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!

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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.

Pros and Cons of a 48-team World Cup

15 January 2017

After all the years of squabbling among the confederations for World Cup places, FIFA took the obvious answer to a surprising conclusion. While the World Cup was ripe for an increase in World Cup teams, to go from 32 teams now to 48 teams for 2026 was a drastic leap. The one caveat is the last increase was in 1998 when 32 teams participated, up from 24 in 1994. The World Cup probably should be 40 teams already, and by 2026 it will be 28 years since the last change. The format will be 16 groups of 3 teams with the top 2 progressing to the knockout phase, which adds a round of 32 to its schedule. While the number of matches overall in the tournament increases from 64 to 80, the maximum number of matches per team remains at seven.

PROS

1) More teams

This is the clear reason for expansion. Regions like Africa and Asia desperately wanted more places, and with the huge amount of money in Asia these days, it means more money for FIFA. Expect both regions to get an extra 4 spots, so Africa’s 5 becomes 9 and Asia’s 4.5 becomes 8 or 9. Oceania is certain to finally get the spot that a full member confederation deserves. They have a spot at every other FIFA tournament and the World Cup should be no exception.

2) More dreams

Teams that once had no hope to qualify now finally can dream about it. Oceania is a classic example, with the likes of Fiji, Vanuatu and Tahiti now only required to get past New Zealand, while in Asia the likes of China, Thailand, Vietnam and Uzbekistan can expect to regularly challenge for a World Cup spot. More than that, it will be nice to see these new teams at the World Cup. Look at the intrigue and excitement the likes of Iceland and Wales created in Euro 2016 when it expanded from 16 to 24 teams, or when Tahiti was Oceania’s representative at the 2013 Confederations Cup.

3) More excitement

The format means there’s one less group game and one more knockout game. While teams could often grind their way through the group phase with defensive tactics, now they need to tackly the group head on. Not so much to qualify, as 2 out of three is statistically an easier task, it’s for seeding purposes so to avoid stronger teams in the early rounds of knockout phase. There’ll also be far fewer, if any, dead matches. With 4-team groups, teams could often be qualified with one match remaining.

4) More representative of the world

Football is not a European and South American sport anymore. If they won’t cede spots to the likes of Asia and Africa to make the World Cup a fairer representation, then the number of teams must increase. Current speculation is Europe with have 16 spots (up from 13), Africa 9 (5), Asia 8.5 (4.5), South America 6 (4.5), Concacaf 6.5 (3.5), Oceania 1 (.5) and 1 for the host. The only inter-continental playoff will be Asia vs Concacaf.

CONS

1) Too many teams

Nearly a quarter of FIFA’s members will now qualify, which dilutes the basic challenge in the first place. Where’s the prestige in qualifying? Also, after two years and many qualifying games, your reward is only two games at the World Cup, not three as currently. That aspect seems an imbalance at least. In percentages terms, the number teams qualifying still quite low, particularly compared to other sports. Under a quarter of teams at football’s World Cup, compared to often 100% of Test level nations at cricket’s and all of tier 1 and most of tier 2 at rugby’s.

2) Less dreams

Sure, while the minnows are now guppies, guppies like Australia become piranhas. So much of the joy when qualifying for 2006 was that it was the first such qualification in 32 years. That mountain to conquer is already a hill in Asia, and the hill will become rubble with the extra four spots allocated. Being perennial World Cup qualifiers is not ideal for a developing nation like Australia. We need the kick up the backside occasionally, much like our youth program is now receiving after recent debacles of multiple failed qualifying campaigns at youth and Olympic level. With the move into Asia I was already prepared to accept missing one World Cup out of every 3, or even missing two in a row if the sport was in malaise. Most top European countries occasionally miss major tournaments, and if it’s ok for them to bomb out at times it should be good enough for us.

