The Iran Game 20 Years On – Recounting the Memories

29 November 2017

Twenty years ago, has it really been that long? With Australia about to play in its fourth successive World Cup, it’s a stark contrast to the days of Oceania when Australia’s World Cup prospects were almost so forlorn that most fans did not dream.

Australia vs Iran 1997 World Cup Qualifier

After emerging as Oceania’s winners, Australia would be shunted to all parts of the globe and made to play sudden-death playoffs against battle-hardened losers from other confederations as our first and final hope of qualifying – and that was typically after an earlier, slightly less daunting playoff. For the 1998 World Cup, this treacherous path seemed not so bad when Australia was finally given its wish of going through Asia by needing to beat Asian’s 4th best team. Comparing that to Scotland, Israel then Colombia and Canada then Argentina, the dreaming could really start.

As it is now known, that seemingly easier path proved a fool’s gold. It was not the challenge of Iran that undid Australia, it was the nature of the fixture. Football’s magic is because it’s so uncertain, and in a sudden-death game, that uncertainty can be cataclysmic. Add to that FIFA’s absurd away-goals rule that magnifies the impact of a goal far beyond its norm and inhibits a home team from attacking too much, then you have an even greater recipe for chaos.

The Iran Game proved a watershed moment for the sport. With such a strong spectre of qualifying, the mainstream media was heavily focused. The sport had seen nothing like it and appeared to really come of age. More importantly, it would convert a mass of people to the magic that only this sport can provide. Little were we to learn that that magic cuts both ways, leaving Australia disappointed, and ironically making qualification through Asia and the playoffs after two further attempts, far more appreciated. Pivotally for this website, it was its birth. So much so that eventually there were 5 parts spanning 3 years dedicated to this one night. Now there’ll be six.

Those parts to the Iran Game can still be viewed in the “Action” section in their exact original wording on the archived site. They’ve never be revisited for corrections, punctuation and even writing style. In twenty years, so much as changed there too.

The intent of the Socceroo Realm was only ever for personal recount, even for catharsis and self-healing. Longer term, it would serve primarily as a journal and for the enjoyment of writing. It evolved to providing general news, until now, where it is solely analysis and opinion. The early and mid-2000s was its peak in terms of traffic and communication, until the proliferation of mainstream websites like theworldgame, Fox Sports, newspapers and even A-League clubs – all with so many pages – have seen the Socceroo Realm hammered from its permanent top 10 in Google and Alta Vista (of the time) in searches for “Socceroos”. A search now and it’s nowhere on the first 5 pages. Being slow to get onto Twitter and Facebook hasn’t helped. Still, there’s a dedicated readership, and that’s forever appreciated.

Now to the Iran Game. For something different I’ll present a chronological list of memories that are still vivid and often recounted either in whimsical thinking or discussing with friends.

* When first asked about the match at the MCG, Robbie Slater called the idea “a joke”. The main concern was the cricket pitch; there were no drop-in pitches back then as now. Many players, and fans, had that concern. A minor concern was actually getting the crowd, considering soccer was very much a minor sport. Did Soccer Australia exaggerate the potential? Prices were reasonable at $40, $60 and $80-100 for bronze, silver and gold, respectively.

* With preparations under way and cricket pitch getting plenty of water, Paul Trimboli – as a local Socceroo – gave it a thumbs up in a TV news report.

* Ticket purchase. A friend (Bob) and I went to Chadstone Shopping Centre to purchase them. We were happy with silver and picked our seats in line with the penalty box to the city end, in the Southern Stand, reasonably low on the top deck.

* Australia were to play either Iran or Japan and neither of those teams relished that chance. They played a cut-throat play-off in Malaysia (Johor Bahru to be precise) that Japan eventually won 3-2 in extra time. Australia was straight off to Tehran.

* Before the identity of the fourth-placed Asian team was known, it had already been announced that Australia would play at home last. This was greeted as a great advantage. First, the axiom that knowing the outcome required, the team could play accordingly and be more in control of achieving the result. Second, and more importantly, was the travel. While Japan appeared the lesser challenge and more comfortable logistically, it was now seen as more desirable to play Iran. They were now forced to fly all the way back to Iran, play a match, then fly to Australia. Surely fatigue would be a big problem. They had also crumbled in their group stage when, as group leaders, lost two and drew one of their last three games. Then lost to Japan in the play-off. They appeared demoralised.

* The first leg in Teheran didn’t go as hoped. Deep down the consensus that this was Australia’s big chance and that they’d be too superior was initially validated when Harry Kewell scored early. From then on, it was an unnerving struggle. In fact, Iran quite easily could have won and seemed energised and reassured by returning straight to the comfort of home. Would it have been better that they came to Melbourne first and been hammered? Two friends (Bob and Z) visited my house to watch. They had never met before.

* With the Socceroos squad now in Melbourne, all players gave approval to the MCG field, several being surprised it was good, including Slater.

* To confirm the huge mainstream interest in this game, at a team photograph, one of the players remarked “ooh, sponsors!”. It might have been a Toyota sign resting in front of them.

* With Australia only needing nil-nil to qualify, confidence was high. Knowing this, would the team play accordingly? The consensus seemed not to play for the draw, especially when at home. Personally, I felt reality would set in, and the result would be eked out, either 0-0 or 1-0.

