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 2016

15 January 2017

A very quiet year for the Socceroos, football in general, and the Socceroo Realm. It’s ironic that with the move into Asia and therefore more serious matches that the net result is a dilution of the product. Win here, draw there, add the occasional loss, ignore the friendlies, it’s the pattern now. Even in the midst of a World Cup qualifying campaign it doesn’t lend itself to great highlights. Then there’s the impact of Twitter being such a convenient tool for instant and concise opinion. I can bang off something there immediately on the phone instead of sit in front of a computer for something more structured.

In the sprit of trying to return some zing to upcoming World Cup qualifiers and the year in general, here’s the Top 5 highlights for 2016.

1) Australia finish the year with three draws in World Cup qualifying

After starting with wins over Iraq and the UAE, the final group phase of qualifying was beginning to look like a procession. Even commentators were talking about wrapping it up with 2 or 3 games to go. Not so fast! Draws to Japan, Saudi Arabia and Thailand provided us with a nice reality check and brought us back to the pack. Ostensibly the group is in a four-way tie for the top 2 places at the half-way point so it’s effectively a reset. With 3 of those 5 remaining games also at home, Australia is still well placed to finish in the top 2.

2) Thailand 2 – Australia 2

This was a stunningly exciting World Cup qualifier to end the year, with Thailand running Australia ragged and playing inspired football in tribute to the recent death of their king. In fact, they should have won. With Iraq, they are the two teams seemingly out of contention at the moment. The group: Saudia Arabia 10, Japan 10, Australia 9, UAE 9, Iraq 3, Thailand 1.

3) Confederations Cup 2017 Draw

Australia will play Chile, Germany and an unknown African team. Please don’t let it be Ghana, as that would be 3 repeat opponents from previous World Cups (Chile 2014, Germany and Ghana 2010). In the other group is Russia, Mexico, Portugal and New Zealand. That’s a much more sexier group, particularly playing the hosts Russia. Mexico is an opponent we’ve dealt with easily in the past and haven’t played for a while, and when is the last time we played Portugal?

4) England 2 – Australia 1

Yes, we played England mid-year. This was a match more notable for they fact I couldn’t recognise England’s team as much as anyone in England could recognise Australia’s team. Given that we’re so entrenched in Asia these days and have so many meaningful matches, these so-called “friendly” matches are becoming more and more exhibition in status as the years pass. Even such a traditional rivalry like England vs Australia doesn’t help them.

5) Australia 1 – Japan 1

The first half of this September World Cup qualifier was possibly the worst display of any Australian team ever. Limp, clueless and ineffective were the words of choice at the time. The only real exception is the Youth World Cup of 2009 in Egypt where Australia was hammered in all three games and Craig Foster still saw it fit to write the team a letter of congratulations for the “brand” of football they played. This entry is only here to serve as encouragement for all future Australian teams that think they might of played the worst ever. No, you probably did alright compared to this woeful performance.

 

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

Two great wins to open the final phase of qualifying

08 September 2016

Australia could not have hoped for a better start to the final phase of World Cup
qualifying for Russia 2018 with two great wins. The first a 2-0 win over Iraq in Perth last week and then a 1-0 win in the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday night.

The win over the UAE was particularly satisfying, with the UAE in good form after a 2-1 win in Japan in its first match and temperatures in Abu Dhabi in the mid 30s. It was a showcase of the future of Asian football when teams like the UAE won’t sit back and pounce on Australian mistakes. They will know that with points on the line at home, they must try to assert some authority, and this is where Australia excelled. Despite the tenacity and proficiency of the UAE, Australia had the game in complete control, forcing the UAE to chase for long periods, and then breaking forward whenever possible.

From the UAE’s perspective, they never relented either, and held Australia at 0-0 until the 75th minute when a sublime cross from Brad Smith was met on the volley by Tim Cahill. It was one of those magical moments in football when high pressure situation was released with an act of individual brilliance. That it was Cahill on the end of it, who’d just arrive on the field, was poetic for it further enhanced his mercurial qualities of scoring when Australia really needs it. As the Socceroo Realm has stated previously, if he belonged to any other country, he’d be the most annoying player ever. That Japan in Melbourne is Australia’s next home match is also poetic in that they are an opposition to which Cahill has done the most damage. Five days prior, Australia is away to Saudi Arabia, who have also won their first two games.

Tim Cahill scores the winner against UAE in Asian World Cup qualifier 2016-09-06

It’s all good signs after two difficult preparation games against Greece in June. A 1-0 win was followed by a 2-1 loss as Australia’s style to constantly pressure Asian teams was fully exploited by Greece, especially in that second game, where Greece really dominated the key moments. It’s a tactic Asian teams traditionally use except, this time, Greece had the strike power to finish us off. They pounced on Australian forays forward to the point Australia looked clueless, particularly barely able to penetrate when going forward. Much credit therefore to coach Ange Postecoglou that a more mature and balance approached was brought, particularly against the UAE.