3) No 4-team group

Even with the increase of teams over the years, one time honoured staple remained: groups of 4 teams. The change to 3-team groups means each team plays only 2 matches and the odd number of teams means the final games of a group can’t be played simultaneously. This means teams can play for certain results to help others progress. While this ethical problem is quite rare in practice and still possible in a 4-team group, FIFA were always so adamant in preventing it… until now. Tied groups will also become a problem. FIFA are talking about penalty shootouts to split drawn games. That would be a disaster as weaker teams will play for draws. Goal difference and other tie-breaking mechanisms must still be used. In the worst case scenario, maybe 30 minute playoffs are introduced.

4) The squabble for spots will continue

Everyone will be happy in the short term with the extra spots. After that, watch the squabbling resume. South America are so greedy they will probably want all their countries represented. Already if you consider they will get at least 1.5 extra spots, that’s 6 out of 10 teams going. Ridiculous. As mentioned in these pages many times, spots should be based on past performances, with confederations streamlined to facilitate this. That means the Americas should be one confederation and Oceania should merge with Asia. That leaves roughly four regions of 50 teams. To each goes 8 direct spots with 1 to the host. The remaining 15 spots are allocated by previous World Cup performances over the past 3 Cups. If Asia/Oceania get 6 teams among the top 15 best performed teams, that’s six spots to them. Typically they get zero or one, so they’ll sit on 8 or 9, while Europe with usually 8 teams through will get 16 spots in total.

COMPROMISE

My personal preference is four 40 teams over 10 groups. So you still keep the 4-team group and, more importantly, make each match extra important because only 6 of the 10 second placed teams progress to the knockout phase.

Socceroo Realm – Top 5 Moments of 2015

01 January 2016

Since the completion of the Asian Cup in January, it’s been a very quiet year for the Socceroo Realm. While the Women’s World Cup provided a tournament highlight mid-year, the U20 and U17 Men’s World Cups practically went unnoticed. The U20 for a reason: Australia didn’t even qualify. The U17s had an evolving problem.

During the dark days, during Australia’s time in Oceania, youth tournaments were a much needed solace for fans starved of international action. Otherwise, it was two serious World Cup qualifying games every four years. Nowadays, in Asia, the Socceroos are in action far, far more, to the point I barely watched 10 minutes of the U17 World Cup in Chile. I’d feel embarrassed if I was alone, that the tournament was well hyped and I simply ignored. I wasn’t alone. Even SBS couldn’t be bothered showing an evening’s highlight package. I had to check right now that Nigeria beat Mali in the final, while Serbia beat Brazil to win the U20 World Cup that was held in New Zealand.

Socceroo Realm - Australian Soccer / Football

1) Australia wins the Asian Cup

Easily the top moment of this year. It was a brilliant tournament, with a thrilling final and, obviously, a great result. More than that, it raised the profile of coach Ange Postecoglou into almost a messiah. We await for him to qualify the Socceroos for Russia 2018 and do much better than the three losses suffered at Brazil 2014.

2) The Women’s World Cup

Expanded to 24 teams and held in Canada, it proved a thrilling tournament. Not least that the Matildas did so well, with a memorable win over Brazil in the 1/8 final, thanks to a late goal by Kyah Simon. Even though they failed to inspire when losing the quarter final to Japan, the tournament itself became more exciting with pulsating knockout games and a rampant USA demolishing Japan in the final after Carli Lloyd scored a hat-trick in the first 16 minutes.

3) Jordan beating Australia in World Cup qualifying… again

Australia went into Asia for competition. We should hope it is tough, and demand it so, and not throw a tantrum and say “we should be beating these teams”. No, we should not be beating these teams. It’s football. The beauty of the game is that anything can happen. Ironically, Jordan’s win wasn’t really a case of “anything can happen”, since they won the last time when the two countries played in Amman. The fascinating aspect of this match and watching our fears materialised right before our eyes. Here’s another nugget to chew on: if we don’t miss qualifying for the occasional World Cup, then our role in Asia is failing. We are there to be mutually beneficial, which means to help improve the standard in Asia, which in turns forces Australia to improve.