* Game day was spent at home and imagining the prospect of qualifying for an actual World Cup. Wow. Some of the trepidation from the game in Iran had  been alleviated. The feeling was that Australia really had no excuse. I had my Socceroos shirt on, circa 1993 that Australia wore against Canada and Argentina, being the moment the sport captured me.

* I met friends at the ground almost 2 hours prior, the Bob and Z who watched the first leg, and some friends of each of those who were all friends of mine. What a day for such a group of 6 to first form a bond.

* The atmosphere in the ground at this early stage was amazing. A large group of Iranian fans were there trying to compete with Australian fans. Intermittently, Australian fans would have enough and totally drown out the Iranians. Then the vibrant normality would restore.

* As someone that doesn’t much like the national anthem, Jane Scali gave an amazing rendition. To this day, it’s the best ever. Whether it was the crowd and the occasion that helped, it also affected her as there was a distinct energy flow between crowd and singer that just intensified as the anthem progressed. Z, who is of Greek origin, sang in full gusto. I didn’t bother, preferring to soak in the occasion.

* Early stages of the game were marked by Robbie Slater steaming down the wing, Aurelio Vidmar missing chances, Craig Moore missing a great chance from a corner, Ned Zelic shooting from range, and an Iranian playing tripping over the ball. It all seemed in control. Iran only providing one moment of anxiety, and that foray on goal was easily snuffed.

* Finally, the goal came, and it was Harry Kewell. It took some time to confirm this given the distance from goal we were and the general scramble in the penalty box. All I saw was Alex Tobin rush in and presumed he scored. The crowd went nuts as Tobin carried the ball back above his head. For me it was more a relief than anything.

* At half time Bob asked my thoughts and said “Iran won’t score”. He said, “So we’re through”. I said “No”. That answer summed up the huge trepidation still ahead despite the obvious that if Iran don’t score Australia are through.

* The most poignant analysis in discussion about the game at half time was that if Australia scores again, they must score another quickly. Because given the away-goals rule after the 1-1 result in Tehran, the second goal is largely meaningless. Iran already needed to score 2 goals at 1-0 down. At 2-0 down, they still only needed 2 goals. Only their urgency would change.

* Early in the second half, Aurelio Vidmar finally scores his goal, a tap-in after a header by Craig Foster that rebounded off the cross-bar. During this scrimmage, Z grabbed my hand in support! As the crowd went nuts, I just stayed calm and yelled out, “We need one more, we need one more”.

* Next thing you know, there’s a stoppage after an idiot invades the pitch and pulls part of the goal-net down. I felt this was good because it gave the team a chance to relax and consider the match situation after the goal. The job was by no means done. Johnny Warren also said as much on the TV telecast. By the end of the game and in the media the next day, that sentiment had swung that the invader was now blamed for the loss. Nonsense.

* Iran noticeably lifted their urgency. A few moments of danger seemed to be snuffed easily, providing some comfort. Of discomfort, Australia were tiring and looking unlikely to add to their score.

* Iran’s first goal was only mildly discomforting, mostly because it came from a scrimmage so it seemed they got lucky. We just knew now that the match would not enter extra time.

* Iran’s second goal will live long. First, there were nuggets in defence with their arms raised trying to claim offside. Second, Mark Bosnich was easily beaten. It all happened so quickly. Khodadad Azizi ran off towards the Iranian supporters. I might have said “oh shit”. Mostly I remained calm knowing that there was plenty of time left – at least 15 minutes.

* As time passed, it never really looked likely. Coach Terry Venables seemed not to be making any changes, or making strange ones. Like, why was it Tony Vidmar on for Steve Horvat? Ernie Tapai was also waiting.

* Graham Arnold came on late and was passionate in trying to give the team a gee-up. Did he recognise their forlorn attitude? Arnold had the best chance, a scurried shot that went straight to the goalie through a crowd of players.

* Final whistle and all I see is Stan Lazaridis lying on the ground. He’d be there for at least 10 minutes before security would remove him.

* Queen’s “We Are The Champions” rang around the ground. For such a triumphal song, it’s one that forever will mean sadness. It still does.

* I finally sat down, raised knees onto the seat in front, buried my head in them, cried. After about 5 minutes, Z patted me on the head to console me. Not long after that we left. We left like zombies. It was so surreal. Few people spoke.

* We ended up a pool house in Port Melbourne where Bob got so trashed that he was locked in the toilet for ages puking. I didn’t get too carried away.

* That night I cried before bed. Waking up Sunday morning, one more time. I called in sick for work on Monday, too emotionally wrecked.

* On the news on Sunday was part of the press conference. Soccer Australia chief David Hill said Australia “gave it one hell of a lick”, and words tantamount to anyone not converted to the sport by the drama that night never will.

* Terry Venables blamed the static defence, that he always instructs the players to be moving forward or back. It seemed Tobin and Horvat were doing that, except not in unison, and in opposite directions to one another.

* A few weeks later, a cricket match is on TV, and still eerily remained a hint of the centre circle across the middle of the pitch. That was the last tangible connection to this day.

Ticket to Australia vs Iran World Cup Qualifier, MCG, Melbourne, 1997

The actual ticket used

Ticket to Australia vs Iran World Cup Qualifier, MCG, Melbourne, 1997

This ticket was probably found on the internet somewhere at the time.

Regrets

Only one. Australia never played Iran again, even now that they are in Asia. Through Asian Cup qualifiers, Asian Cups, the 2006 World Cup and six World Cup qualifying pools, Australia has avoided Iran. Not even an international friendly could be fashioned. With all players on that day now retired, the time for a “re-match” has long passed.

