlies abroad were intended to boost Australia’s soccer standing globally but did the opposite: The Socceroos lost to Brazil and France back to back, both by the embarrassing score of 6–0. In response, it sacked its coach, a move that doesn’t normally pay off right before a big tournament.

 

From memory the East Asian Cup was used a bit as a tryout for marginal players. I don’t think any players from Europe were participating, so it isn’t the best measure of the team. I was a supporter for Holger for a long time, longer than many others. But he had to go. And this brings me to a problem with the National Team so far. Hiddink was fantastic. He had great players and indeed he was one of the best coaches. But coaches like that don’t hang around. They do their job. They get paid and they move on. They are not interested in developing the talent. This, nominally, was what Verbeek and Holger were in charge to do, qualify Australia for the World Cup but also develop and encourage new players. Verbeek I don’t think ever did it. Holger started well, but as the qualifying campaign progressed he seemed to become more risk averse and relied more and more on the older established players. In addition many football people who are much more knowledgeable than me were saying that the style of football didn’t suit Australia and this was partly why we had those disastrous friendlies results. While it would be better to maintain the coach, I believe that in the long term the choice of Postecoglou was the right one.

 

More recently, Australia has coped poorly with its decision to change its regional affiliation. Twenty years ago, Prime Minister Paul Keating made the controversial argument that Australia should be considered part of Asia. Today, he gets his wish, as the Socceroos now play against other Asian countries to qualify in the World Cup rather than in the Oceania group, where they arguably belong. This should have made the team better, as it has to steel itself against opponents like South Korea and Japan rather than American Samoa and Fiji. Instead, the team has arrived at the last two World Cups looking out of sorts.

 

Really? Actually I think that Australia joining the Asian Football Confederation has been one of the best things in Australian football, even perhaps more than qualifying for the World Cup. In its first main tournament in Asia after joining, the Asian Cup in 2011 Australia reached the final losing to Japan. And we should not only look at the men’s national team. Australian teams have done well in the AFC Champions’ League with Adelaide United reaching the final in 2008, and the Western Sydney Wonderers are going to play the Quarter Finals this year. The Women’s team are the current Asian Cup champions and are going to play the final of the 2014 Asia Cup in a few days. And Australia is going to host the Asian Cup in January next year. This is all great stuff for Australia. And no we don’t belong in Oceania. Playing with Pacific Island teams and then have to meet a South American team was not the fairest way to qualify. And as far as Oceania goes it shouldn’t even exist. And the argument that ‘Australia is not Asia’ is spurious as I think we have more in common with Japan than Lebanon does.

Yes. We won’t probably win a game. But hopefully Postecoglou will instil in the national team a sense of purpose and commitment that it is a trademark of Australian teams whatever the sport. All we ask is that they will bow out with a sense of pride from them and respect from the football world. And I think that Harrison won’t mind at all.

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