4) Australia losing to Korea at the Asian Cup

A gripping match, even for a group game, that made the rematch in the final all the more exciting. Excuses did pour that Australia could have, should have, would have won. Nag, nag, nag. We Australians really must lose this arrogance of superiority, at least when it comes to football. Ultimately, losing probably helped by removing any complacency.

5) Australia beating China at the Asian Cup

With one billion Chinese watching, this quarter final was highly anticipated. Sadly for the Chinese, Australia put on a clinical display, which included a spectacular overhead goal by Tim Cahill.

Honourable Mention…

Even though the Socceroo Realm doesn’t rate “friendly” international matches, coach Ange Postecoglou rated the 2-2 draw in Germany in March as his highlight of the year: “Being champions of your region is one thing but we wanted to gain respect beyond that. It wasn’t that we got a draw, it was the manner that we got it. We played the world champions on their home soil and took the game to them. We scored two goals, could have had a couple more and didn’t take a backwards step. It gave the players a real belief that the way we play our football and our philosophy would serve us well as we build as a team, and I got a lot of satisfaction from seeing the belief flow into the players and the staff.”

It was a good result. Feelings of dread set in once Australia conceded after only 17 minutes. Big credit to the team that they didn’t fold, instead taking the lead after goals on 40 and 50 minutes, and only conceding the equaliser in the last 10 minutes.

2016

The final round robin of World Cup qualifying awaits, with Australia almost certainly through to that. It’s expanded to six teams per group, so potentially will be tougher than ever. Mid-year we have my other passion outside of the Socceroos: the Olympics! Let’s hope Australia qualify for that. Already there are problems with the qualifying tournament being held outside FIFA international dates, so the Olyroos is without many of its better players. As fans, we ask that it’s taken seriously, not like the disaster of four years ago when the team couldn’t even score a goal in the six matches of its final group phase.

Happy New Year!

Full site: socceroorealm.com

Ambushed by Jordan… again

09 October 2015

08/10 Amman: Jordan 2 – Australia 0

After three relatively easy games in this first group phase of World Cup qualifying, Australia had its big test – away to Jordan – and failed… again. Like in 2012, Australia found itself 2-0 down in Amman. Unlike 2012, there’d be no last minute Australian goal to provide a small glimmer of hope to snatch a draw. The patterns of each match were eerily similar: Australia trying to control the game via possession, Australia wasting possession, Australia wasting chances, Jordan ambushing Australia, Jordan deserved winners. To be out-smarted once is bad enough; for it to happen twice shows an inability to learn. Whether that’s arrogance, in that Australia still has the mindset about Asia that “we should just beat these teams”, there still seems some residual notion of that.

The Asian Football Confederation has revamped its qualifying path, making a much streamlined affair, and also merging Asian Cup qualifying into the process. While the first phase is notionally more difficult with more teams in the groups and only the top team guaranteed to the second group phase, there’s actually more groups this time (8), most of the weaker nations are still involved (pre-qualifying only saw 6 eliminated), and the four best second placed teams also progress. Right now, Australia are the third best of the second placed teams. They also have the luxury of three of their final four matches at home, so have a great chance to reverse the result against Jordan (as they did last time with a 4-0 win in Melbourne), and accrue enough points that finishing second in the group would most likely be enough. The only away match is to Bangladesh, while Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Jordan are the home matches.

All the teams that advance from this first group phase automatically qualify for an expanded Asian Cup of 2019 while the rest play Asian Cup qualifiers as the second group phase of World Cup qualifying is on. It’s a thoroughly well thought and practical system. There were always too many qualifying matches, particularly for the Asian Cup, of which most bordered on training affairs for the bigger nations. Also, the smaller nations deserve their chance against the bigger ones in serious competition, while the bigger ones get to experience new countries and cultures like Australia has with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The big message from this game against Jordan is that Australia needs to change its approach when playing overseas against Middle Eastern teams. They are prepared to be patient and capitalise on mistakes, whether those mistakes be carelessness or from opposing pressure. All the talk of “controlling the game” is nonsense if there’s no reward for it. Arguably Jordan controlled the game much better despite conceding possession. Th axiom remains that it’s about usage of the ball, not the amount of time with it. Home teams like Jordan for this match are the ones under pressure to win. Therefore they should be respected in that manner. Allow them a bit of the ball. Let them take some risks coming forward. Let Australia do the ambushing.