What really went wrong?

Isolating it to events that can be controlled, two grave errors:

1) Terry Venables replaced Milan Ivanovic with Steven Horvat as sweeper for this tie. The result of which saw all three of Iran’s goals caused by defensive calamity, mostly at the hands at Horvat. While Tobin was the nugget trying to run Iran offside, he should never have held such authority. It was Ivanovic’s job, and Horvat was out of position. Aurelio Vidmar also said, in the SBS “After The Mourning After” documentary, that Australia would have qualified if Ivanovic was playing. In Tehran, Horvat bizarrely tried to play offside from a throw-in. To make matters even worse, Horvat was one of many players starting that were returning from injury or not playing with their clubs. Aurelio was another, hence his rustiness in front of goal, and Ned Zelic might have been another. You can get away with that further up the field, especially if lacking other options. You can’t in defence.

2) Dreadful tactics. Australia was already losing impetus to score the third goal, so the decision much earlier should have made to close the game down. Venables only began making the move at 2-1, and before Tony Vidmar could be brought on, it was 2-2. Bizarrely, Vidmar still came on when strikers were needed.

Legacy

A 2-0 lead these days is regarded as “a dangerous score”. It’s nonsense because in most games if a team reaches 2-2, it’s a draw, or it might go to extra time and then a shootout. In the Iran Game, 2-2 was a win, because the second goal that Australia scored was meaningless. So 2-0 is only a dangerous score for a home-team in a two-leg playoff that finished 1-1 in the first leg. Since the Iran Game, there hasn’t been such a game of 1-1 after the away leg and Australia leading 2-0 in the home leg. In fact, other than the two recent ties against Honduras and Syria, Australia has avoided such playoffs altogether.

Three years after the Iran Game, SBS showed a documentary called “After The Mourning After”. It was a retrospective of the match, mostly through interviews with players. The two most notable quotes were Robbie Slater seeing “some nugget” with his hands up when describing Iran’s second goal and Craig Foster admitting at 2-0 that his mind wandered and was dreaming of France.

That nugget was Alex Tobin. Ironic that Fox Sports’ A-League Player of the Year award is called The Alex Tobin Medal. Should it be the Nugget Award? “Nugget” has entered the parlance of myself and friends when describing erroneous defending. “Doing a Foster” has not entered the parlance for teams that concede 2 goal leads and lose through poor concentration. Not yet, anyway.

The biggest legacy, of course, is “The Iran Game”. It’s almost a trademark now, and very much part of the Australian lexicon.

 

-This is a slightly modified version of an article originally written 5 years ago as “The Iran Game 15 Years On – Recounting the Memories”

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Australia through to play Honduras as Ange Postecoglou shoots through

20 October 2017

Less than 12 hours after Australia beat Syria 2-1 in extra time and 3-2 on aggregate to progress to the final stage of World Cup qualifying, the nation awoke to news that coach Ange Postecoglou would quit the Socceroos at the conclusion of the campaign whether Australia qualifies for Russia 2018 or not. While he hasn’t explicitly confirmed media reports are correct, he hasn’t denied them either, saying: “My sole focus is on preparing the team for the final two qualifying matches. I will not let anything compromise the team’s journey on getting to a fourth consecutive FIFA World Cup.” The FFA echoed those sentiments, saying there’s plenty of time between the last qualifier and the World Cup “to lock in our set up as soon as possible to maximise our preparation time”.

It’s believed frustration at the growing criticism towards Postecoglou, specifically about results and the change of formation mid-campaign, is the reason for the early departure. If that’s true, it shows a remarkable weakness in resilience and a capitulation in belief of both he and the team. Not to mention it would seem completely out of character, especially for someone that boasted about playing “the Australian way” and leaving an imprint on the game. It’s almost un-Australian. Or is it?

If you consider the true Australian sports psyche, it is actually one that fails under pressure, and is notorious for quitting when things get a bit tough. Cathy Freeman denied herself an almost certain second gold medal by quitting athletics a year before the Athens Olympics, while Ian Thorpe began to experiment in other disciplines and distances, and eventually became one of our biggest sooks ever. Sound familiar? Australia’s reputed fighting style really only exists when backs are to the wall – essentially when there’s nothing to lose and there’s no pressure at all. When leading and being challenged, it will either succumb or try to escape. If escape is not possible, the coping mechanism is to try bully past the opposition, which invariably makes capitulations even worse. The debacle in swimming at the Rio Olympics is the most recent example, while the Test cricket team’s history is blotted by regular and notorious batting collapses. Now it’s Ange’s turn. It’s all suddenly a bit tough, and rather than fight it out and attempt to achieve a good result at the World Cup, it’s get out while you can. If that’s true, it will be a really sad epitaph on his coaching career.

The match itself was microcosm of the entire campaign with the task made more difficult than necessary by defensive blunders, sluggish transition between defence and attack, and wasted scoring opportunities both with final passes and shots. Syria scored after 6 minutes when Mark Milligan conceded possession in midfield, and while Australia equalised only seven minutes later thanks to Tim Cahill on the end of a sublime cross from Mathew Leckie, the game remained on a knife’s edge thanks to the odious away-goals rule. Remember, under this idiotic rule, if Australia conceded another it would mean they’d need two more before full time to avoid elimination even though it’s 3-3 on aggregate. Hardly an incentive to attack while playing at home, is it?

