If the Socceroos were a family member recently returned from Russia, you would put a consoling arm around them and say: “Good effort. I mean, you didn’t do as well as you wanted. But you didn’t do too badly. You did OK!”
And, really, the Socceroos did do OK.
They didn’t beat the unexpectedly vulnerable French, but they didn’t get thrashed. They got a point against Denmark and could have had three. Peru? Too good hombres.
Sure, the Socceroos might have conceded five goals to their talented opposition and scored only two — both from penalties. But say what you like about Bert van Marwijk’s side — he always had four at the back!
This might not be quite the World Cup we wanted. But it is the one FFA chairman Stephen Lowy and his minions have set on the dial. Qualified, battled, eliminated. Rinse, spin, repeat.
This is Australia’s fate. A World Cup where just being there is the thing and the results are mostly dependent on good (mainly defensive) organisation, a bit of luck and maybe the odd dodgy VAR decision. The factors that allow battlers to occasionally challenge the nations who are not just there for the T-shirt.
Amid the euphoria of 2006, there was a feeling that the bar had been set. By reaching the group stage Australia had exceeded all previous expectations and we could reach for the footballing stars.
But the feats of that Golden Generation are now a distant memory. After early elimination in South Africa and Brazil, Russia 2018 feels like our World Cup normality. Qualification is the goal and anything else is in the lap of the footballing gods.
This was made clear by the scorn heaped on Ange Postecoglou when he imperilled qualification with his fancy “we can win the World Cup one day” pipe dreams and his refusal to doggedly drag the opposition into a street fight.
As Postecoglou has written on the Players Voice site, he found he was on a “personal crusade” because others in Australian football were still addicted to being the “eternal underdog”. So the Socceroos reverted to defence, but without a significant change of fortunes.
You can argue the Socceroos would have leaked even more goals had they played to Postecoglou’s attacking tune. What we do know is that they were unable to score the goals required to advance playing van Marwijk’s well-organised but more pessimistic style.
But if this philosophical debate will keep stylishly bearded football hipsters nattering over short blacks for months, it is a side issue.
The Socceroos didn’t fail because of their formation. They have been set up to fail.
FFA falling short on world stage
The Socceroos lacked the depth of talent to fully execute Postecoglou’s attacking plans in often unsuitable conditions. Yet they possessed more talent — or at least more esprit de corps — than van Marwijk realised until it was too late.
It is the will of the game’s administrators to defy the odds — including the massive competition for first-choice athletes in a relatively small country — that will decide whether the Socceroos can alter their now repetitive World Cup narrative by adding more top-flight talent to the innate sense of adventure.
To date, in football terms, the FFA has bottled it.
So much money and goodwill has been invested in the A-League. But it does not generate the revenue required to fund elite academies. On the contrary, development programs have been shut down essentially to keep the A-League afloat.
Despite the excellent junior participation rate, the missing developmental links between local clubs and the top level mean the emergence of a young stars such as Daniel Arzani is coincidental, not the result of an efficient production line.
Those who helped nurture the Golden Generation will tell you the chain that once linked the top and the bottom of the game has been broken.
Accordingly, there is as much chance of producing the star striker the Socceroos crave by clicking your fingers and chanting “Viduka! Viduka! Viduka!” than waiting for him to bob up at the Central Coast Mariners.
Second and even third-tier competitions are desperately needed to broaden the base of professional players and provide deeper connections with grassroots clubs. But will still cash-strapped A-League clubs be willing to share the game’s modest revenue with suburban rivals?
Graham Arnold has earned the job with excellent domestic results. He might be the best person for it. As the Asian group gets tougher, and FIFA backs away from its plan to increase the number of teams in the finals from 32 to 48 in Qatar, he will need to be.
So we now sit back and admire the great football nations or cheer on those that — unlike Australia — have defied their apparent limitations in Russia. This will provide comfort to those who share the resignation of Australian football’s powerbrokers and don’t truly believe the Socceroos can ever compete at the highest level.
Brazil is, well, Brazil. England invented the game and look like they’re starting to get the hang of it. Portugal’s population might only be 10.3 million — but one of them is Cristiano Ronaldo.
Some will look on with envy, others with mild resignation.
It depends whether you think little Australia should be proud of merely reaching the World Cup. Or if you believe it’s worth taking on the enormous challenges that face the game and striving to do better.
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