One thing that won’t help is complaining about time wasting. Until FIFA clamps down on it with 10 minute expulsion of a player from the game for calling on a doctor, it’s a legitimate part of the game. Once Jordan took the lead just after half time, Australia allowed their frustration to affect their game. Tim Cahill was lucky not to spotted for knocking over a player off the ball late in the game. Cahill might also have already been aggrieved at being, again, a late substitution onto the field. It seems that coach Ange Postecoglou might be fading him from the first team selection, just in case he doesn’t last until the next World Cup.

Both of Jordan’s goals were apparently contentious. The first one came after Nathan Burns was dispossessed in midfield and a long ball sent through that saw Matthew Spiranovic concede a penalty. TV pundits mused whether Spiranovic should have been sent of as well. No. First, it was a 50/50 hustle for the ball that saw an inadvertent clip of Hamza Aldaradreh’s trailing leg. It’s not even a yellow card. Second, no goal scoring chance was denied. Jordan actually had a better chance thanks to it being a penalty, and it was duly converted by Hassan Mahmoud.

The second goal came after yet another 50/50 hustle, this time involving Jason Davidson after 84 minutes. He and his opponent both fell in the clash, which saw the ball then passed into space for Aldaradreh to pounce, and score. If anything, Davidson might have been called for obstruction after he seemed to trip himself first and then angled his body in front of his opponent, which contributed to the push he may then have received. While commentator Andy Harper was adamant it was a foul, those in the Fox Sports studio were not. Since Harper is also one that seems to want any hint of offside called, maybe it’s just best to disqualify his inane opinion on such matters. Both goals were totally fair. Football has a mystique of infairness onto which it prides itself, so the fair thing is to accept being beaten fairly, and by a better team, and learn for next time.

Previous Results

08/09 Dushanbe: Tajikistan 0 – Australia 3
Great perseverance by Australia. It took until 57 minutes to score, before another on 73 and then one more in injury time. Biggest fear seemed whether the stadium’s lighting would be strong enough.

03/09 Perth: Australia 5 – Bangladesh 0
After two goals in the first 8 minutes, this match started reminiscent of the first 10 minutes of American Samoa v Australia. American Samoa kept it 0-0 for 10 minutes before losing 31-0. Unlike American Samoa that could not hold on, Bangladesh conceded two more by 29 minutes and then only one more for the remainder of the game.

16/06 Bishket: Kyrgyzstan 1 – Australia 2
Unlucky to concede after two minutes from a bobbled free kick. Despite upsetting the Socceroos with their fast and direct style, Kyrgyzstan restricted mostly to spraying mid and long range shots. Class told in end.

Full site: socceroorealm.com

Canada 2015 – Women’s World Cup – Review of Australia / Matildas

28 June 2015

Disappointing end to a promising campaign

After escaping the so-called “group of death”, and then beating Brazil in the round of 16 to record their first knock-out match win ever, the Matildas succumbed to World Champions Japan 1-0 in the quarter final. Even with 5 days break compared to 3 for Japan, the Matildas seemed lethargic from the start and unable to impose their game. While commentators suggested fatigue was the problem, it seemed more like a combination of Japan being too good and Australia possibly pacing the game in case of extra time. The “hot weather”, which was 26 at the start of the game and forecast to reach 31, should not have been a problem. The artificial pitch, supposedly 50 degrees in such conditions, did not hamper the players’ post match commiseration, as they lay sprawled all over it in sadness. Pacing the knockout games seemed to be a trend at the men’s World Cup in Brazil last year, and maybe it’s crept in here too. It’s a good strategy, as long as you’re not sucker-punched near the end of regulation time.