Despite dominating possession for large portions of the match, Australia didn’t create too many chances, much less score. It took Cahill – yes, him again – to rise in the box in the second half of extra time to head a cross from Robbie Kruse home. Naturally, that compelled Syria to desperately attack, and it was only a matter of inches that they didn’t score from a direct free kick in injury time of extra time. The ball struck the post and went wide. Poetic justice, you might say, as Australia had struck the post so many times in their previous two qualifiers. That included the final group match against Thailand, and the away leg of this series, played in neutral Malaysia, that finished 1-1. That was a fair result anyway after Syria was as good in the final 30 minutes as Australia were in the first 60 minutes. Even though Syria’s goal came from dreadful penalty call on Leckie, they really should have converted one of their numerous chances beforehand.

Tim Cahill saves Australia vs Syria - World Cup qualifier Sydney 2017-10-10

Tim Cahill – he saves Australia again (Image: AAP/News)

After a crazy final round of matches in CONCACAF, Honduras awaits Australia. USA were third on 12 points, with Panama and Honduras next on 10 points. Panama was in fourth – and the expected playoff opponent – thanks to a +5 goal difference over Panama. The final matches also favoured table positions remaining unchanged: Panama vs Costa Rica, Honduras vs Mexico and Trinidad & Tobago vs USA. USA only needed a draw to bottom team T&T to be safe or hope both Panama and Honduras lose. Instead, all three matches ended in upsets as the USA lost 2-1, Panama scored late to jump to third and qualify for their first ever World Cup, and Honduras beat Mexico to jump to fourth, leaving the USA eliminated.

Until the win over Mexico, Honduras’ only other points came from two wins against T&T and a draw against USA. While those mediocre results seem encouraging for Australia, their coach said they were unlucky through the group phase by conceding goals – and points – late in several games. Also note Honduras have qualified for the past two World Cups and the last time they played Australia at a meaningful level was at the 2000 Sydney Olympics when they won 2-1 and sent the Olyroos packing on the official first day of the Games (Australia lost 1-0 to Italy a few days prior). Countering that, Honduras lost all three games at Brazil 2014 and only managed a draw at South Africa 2010. Australia’s record is better having won and drawn in 2010 and performed really well in patches against Chile and Netherlands in 2014 despite losing all 3 matches. The teams seem well matched, and Australia is reputedly in the favoured position of playing home last. That might actually have a tangible benefit this time as Leckie and Milligan will return fresh after being suspended for the away-match due to accumulated yellow cards. Let’s hope Honduras don’t put the tie away before then.

The big concern is Ange Postecoglou. Is their still enough trust and belief within the team to play for him? Will he amend some of his stubborn tactics to ensure no soft goals are conceded? The incessant tactic to always play out from the back has made the team so predictable and easy for the opposition to apply pressure from midfield and force turnovers in dangerous areas. Syria capitalised in Sydney, and there’s no doubt the speedy Hondurans will be looking to do likewise.

The other problem is the team itself. It simply isn’t that good. It’s relying too often on a 37 year old part-time player to get it out of trouble. It’s never settled, with Postecoglou bizarrely starting Aaron Mooy on the bench at home to Syria. Thankfully Brad Smith was injured early to force Mooy on and undo the stupidity. Postecoglou seems obsessed with developing a good squad rather than a good team and possibly that’s his tacit admission of our weak playing stocks, and also his frustration that he can’t “change the landscape”, that it’s a recognition that he’s reached a limit with this team, and the team itself has reached its limit, and the system itself is too limiting for him. Win or lose against Honduras, it is the end of an era, and the Australian national team will face a restock, if not a major reboot.

Curious stat: With 48 goals, Australia has scored the most goals of any team in World Cup qualifying so far. Playing a long campaign of 20 matches no doubt helps.

The playoff is scheduled for Friday 10 November (Honduras time) and Wednesday 15 November (Australia Time).

Results

2017-10-05 Melaka: Syria 1 (Alsoma 85′ PK) – Australia 1 (Kruse 40′)
2017-10-10 Sydney: Australia 2 (Cahill 13′, 109′) – Syria 1 (Alsoma 6′)

Match Report

 

Direct Qualification – What Went Wrong?

12 September 2017

Credit where it’s due. Australia tried its absolute hardest to win by enough goals against Thailand to increase its chances to directly qualify for the World Cup in 2018. Forty five shots on goal, 26 of them from inside the penalty box, 11 shots were blocked, 3 hit the post, 16 corners and 76% possession says it all. Goals in football generally average to 1 for every seven shots, so at 45 shots, that’s at least 6 goals. Even from the 26 shots within the box, that’s almost 4 goals. Instead it was two, while Thailand managed to score 1 from their handful of decent shots, with it diverting in from the crossbar. They also had an obvious penalty denied late in the first half when scores were 0-0. It was one of those nights.

Final Table of Group B Asian World Cup Qualifying for Russia 2018

Final Table of Group B Asian World Cup Qualifying for Russia 2018

Credit also for the resilience of the Socceroos. Despite the 0-0 score at half time, Australia kept battling away. When the unthinkable happened that Thailand equalised on 82 minutes, Australia responded withing four minutes to regain the lead. The game was so reminiscent of the home leg against Canada in 1993 where Australia peppered the goals, finally broke through late in the first half, inexplicably conceded early in the second half, and salvaged a goal late to bring the tie level. Except then, Australia went on to win the penalty shootout to reach the final playoff round against Argentina. This time there still might be penalties to decide it all – after the third placed playoff against Syria and then either USA, Honduras or Panama in CONCACAF.

