As the Socceroos prepare for their most important fixture in recent memory, there is no denying that there is a real chance Australia could miss out on qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 2002.
Australia face Peru in a one-off Intercontinental play-off in Doha, with the winner earning one of the final spots at the tournament set to begin in November, and the simple fact is Australia sit as the outsiders ahead of this do-or-die clash.
They reached this point by defeating the UAE 2-1 in the AFC Fourth round match last Wednesday in a match that neatly summarised the Socceroo’s qualification campaign to date; uninspiring and lethargic play on the pitch caused by a mix of poor team selection and tactical set up, combined with a negative aura espoused by coach Graham Arnold, whose comments to the media continue to alienate fans and pundits alike.
Whilst Peru are arguably weaker than they were in 2018 when they faced off and defeated the Bert Van Marwijk led Socceroos at the Russia World Cup, the energy within their team and country as a whole is markedly different to that Down Under, with the president of Peru proclaiming the day before the match a public holiday so that all Peruvians can watch the game.
If Australia lose on Tuesday morning, it will be seen as the completion of a decline in Australian football from the heady days of the Golden Generation that has seen performances of national teams sputter and a struggle for players to break into the big European leagues. This combined with issues surrounding the development of the domestic game means that the game as a whole is shrouded in negativity and pessimism at what’s in store in the future.
There are even some sections of the Australian football fanbase that believe missing out on World Cup qualification is a necessary evil that would force the powers that be to enact wide scale changes and reform to revitalise the game.
This is not something that hasn’t occurred in Australian football; the Crawford Report – published in 2003 – highlighted a litany of issues within the administration of the old Soccer Australia as well as the National Soccer League. The report led to the demise of the two organisations and in their place came Football Australia and the A-League, helping revive the game in the country when it was on its knee’s.
Supporters of this view will also point to the success of similar reform’s in Germany – initiated after a poor EURO 2000 showing – whereby German Football was able to restructure itself and eventually led to the national team winning the World Cup in 2014; the story behind this was chronicled by Raphael Honigstein in his 2015 book Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World.
However, a failed qualification campaign would undoubtedly have a short-term impact on the code.
Media interest and coverage spikes massively during World Cup campaigns, with many more casual viewers getting behind the team. In a time where the game is struggling to engage and connect with fans old and new, the increased viewership and attention gained from the World Cup can only be a good thing.
Qualification would also provide a huge commercial boost for the FA, as well as providing valuable experience to any of the younger Socceroo’s in the team. Football Australia’s former Head of Performance Luke Casserly highlighted this very point when he spoke to Kick360 back in March.
“In a time where there is so much competition for fans and corporate support, I’m not sure missing the World Cup is something the game can afford from that perspective.
“Exposure to as much international football as possible is crucial to the development of our best young players and this has been a big gap for us for far too long.”
There have also been signs in the last year that aspects such as player development are beginning to improve once again, as a high number of young players are finding moves overseas. Riley McGree for example has already become a popular figure at Championship club Middlesbrough, becoming an important player in a side tipped to challenge for promotion next season.
A plethora of players have also secured moves to Scotland, with current Socceroos’ Cam Devlin, Nathaniel Atkinson and Kye Rowles impressive A-League Men’s performances see them picked up by Hearts. Awer Mabil recently moved to La Liga side Cadiz, and man of the moment Ajdin Hrustic made a meaningful contribution as Eintracht Frankfurt won the Europa League.
Australia’s youth teams are also showing signs of improvement after many years of underperformance. The Olyroos qualified for the Tokyo Olympics after a 12 year absence, and at the time of writing, they have reached the semi finals of the U-23 Asian Cup for the second tournament in a row.
Of course, that’s not to say it’s all sunshine and rainbows and that Australian football is exactly where we want it to be. It has been a desperately disappointing qualifying campaign where Graham Arnold’s leadership is a large reason as to why Australia faces their predicament tomorrow morning.
And there are still improvements that need to be made domestically to ensure that young player development continues on the relative upward trajectory we are seeing. Things like reducing the cost to play, introducing a domestic transfer system to incentivise clubs to develop local talent and the rebirth of the National Youth League are all sorely needed to improve the quality of players produced.
It is hoped that as we finally emerge from the world of COVID, that Football Australia will be able to dedicate more time and resources into making positive inroads on issues such as the one’s suggested above.
Any Australian football fan will tell you that the game’s standing in the country is not what it once was and not what it could be, yet is is difficult to fathom how a failed World Cup qualification campaign would solve interest in the sport and how it is perceived.
If anything, it would have a detrimental effect that the game simply cannot afford to have.