Other than the early phase of the second half, Australia were shut out of the game, and ultimately hit with a sucker punch. Their only shots were speculative from range or from the very rare Japanese mistakes. While 8 corners to zero and a 60% possession rate are suggestive of the dominance, the reality of the dominance is that Japan’s high-pressing strategy saw Australia’s attempt to play its possession game collapse. It only seemed a matter of time that Japan would capitalise on a mistake or convert a corner, and that proved exactly true when a loose pass out of defence was picked off. After the shot was blocked, the resulting corner on 87 minutes was scrambled into the net. Game over against a Japanese team that all teams have found difficult to crack. Ignoring the bad goal-keeping error in the R16 final against the Netherlands, Japan have only conceded one goal all tournament.

Australia’s best performance of the tournament came against Brazil in the R16 final. They managed to shut down the dangerous Brazil while creating good opportunities for themselves. The winning goal came on the 64th minute by the fabulous Kyah Simon, who scored both goals in the pivotal game against Nigeria that virtually sealed Australia’s place in the second round, to leave the Brazilians shattered. It was marvellous scenes for both the jubilation of the Matildas and tears of the often arrogant and conceited Brazilians.

This World Cup had been expanded to 24 nations from 16, meaning the four best third-place teams from the six groups would also progress and 3 points is quite often to progress. Australia drew 1-1 with Sweden in their final group match to hold second place, while Sweden’s three draws were enough for them to progress in third. USA, which had difficulties against Australia and Sweden, won the group with 7 points. Against the USA, Australia matched them for the first 60 minutes, entering half time at 1-1, before class told in the end and USA ran out 3-1 winners.

Quotes – Norio Sasaki, Japan’s coach

Even if we didn’t get a goal within 90 minutes, I felt we would get it inside 120 minutes. The game-plan was executed very well. We recognise the growth of Australia in this World Cup and my team will take confidence from this and we can build with future success (at the tournament). Also the solutions we came up for this match worked very well, and this also gives us confidence. We will fight hard in the semi-final being mindful of the people supporting us back in Japan.

Quotes – Alen Stajcic, Australia’s coach

Clearly the better team won, even though I thought it evened out a bit after the first 20 minutes. Japan were a lot more composed over the full 90 minutes. We didn’t set out to play any differently, but we just spent a lot of energy in the first 20 minutes chasing the game. Most of our players are young, and it is a heartbreaking moment for them, but sometimes you learn from these experiences. We don’t want to compete with the best, we want to beat the best, so now it is a case of taking further steps. There is a lot of room for growth moving forward.


The Women’s Game

Watching these tournaments since Sweden 1995, when just 12 teams participated and Australia lost all 3 games, the growth in skill has been phenomenal. The key growth area is the goal-keepers, who bordered on embarrassing even until the last World Cup in Germany. So many long shots would be scored as the goalies’ poor athleticism would preclude them from reaching shots that seemed in very simple reach of the men. Even allowing for women being less powerful in the leap and generally shorter, the attempts to save looked terrible, or the women would be left flat-footed. That’s all changed for Canada 2015 with notably far few shots from range being scored, and that’s not from the lack of trying. Australia’s Lydia Williams notably pulled off several world class saves, especially against Brazil, and she’s only 175cm tall. Defending is also tighter in general, especially the lack of one-on-ones. It’s only the African and Latin American teams, who are quite a bit off the pace, that you still see some of this calamity. Also the expansion to 24 teams did bring a few weaker teams in, notably Ivory Coast and Ecuador, both of whom conceded 10 goals in a match.

The general attraction of the women’s game – the more open play and more shots on goal – that’s still there. That should remain a part of the fabric of the game given women’s weakness (or strength!) of being naturally not quite as strong or fast as the men. So, too, should the paucity of diving, cheating and time-wasting that often blights the men’s game. Let’s hope this difference is a result of women having more integrity rather than being “less professional” than the men so that it never enters the women’s game. This overall increase in action and flow meant that the Australia/Japan QF was probably the only match that approached the banality of a stalemate in the men’s game. If the women keep improving, there’s no reason why they cannot provide a product that’s as compelling to watch as the men’s. In tennis and basketball, connoisseurs of those sports (including myself) appreciate the more technical and nuance nature of the female versions. Football, with the rules unchanged for the woman, can certainly reach this level.