It was an eerie and strange feeling leaving the stadium and going home last Tuesday night. Certainly there was relief that the Socceroos snagged the win to give them some hope to qualify directly, and there was uncertainty about the future. First it was whether Saudi Arabia at home could defeat Japan in a few hours time to send Australia to the playoffs, and then the nature of the playoffs as well. As it proved, Saudi Arabia beat Japan 1-0 in a game that had saw both teams create many chances. It could have gone either way. Again, it was one of those nights. In truth, the Saudis deserved to win. Good on them too!

Since Australia’s entry into Asia, all we’ve done is taken a spot from the existing teams. It wasn’t meant to be like this, and the Middle Eastern teams have especially felt aggrieved. There were meant to be reciprocal benefits moving to Asia, not for Australia to gain a permanent and easy World Cup spot. Part of the benefit of absorbing a powerful Australia from Oceania was the expectation Asia and Oceania would be permanently linked for the playoff spot. That only lasted one cycle when Bahrain lost to New Zealand as FIFA betrayed both regions, sending Asia and Oceania into a random draw with South America and CONCACAF. For Asia to work, there’s to be mutual benefit of improving the Socceroos, other Asian teams and Asia as a whole. That also means occasionally not qualifying for the World Cup. I’ve said in the past that Australia should accept missing one in three World Cups. After two successful attempts, maybe it’s our time to miss out. Or, at least, do something no Asian team has been able to do since Australia joined Asia – qualify through the playoffs.

Invariably, the obvious question to ask following the failure to qualify directly is: What went wrong? Not that much actually. Australia won 5, drew 4 and lost one match. They had the least losses of all teams, with their only loss away to Japan. No shame in that. They accumulated 19 points, which is 4 more points than the other group’s second placed team (Korea), and only missed qualifying on goal difference. A direct comparison to the results of Japan and Saudi Arabia away to Thailand (2-0 and 3-0, respectively) would be to blame the corresponding match. Thailand were meant to be the whipping boys, and here, playing in tribute for the recent death of their king, kept Australia to 2-2. They actually should have won, running Australia ragged and missing a late chance. The crucial match for Australia was in Saudi Arabia, where Australia conceded on 79 minutes to leave with a 2-2 draw. Instead of gaining three points on the Saudis, they gained nothing. In a game that could have gone either way, they led Iraq too – until the 76th minute – to leave neutral Tehran with a draw. As for this extraordinary home match against Thailand, note that Japan and Saudi Arabia won their corresponding fixtures 4-0 and 1-0. Thailand were a reasonably tough defensive unit to crack.

Coach Ange Postecoglou naturally is facing some pressure. The switch from 4 at the back to 3 at the back after the halfway mark was criticised, most specifically by Mark Bosnich, as an unnecessary experiment. Results suggest it didn’t matter too much, with Australia scoring 10 of their 19 points in the second half of qualifying, albeit with an extra home match. More critical is some of the stubbornness – particularly some of Ange’s instructions and being lost in his greater vision at the expense of the direct mission. Most glaring at the venue was seeing the goal-keeper always – and I mean always – playing the ball out along the ground. While I can appreciate that facilitates the general possession game Postecoglou wants to aspire, it’s occasionally at the detriment of the team’s chances to quickly get forward. Often players would be clear in space after sprinting up-field ready for a long kick-out. No, it was always play it to a defender, which also made it so predictable for Thailand, who could easily press and try win possession. They nearly capitalised once, as did Japan. Often this sort of stubbornness shows a coach losing confidence or control, and trying to re-stamp authority.

Then there’s Ange’s “change the landscape” vision for football in Australia. Interestingly, previous coaches have been lambasted for being too short-sighted with their objectives. You can’t win, even if you do, as both Pim Verbeek and Holger Osieck qualified Australia directly. National teams are representative teams and, particularly for countries like Australia, the talent pool is limited. This isn’t a club where you can buy or recruit players to suit your coaching ethos and then try imprint a style over months of training and during the season, or even over multiple seasons. International teams gather a few times a year, have limited training opportunities, often have specific short term aims, so the goal is to extract the best out of those players available and the team in general. Often you might need to adjust tactics and formations to suit the players you have. No point trying to turn players into something they are not, as after the match they go back to their clubs and their natural style. When you’re quitting the national team after this campaign as Ange has already confirmed, then how can you change the landscape anyway? The next coach – if he’s a reputable, high-calibre coach of self worth and belief – will do something according to his ethos. He won’t be bending to the previous coach’s practice.

The harsh truth with this cycle is not the coach, not the method, not even many of those 45 shots against Thailand that narrowly did not score. It’s that the players are not good enough at international level. Obviously the calibre isn’t there when you compare them to names like Viduka, Kewell, Emerton, Neill and Moore of the 2006 World Cup team, it’s actually more mental than physical – unable to cope with higher pressure, both mentally and time on the ball in the cauldron of international football. Even Mark Viduka lamented it at times. Players simply don’t get that intensity at club level so often have difficulty adjusting. Even the biggest names have trouble adjusting, like Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski.

