World Cup qualifying. Japan. Stadium Australia. It doesn’t get any bigger than this.
Looking to claw their way back into the top two spots in Group B, the task remains pretty simple for the Socceroos – beat Japan on March 24 and a win in Jeddah against Saudi Arabia will grant the national team entry into their fifth consecutive FIFA World Cup.
As apathy and resentment towards the Socceroos continues to rise while the trust in manager Graham Arnold continues to decline, there is no better time for a unifying fixture than this week’s monster encounter.
Unity and acceptance has emerged as a common theme in the lead-up to this match with Uruguayan-born A-League superstar Bruno Fornaroli being called up to the Socceroos for the first time at age 34, just days after having received his Australian citizenship. El Tuna looms as a potentially game changing asset for the Arnold’s side who have lacked a ruthless finisher in front of goal.
As well as his obvious knack for scoring, Fornaroli will add some much needed quality to Australia’s build-up as the childhood friend of Luis Suárez is adept at drawing fouls and playing with his back to goal which will, theoretically, relieve some of the pressure from the team’s primary creative outlet Ajdin Hrustić.
While his selection has sparked a broader discussion about the state of youth development in this country, the Perth Glory centre-forward possesses a certain je ne sais quoi that seldom exists within Australian-born players. Indeed, the optics of capping a 34-year-old ‘foreigner’ to save the Socceroos qualifying campaign are questionable, but there is no questioning Fornaroli’s ability, and that alone should be enough to justify his spot in the team.
There’s no sugarcoating the importance of a victory in Sydney on Thursday night. A loss against the Samurai Blue will consign the Socceroos to third spot in the group which will act as the catalyst for a treacherous, albeit well-trodden, path to qualifying for the World Cup.
The Socceroos would likely face off against the United Arab Emirates in a fourth round tie before advancing to an inter-confederation playoff against the fifth ranked team in South America. These games are both scheduled to take place in Qatar as one-legged playoff matches.
With Uruguay, Peru, Chile and Colombia all within the frame to secure fifth spot in CONMEBOL qualifying, a loss against Japan may mean that the Socceroos will have to trump a world footballing powerhouse to book their ticket to Qatar for November this year.
Although Football Australia CEO James Johnson argues that the governing bodies are well-prepared to handle the “doomsday” scenario of not qualifying for football’s biggest tournament, it is difficult to imagine a world where failing to qualify will not bring major detriments to the game as a whole. Not only will Football Australia miss out on around $16m worth of funding, but it will miss out on mass eyeballs.
Alongside the Olympics, the World Cup is one of the only occasions which never ceases to galvanise casual fans and the average Australian into supporting the Socceroos. One must not look further than Australia’s narrow loss to eventual Champions France at the 2018 World Cup to understand the magnitude and importance of playing in these games.
That match, which aired at 8pm AEST on SBS, reached over 3.4 million Australians according to Mediaweek. For context, these TV viewing numbers rivalled those of big events in other codes during 2018, including the AFL Grand Final.
Missing out on World Cup qualification will mean missing out on this much-needed exposure for the game as football continues to undergo a steep transition following the rebrand of the A-Leagues and the partnership with Network 10 and Paramount Plus as football’s primary broadcaster.
With the A-League facing a series of problems regarding dwindling attendances and TV numbers to complement a growing sense of disinterest in the league – even from its staunchest followers – failure to qualify for the World Cup, and by extension, failure to give rise to the possibility of re-introducing the wider public to football will only serve to compile the misery of Football Australia.
In addition, not qualifying for the World Cup will mean that we miss out on a huge launchpad for a blockbuster year in Australian football. In 2023 alone, the Socceroos will have an opportunity to avenge their poor results at the 2019 Asian Cup with another shot at continental glory in June.
Just four days after that tournament finishes, Australia will co-host the Women’s World Cup in what represents arguably the singular biggest event and opportunity for football in Australia over the past 15 years. Qualification for the Qatar World Cup will give football a much needed momentum boost ahead of these huge events in 2023.
Aside from mere exposure, not qualifying for the World Cup would likely further hinder Australia’s standing as a football nation. While the country is improving in youth development following the establishment and success of A-League academies, Australia still struggles to send its best talents to top European leagues.
This is due to a multitude of reasons including a lack of match minutes for young players as well as an absence of youth national team camps, but arguably the most poignant obstacle facing Australian youngsters is the country’s perception across the globe. The A-League is not considered to be a league which produces talent that can survive in Europe. A failure to even feature at a World Cup will only serve to accentuate this argument.
While giant strides have been made in youth development, missing out on the World Cup could feasibly set the country back a few years in this regard.
With all these things considered, Thursday’s match against the Samurai Blue is Australia’s biggest fixture since their 3-0 victory against Honduras on home soil in 2017.
They will face a stern test in the form of Hajime Moriyasu’s men who, after losing to Oman early in qualifying, have developed consistency and professionalism within their play which is conducive to getting results in Asia. Stocked with talent plying their trade in Europe’s biggest leagues, the Samurai Blue will like a repeat of October’s match in Saitama where the quality of the likes of Junya Ito, Wataru Endo and Ao Tanaka overpowered the Socceroos.
In order to win, the Socceroos will have to negotiate the gap in technical quality by playing in a physical manner while also using the boisterous crowd to their advantage. It will take a historic performance from Graham Arnold’s side to overturn a more than decade-long drought against the Samurai Blue which dates back to the days of Cahill and Nakata in 2009.
Over the course of qualifying, the Socceroos have struggled to string together 90 minutes of good football in a single match. February’s 2-2 draw in Muscat against Oman was particularly illuminative in that respect given the way in which the side crumbled during the second half after producing a dominant display in the opening 45 minutes.
Another slip up will not be acceptable. It’s do or die for the Socceroos and Graham Arnold’s legacy as a coach rests upon this match.
A good performance will not be enough. The only acceptable outcome for the sake of Australian football is a victory.