Of course, the other attraction of the women’s game is the women themselves. Let’s be realistic and resist accusations of sexism, women have for generations enjoyed watching men play for reasons more than just watching a football match, so why not vice versa? Thankfully the women are not treated as sex objects, as play in the same uniforms as the men, not any stupid bodysuits to artificially “sex up” the game, like Australian basketball did or once Sepp Blatter notoriously suggested that football do. Kyah Simon has the prettiest eyes and a winning smile that’s as lethal as her boot, and is certainly my favourite of the Australian team, while any player with a long ponytail looks so elegant. Japan’s Rumi Utsugi, who was integral in converting the winning corner, is one notable, as too almost the entire starting eleven of the Netherlands. USA still has the glamorous Hope Solo, who’s been a long time favourite.

It’s good to see different teams dominate at world level. In the early days the trio of USA, Norway and China were the most dominant. While Norway and China have slid a little, the USA have reached the semi final of every single World Cup. Japan has taken over as Asia’s most dominant team, while Germany has supplanted Norway. Traditional footballing countries are now improving thanks to their domestic leagues, notably England and France, and this was the first ever World Cup for Spain, Netherlands and Switzerland. Latin America is poor (except for Brazil) and Africa is far behind. Canada is the other strong member in the Americas, while Asia saw Thailand qualify to reinforce the power of the east. New Zealand is competitive for Oceania.


Offsides

Give the female assistant referees a gig at the men’s events! Never before have I see a virtual faultless display off refereeing the offside law. Most particular the “favour the attacker” edict in that, yes, in every line-ball case, the referees favoured the attackers! Maybe only once I’ve seen an obvious offside allowed, and even then we’re still talking reasonably close. More importantly, I don’t recall seeing a wrong offside called. Those are the true bane of the sport, because they deny goals and goal chances. The spirit of the law is being refereed perfectly at this World Cup. Whatever it is, better eyesight, reinforcement of the edict, or females having a better empathy for the game, it’s been wonderful. The outfield refereeing has also been great. If there’s an area that the women have clearly surpassed the men, it’s the referees.


Equality

The big talking point in the media has been the discrepancy of pay between the men and women. While the men get $6000 per match at their World Cup, the women get $500 at theirs. Obviously market forces are involved here, with the men generating far more revenue. They also get a slice of the prize-money, which the women also do. While you could say double the match payment to $1000, there will still be calls of inequality unless it’s even. Just look at Grand Slam tennis where even at less than 5% difference in recent years, the women were still howling until it was equal. That’s even despite the fact their matches are only 60% as long as the men, they attract less crowds and the depth in their fields is much weaker. Given the match payments are a relatively small cost in the overall expense of sending a team to a World Cup, the FFA should probably just make it equal. As for prize-money split, that percentage should also be equal. Unfortunately, until the women’s game generates enough revenue to pay the massive prize-money on offer at a men’s World Cup, that means total dollars from prize-money will remain low compared to the men.

The important thing with any issue of equality is to see it progressing. It was only 20 years ago that the men were striking at their pathetic pay, which was in the realm of a few hundred dollars like the women now. Remember World Series Cricket in the 70s? That was all about pay, particularly revenue coming into the game that wasn’t being spread to the players. Cricket has just recently put their women on contract, something that the FFA has emulated. The advantage with the cricket model is that, yes, you do control your players, so your national team is never compromised. Unfortunately that’s created a problem that the women are then precluded to play overseas, where they could earn much more money than the local W-League. Football is not cricket, with fundamentally different structures at international level. Whereas cricket is a pseudo club team almost permanently on international tour, football is representative and an adjunct to domestic club competitions. For the short-term sacrifice to the improvement of the Matildas that the contract system seems to have made for this World Cup, it would better to disband the contracts, use that money to pay higher wages in the W-League, and be more accommodating to any player that does want to go overseas. After all, if it’s about equality, our female warriors should be treated equally to our male ones.