The one dynamic Australia still has is Ange Postecoglou. “In Ange we trust” – remember that when he was first hired? It still applies. We must keep trusting. He’s a proud Australian, and proud of his team. The month waiting until the first playoff series will be a time of great reflection, and a switch to the direct mission objective of winning the both playoff series. He has no choice. You can’t change the landscape if the landscapers are out of a job.

Results

2017-08-31 Saitama: Japan 2 (Takuma 41′, Yosuke 82′) – Australia 0
2017-09-05 Melbourne: Australia 2 (Juric 69′, Leckie 86′) – Thailand 1 (A-Nan 82′)

Group A Qualifiers

Iran (22 points), Korea (15 points)

Match Report

More at the AFC

Ange Postecoglou’s post-match comments:

“My position is I’m coach of the national team … I’ll see it through. The Australian football industry chewed me up and spat me out 10 years ago so this is nothing new.

“It doesn’t change my conviction of what I think is right for our game and our country and I’ll see it through.

“I love watching that team play, my team play, our team play.

“People can have their judgments of me … I won’t be pushed into the shadows of Australian football history like others.

“The style, the approach is what works for us and what will work for us.”

 

“It’s been unbelievable, it’s been magnificent and I have been sitting here frustrated for the last two years listening to some of the garbage being thrown around at these players.

“It’s tough qualifying for a World Cup, it’s even tougher when it’s your first one for a lot of these guys. We have played 10 games, lost only one, they have done everything I have asked of them. I am the one putting them out there trying to win games of football.

“It’s heartbreaking for the players. They were brilliant tonight. They had 40 plus shots and chances just didn’t go in. If we had got one a bit earlier it may have opened them up a bit.

“As the game wore on anxiety crept in, we had to take a couple more risks. They could have become deflated at each other, but they showed character and resilience to stay in the game.

“Thailand were resilient, defended desperately but OK, 45 shots, three posts, cleared off the line, if there was a more one-sided contest I don’t think I have seen it. Usually when the evidence is overwhelming you get the rewards.”

“All you need is 10 per cent to go in and you are talking about a different game.”

The Thailand Game – Preview

04 September 2017

This year marks the 20th anniversary of The Iran Game – the final World Cup qualifying match of the campaign in 1997 in which Australia conceded two second half goals to see World Cup qualification ripped from their hearts. In 2017, Australia is on a similar precipice with The Thailand Game, except there is at least a second chance via the playoffs if it all goes awry. At stake is direct qualification, and nothing short of a big win will ease concerns. Even with that, focus will turn to the match between Saudi Arabia and Japan, where the Saudis could still edge out Australia with a good win over a team that is already qualified for Russia 2018. The question is: which team will grasp the chance?

Russia 2018 - Asian World Cup Qualifying - Group B heading into the final round of matches

Group B of Asian World Cup Qualifying heading into the final round of matches

Both Australia and Saudi Arabia have let valuable points slip through the campaign, and that was the case with the last round of matches with Saudi Arabia losing 2-1 in the UAE and Australia losing 2-0 in Japan. That loss ended Australia’s unbeaten run in the campaign, albeit with 4 of the eight matches ending in a draw. The Saudis would feel more aggrieved, as they led 1-0, whereas Japan are tough at home for any team, and it’s a fixture Australia have never won. Despite hopes the Socceroos could obtain a result, it never looked likely with the team comprehensively out-played from the start. Of the handful of attempts on goal, all were speculative, and the team were exposed for its lack of ideas and attacking impetus – not to mention non-defending for Japan’s first goal. Players and coach interviewed afterwards lamented this seemingly unusual, lacklustre performance. Except, it wasn’t unusual. It’s been a problem for many years now, with this website often critical of excessive dallying on the ball and passing sideways, often into congestion, rather forward and into space.

Despite some of the complex scenarios and narrative drawn since Australia’s loss last week, the scenario is quite simple, with Australia still very much favoured to finish second in Group B. All Australia must do is get a better result vs Thailand than Saudi Arabia does vs Japan. If the Saudis lose heavily, then Australia can lose by two fewer goals. If the Saudis lose narrowly, then Australia needs a draw. If the Saudis draw, then any win is good enough for Australia. If the Saudis win, then Australia’s win must be bigger by two goals to overcome the 2 goal deficit in goal difference.

Examples: if it’s KSA-JPN 1-0, 2-1 or 3-2 for a 1 goal win, then AUS-THA must be a 3 goal win like 3-0, 4-1 or 5-2; if it’s KSA-JPN 4-1 for a 3 goal win, then AUS-THA must be 5-0, 6-1 or 7-2 for a 5 goal win.

It’s hard enough to imagine Saudi Arabia beating Japan at all, much less to win big, so realistically their largest win would be by 3 goals. Much of this will depend on the sort of team and mindset the Japanese bring to Saudi Arabia. While that fierce Japanese pride suggests they won’t roll over, being already qualified is the intangible. It could easily sap motivation, or they could play with great abandon. Conversely, Saudi Arabia at home will be either inspired by the local crowd or capitulate under the pressure.

The conundrum with The Thailand Game is that Saudi Arabia’s match is not played until several hours after Australia’s, so these “if” scenarios only apply to the Saudis. They have the luxury of knowing their minimum requirements while Australia must play as though it’s a worst case scenario and try to win 5 or 6 nil to protect itself from the any likely Saudi victory. Without such a win, it will be an eerie feeling after The Thailand Game. While it won’t be the devastation following The Iran Game, the mix of anxiety and hope after The Thailand Game will leave us bemused and curious about how we found ourselves in this position in the first place.