Full site: socceroorealm.com

Asia wins as Australia win the Asian Cup of 2015

01 February 2015

Match Report, Asia’s Reaction, FIFA’s Reaction and Asia’s Future

31/01 Sydney: Korea Republic 1 – Australia 2 (1-1 FT)

The Asian Cup of 2015 needed the gripping final that it got to cement itself as the greatest moment in Australian football. It’s been a marvellous tournament, with thrilling football, big crowds and seamless organisation. The fact that the entire football community could so readily engage in the competition, especially to see games live, the tournament was so friendly, and that all the teams were our fellow Asian friends, made it more enjoyable, as a whole, than recent World Cups. Winning the championship surpasses Australia’s previous best triumph on home soil of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. That was just a one-off game, whereas the Asian Cup was a proper tournament that required sustained high achievement over six games.

The final itself, just like the group game against Korea, could have gone either way. The Koreans had the three best chances of the first half, including an open header from a free kick, while Australia could only muster one decent shot on goal, that from Tim Cahill on a tight angle. Distinct from all previous opponents, Korea did not allow Australia to play its dominant possession game, pressuring high up the pitch, almost to the point Australia’s style collapsed. Australia’s opening goal, just before half time, ironically came from a deep pass direct from Trent Sainsbury to Massimo Luongo through one of very few channels the Koreans allowed. Even then, the pass needed Luongo’s deft skill to quickly turn past his marker, and then shoot quickly from 20 metres out. The “Luongoal” came out of nowhere, surprising everyone. It was fitting that Luongo, the man of the tournament, broke open the game with a stunning strike.

Korea dominated the second half, as you’d expect for a team chasing the game. They kept Australia’s defence busy as the match’s pattern became a sense of could Australia hold on. These were the critical moments of the match that ultimately caught Australia out. Even though the defence, in their defence (!), were superb, managing to repel almost everything, facts are that over an entire half, Korea would always create a few chances regardless of Australia’s defensive integrity. It ultimately became a matter of when Korea did, or whether Australia could exploit the open space available. Weaknesses in such situations were already observed in Australia’s previous two games and such profligacy would be punished against Korea. That Korea took until 91 minutes to slip a ball through for an equaliser, only made it heartbreaking for Australia, not undeserved for Korea

Reputedly, coach Ange Postecoglou told his players that extra time would be about making the Asian Cup story even better. Australia came out stronger and scored just before the end of the first period of extra time. It was a tenacious effort by Tomi Juric, who scrambled after a ball, was then doubled teamed on the goal-line, managed to flick the ball through the legs of a defender and then cross it low for James Troisi to slam home the spillage from goalie’s interception. The second period was part 2 of Korea on the press and Australia continually fluffing chances going forward. For some reason, players, when double teamed or even triple teamed, want to flick the ball through somehow. Fine if there’s no choice; terrible when you have a teammate on both wings in the clear, as was the most galling example by Juric really late in the game. 3-1 and you kill the game. Even when cramped in space, there still seems the obsession to pass it to other players tightly marked, rather than look for the obvious route out of a free play that there must be if the opposition is crowding you. This caused constant turnovers and must be the next step of Postecoglou’s development with the team. The two goals Australia scored were closer to a freak nature than of any great breakdown of the Korean defence.

The only disappointment with the final was the television coverage of the winning moment. With a camera still focused on Mathew Spiranovic after he repelled Korea’s final attack, those at home missed the moment of the referee’s whistle ending the game and missed seeing the jubilation of all the players on the field at once. Spiranovic seemed to have an eternity of coverage, then Postecoglou, then various players. Even the commentators missed the moment.