Australia vs Iraq & UAE – Back on Course

2 April 2017

Credit where it’s due. Australia procured four precious points, as was the minimum requirement, away to Iraq and at home the United Arab Emirates this week. While the 1-1 draw in neutral Tehran against Iraq could have gone either way, the Socceroos ground UAE into submission for the win 2-0 in Sydney. It was a good response after the stunningly exciting 2-2 draw in Thailand to end 2016, where the Thais ran Australia ragged, playing inspired football in tribute to the recent death of their king, and arguably they should have won. Curiously, Australia remains the only unbeaten in the group, yet still sits in third.

The results have provided some sort of relief to a side struggling for wins, not to mention adding much more excitement to the qualifying process itself. For an ambitious team and coach, it’s been a timely boost, especially after switching to a 3-4-3 system. Remember, coach Ange Postecoglou doesn’t only want to qualify for Russia 2018, he wants to perform well there. While the 3-4-3 worked well against the UAE, often it operated as 1-2-4-3 formation. Calling it 3-4-3 is probably more a statement on the team’s psychology – to reinvigorate and inspire a more attacking and confident mentality, rather that coast as usual like the previous two coaches, Holger Osieck and Pim Verbeek, would do.

The only quibble with the results is all three goals came from corners. Several of the few well worked opportunities Australia managed to create were let down by poor final balls and finishing. Aaron Mooy missed the easiest against Iraq, while the Iraqis should have received a penalty for an Australian handball. They scored anyway a few minutes later to cancel the damage from the referee’s error. Then it was a matter of holding the Iraqis out with some desperate defense and goal-keeping.

It shows how pivotal these moments become where one moment you could be 2-0 up and it’s a cruise to victory and then suddenly it’s all equal and you’re trying to protect that crucial one point. That extends to the group process itself. After two wins from the first two games, commentators like Mark Bosnich were talking about wrapping it up quickly. Four draws later finds itself desperate for the win to simply stay in touch. Australia in third place has 13 points, behind Saudi Arabia and Japan on 16. In fact, with Saudi Arabia and Japan both winning their matches, Australia only managed to hold their position after these two games.

The real crucial game is the one against Saudi Arabia in June. A win by two goals there and Australia jumps to second. A one goal win keeps them third. Their final game is home to Thailand, so they would expect to bank 3 points there to go to 19 points. The other game is away to Japan, so no a guarantee of any points. The good news is after Australia, the Saudis are away to the UAE and home to Japan. If Australia draws with the Saudis, they will need 4 points from their final two matches and hope the Saudis lose both. A loss means Australia would need two wins and the Saudis two losses. So that game in June against Saudi Arabia is the closest thing to a high pressure, crucial World Cup qualifier we’ve had since the intercontinental playoffs during the Oceania era.

Results

2016-11-15 Thailand 2 (Dangda 20′, 57′ PK) – Australia 2 (Jedinak 9′ PK, 65′ PK)
2017-03-23 Iraq 1 (Ahmed Yaseen 76′) – Australia 1 (Leckie 39′)
2017-03-28 Australia 2 (Irvine 7′, Leckie 78′) – UAE 0

Match Report – Thailand
Match Report – Iraq
Match Report – UAE

The Scenario

Current Points and Goal Difference

JPN 16 9+
KSA 16 8+
AUS 13 5+

13 Jun 2017: AUS beat KSA 2-0, IRQ lose to JPN 0-2

JPN 19 11+
AUS 16 7+
KSA 16 6+

31 Aug 2017: JPN beat AUS 1-0; UAE draw with KSA

JPN 20 12+
KSA 17 6+
AUS 16 6+

05 Sep 2017: AUS beat THA 3-0; KSA lose to JPN 0-1

JPN 23 13+
AUS 19 9+
KSA 17 5+

Two losses and a draw are assigned to KSA for their final 3 games. Given their form, it’s quite possible they win somewhere. If it’s at the UAE, that bumps them to 19 points with goal difference probably keeping them third. If they win or draw at home to Japan, then they overtake Australia. Note, Japan will most likely be qualified by the final so could send an experimental team to Saudi Arabia.

If Australia finishes third, all is not lost. The beauty of being in a large confederation like Asia is you do get second chances, and sometimes even a third chance. This would involve a playoff with the third team from Group A (likely Uzbekistan) and then a playoff with a CONCACAF team. Wouldn’t that be exciting!

Preview of Australia vs Iraq & UAE – It’s a Reset

23 March 2017

Australia resumes its quest to qualify for the World Cup in Russia next year with a two games over the next 6 days. It’s Iraq in neutral Tehran tonight, with the United Arab Emirates in Sydney on Tuesday. Currently Australia is in third place on the Group B table, with only 1 point separating them from Saudia Arabia and Japan, and are firmly on target to nab one of the two top spots. With the group so even, this midway point is effectively a reset – a new block of 5 games – and with Australia playing 3 of those at home, qualification looks a formality. The other two home games are Saudi Arabia in June and Thailand in September, while the other away game is Japan in late August.