Asia’s Reaction

The Asian Football Confederation are ecstatic with this edition, with one official labelling it the best ever, and AFC president Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa glowing in his endorsement: “The tournament itself has been tremendous. Filled with quality and excitement, it was a fantastic festival of football that the whole of Asia can be proud of. As such, allow me to congratulate Australia for hosting such a memorable AFC Asian Cup. The whole world was presented with a competition that has been remarkable in spirit and in passion, and we have Australia to thank for that.” The biggest endorsement and validation and has come from Australia itself. Not just with words, it came with action.

All the garbage you read about Australia being “racist”, especially when the subject of dealing with illegal immigration is raised, this tournament showed the entire world the inclusive and welcoming nature that is modern day Australia. It’s doubtful any other Asian nation could showcase such a vibrant and passionate feel that this nation did for almost every single game. Crowds at just over 650k are the third highest ever, only behind China 2004 (1.02m) and South East Asia 2007 (690k). Cricket’s World Cup starts shortly, and if you want an idea of a true “lemon” on the global sporting scene in terms of general worldwide interest, local interest and crowds, look to that.

FIFA’s Reaction

FIFA President Sepp Blatter was in town for the final and also remarked on the amazing staging of this Asian Cup. He surprised no one when he lamented that no World Cup had yet been held in Australia, saying it’s “an unfortunate omission in sporting history because very few countries boast such a rich sporting culture and long list of champions” and that “we can say with confidence that it would be more than deserved if Australia were to stage the World Cup at some point.” Empty words by a sly and sleazy politician leading an even more sly and sleazy organisation. The World Cup bid was a debacle and if Australia has learnt one big lesson, it’s that any future bid must be foremost about football. Because of the over-reliance on oval grounds, the proposal for 2022 benefitted Australian Rules the most. Also the time of year, with Qatar 2022 certain to be staged in the northern winter, FIFA must formalise a flexible schedule so that a bidding nation can showcase the sport at its best.

With both the Asian and African Cups on in January, European clubs can clearly cope with this time of year, especially when most have winter breaks. The World Cup is only an extra week over those two continental ones. Even then, once the knockout stage started, Australia revived its A-League schedule during the Asian Cup. Therefore it’s only 3 weeks, maybe four, that the few European leagues not on a winter break (name England’s) might need to shut down. One or two leagues might need to re-schedule a few matches depending on the teams in the late stage of a World Cup. Note that this would happen only once every 16 years (at worst) and if it can’t be managed, then the entire notion of “world” in the World Cup needs to be re-examined.

Asia’s Future

Some unsavoury, older, comments emerged during the week about West Asia’s discomfort with Australia in the Asian confederation. It’s quite understandable considering many of them see it as Australia taking a World Cup spot without the region gaining much else in return. West Asia probably couldn’t care that much that the Asian Cup was such a success because, again, there’s no direct benefit to them. The reality is that strong teams make other teams stronger and that wallowing within your own little construct will only keep you down. We see that manifest with most Arab nations left behind at international level because their leagues have stagnated. Of the 10 Middle Eastern teams in Australia, seven went home after the group stage, with two of the 3 survivors coming out of a group of four Middle Eastern teams.

The World Cup situation has a simple answer. Rather than reduce competition (ejecting Australia has almost zero chance anyway), or contemplate the farcical notion of splitting West Asia entirely from the rest, Asia should embrace more competition. When Australia joined Asia, the expectation was that Asia’s final spot would be a playoff with Oceania. That occurred in 2010 when Bahrain lost to New Zealand, only to be dropped for 2014 when FIFA decided the two inter-continental playoffs should be randomly drawn. Asia copped South America where Jordan lost to Uruguay. Now is the time Asia seize their destiny and guarantee a full fifth spot by bringing Oceania into the fold. It’s a joke of a region, containing only New Zealand and 10 tiny Pacific island nations. There’s a reason Australia were desperate for decades to leave. With the Asian Cup expanding to 24 teams for the 2019 edition, and an expanded qualifying path for the 2018 World Cup, it makes even more sense to add Oceania to the mix to make a broader confederation representing all of Asia and the Pacific.

Full site: socceroorealm.com