Despite this apparently comfortable position, there have been rumblings from commentators and fans alike that Australia should almost already be qualified. It actually looked like that after they won their first two games before a reality check of 3 draws followed. Two of those were away from home while the other was against Japan. Questions are being asked, is it the coach, is it the A-League, is it youth development? Whatever is, the big concern is there is a stark contrast between our expectations and reality. They no longer match.

Some names: Craig Moore, Lucas Neill, Scott Chipperfield, Luke Wilkshire, Brett Emerton, Vince Grella, Jason Culina, Mark Bresciano, Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka. On the bench you have Tim Cahill and and John Aloisi. That’s the team that faced Japan at the World Cup in Germany in 2006. Let’s look at the last Socceroos team that took the field: Matthew Spiranovic, Trent Sainsbury, Milos Degenek, Bradley Smith, Jamie MacLaren, Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic, Mile Jedinak, Matthew Leckie and Robbie Kruise. There’s no comparison. Other than Jedinak for Culina, it’s doubtful any others would make the field in 2006. Kruise might make it as a substitute. That’s about it.

Australia is in a trough when it comes to quality of players. It’s that simple. Gone are the days when we had three Socceroos leading a top Premier League team, or several playing in Serie A; we’re lucky to have three in the top division of the major leagues right now anywhere in Europe. Most fritter around in lower divisions, or low quality Asian leagues. As much as coach Ange Postecoglou likes to boast and inspire our team can do well, this lack of quality is catching us out. Furthermore, to expect them to run rampant against Asian teams like Socceroo teams of old is misty eyed nostalgia.

It’s a time to reflect on reality. Lower our expectations and appreciate the good, tough results, like those draws away to Saudi Arabia and Thailand. Hope to snag another draw tonight against Iraq and beat the UAE on Tuesday. That will propel us sufficiently forward. Then, if it comes, celebrate qualification hard, which most likely will be that final home match against Thailand. If we can’t manage to support our team during these difficult times then we’re not supporters at all and are only setting ourselves up for a world of pain when we play the top international teams at the Confederations Cup next year and then the World Cup the year after. Potentially it won’t be pretty, and that’s both on the field and the final results.

Two draws keep the group interesting

12 October 2016

Why is it the only goals Australia ever concede are “soft goals”? So it was for the second World Cup qualifier in a row that Australia conceded in the first 5 minutes. The first against Saudi Arabia last week and the second against Japan last night. Naturally, they were soft! Clearly there’s still a small superiority complex Australia has over Asian teams. In truth, the Saudi goal was a brilliant dismantling of our defence with quick passing and well timed runs, and the Japanese goal was a brilliant strategic goal created by pressuring our often over-casual possession of the ball and breaking free on goal. There was nothing soft about them. Indeed! If Australia scored them, we’d be marvelling at the brilliance.

Australia's coach Ange Postecoglou not entirely happy after 1-1 draw at home vs Japan in World Cup qualifier, Melbourne, 2016-10-11

Australia’s coach Ange Postecoglou not entirely happy after a 1-1 draw at home vs Japan. Image: AAP

Both games finished in a draw, 2-2 in Riyadh and 1-1 in Melbourne. Both games also finished in a similar pattern with Australia lucky not to lose both. Australia ending up taking the lead in Riyadh on 17 minutes and felt aggrieved at conceding a goal 8 minutes later. Except, not longer later, the Saudis missed a one-on-one attempt with the ball cleared off the line after being partially saved by Matt Ryan. Likewise, Ryan was at it again in Melbourne when, on 78 minutes, brilliantly saving a low header. Both games were a fair result.

With Saudi Arabia beating the UAE 3-0 overnight, it means the group is wide open. They lead by 2 points, with Australia next on 8, Japan on 7 and UAE on 6. Iraq is on 3 while Thailand has yet to score a point. Australia is yet to play Thailand so arguably has had the tougher run so far.

Personally, the group is nicely poised. While obviously I want Australia to qualify, there’s a big part of me that wants to see the campaign stay alive as long as possible. Many Arab nations are aggrieved that all Australia has done is taken a spot from them, and that’s a fair point. Our inclusion will be a failure if we are not tested, and even occasionally fail to qualify. If Japan won last night, I’d have found that acceptable. Probably the ideal scenario is Australia goes to Japan on 31 August needing a result. They get that, forcing Japan into the playoffs, this time through Central America, and qualify anyway.

There was a bit of publicity about the poor atmosphere at last night’s game at Docklands – even with over 48,000 in attendance. It was deathly quiet at times in the first half with the Australian cheer squad barely active – especially when compared to the visiting Japanese cheer squad. While apparently the Australians weren’t fully organised, the silence was apt for the occasion. Australia had conceded early and put on a limp, clueless and ineffective display in response. Also attacking towards the Japanese end didn’t help motivate the cheer squad.

The second half, when Australia were more active and got the goal, not only did the cheer squad react more, so did the entire crown. I prefer this form of dynamic cheering rather than the incessant and repetitive and often banal chants. If these concoctions are for entertainment purposes or to add to the atmosphere, what are you really saying about the sport itself – that it’s boring? Personally it doesn’t need it, and the quiet periods only enhanced the atmosphere, as they were a reflection of the game itself.

Results

06/10 Saudi Arabia 2 (Al-Jassim Goal 5′, Al-Shamrani 79′) – Australia 2 (Sainsbury 45′, Juric 71′)
11/09 Australia 1 (Jedinak 52′ PK) – Japan 1 (Haraguchi 5′)

Reports – Saudi Arabia
Reports – Japan