Elsewhere in the group, Japan rebounded to win in Thailand, while UAE won their first match and Iraq and Thailand remain winless. With six teams in the group this time, up from 5 for 2014, statistically it will be much harder to qualify. While we hope for at least a draw in Saudi Arabia, that match against Japan be pivotal, both in terms of gaining points and to further knock them down the table. A loss will suddenly neutralise that promising start. That may not be too bad anyway, as the point of being in Asia is for a tough and fair challenge. For the good of Asia, it needs to be that way too. Mark Bosnich on Fox Sports was suddenly talking about wrapping it up with 2-3 games to go. First, that’s disrespectful to our opponents and, second, that would be boring. Without the journey, you can’t savour the success.

Results

01/09 Australia 2 (Luongo 58′, Juric 64′) – Iraq 0
06/09 UAE 0 – Australia 1 (Cahill 75′)

Match report, highlights and interviews

Rio 2016 Review – The Great Australian Choke

22 August 2016

“I don’t need a gold medal for self worth.”

“It’s not about winning, it’s about trying to win.”

“It’s a racing meet; times don’t mean much.”

With quotes like these, respectively from Cate Campbell, Bronte Campbell and Mitch Larkin, is it any wonder Australia suffered yet another disaster in the pool? It was so predictable that you could almost write the script. Big egos, a nonchalant attitude, and absurd excuses. The latter quote is one in perpetual use, as far back as double world champion Samantha Riley using it to explain her two failures at the Atlanta Olympics of 1996. The folly of it and all the other excuses is exposed when you understand that swimmers live and breath by times. They are obsessed by them, and personal bests. The opposite is actually true for them: results don’t matter, times do. All training is geared around achieving a PB, with the key focus being to deliver it in an Olympic final. We even saw Australian swimmers ecstatic at doing a PBs in an Olympic final. Unfortunately, they were the ones finishing fifth. For the favourites, it was implosion after implosion.

Australia's Chloe Esposito crosses the line to win the modern pentathlon at Rio 2016The surprise gold, the most emotional gold, the best gold of all. Australia’s Chloe Esposito crosses the line to win the modern pentathlon at Rio 2016. Image: Getty Images

With the three aforementioned swimmers, also add Emily Seebohm and Cameron McEvoy to the hit parade of inglorious failures. Seebohm – the double world champion at backstroke – was so abominable she finished seventh in the 100 and failed to even reach the 200 final. She’s probably more a case of a training error – not timing her taper correctly. As for McEvoy, apparently he got stage fright – something at the Australian trials he even warned the public was a possibility for any Olympic favourite. Talk about the proverbial chicken coming home to roost. If not for the upset win of Kyle Chalmers in the 100 freestyle, and Mack Horton’s narrow win the 400 freestyle, it could have been even worse.

There’s a bigger problem at play here: the mindset. Every single swimmer responded the same way at post race interviews. All tried to look for positives from their defeats, like just being in the final, or being at the Games themselves, that was success in itself. The Campbell sisters used the fact of two sisters being in an Olympic final as a means to extract something positive from their combined disaster. This is not a coincidence; they are schooled to react this way. Except, you only need watch their body language to realise it’s one big charade. It’s especially glaring if you watch those interviews with the sound muted. There’s no way anyone could align their words with the body language. Cate Campbell was clearly shell-shocked, while Larkin was constantly battling his instinct to express disappointment and his will to suppress it.

Who’s to blame? It’s the sports psychologists and so-called mentors. One of the losing swimmers attributed this to Leisel Jones: “If you’re not complete without a gold medal, you won’t be complete with one”. Note that Jones is Australia’s worst choker and biggest letdown in Australian Olympic history. Of the eight individual races she contested, she lost seven. That fact alone should disqualify her from any such mentoring role. At the very least, the swimmers should not be using her for inspiration. My vague recollection is the quote is actually from surfer Layne Beachley. That would be even worst, coming from someone in a tinpot sport of her time like women’s surfing. Regardless of the source, it’s clear the substance of that quote is embedded, because Cate Campbell paraphrased it.

Deep down, they do need a gold medal for self worth. Or, at least, for self vindication. They don’t spend 20 hours a week looking at a black line, winning world championships, breaking world records, leading the world by a whopping margin, and go to an Olympics and think “I don’t really need this”. It’s this conflict between their competitive fibre and the garbage from the sports psychologists that’s creating all the problems. They enter the pool deck and realise their dream is now in front of them. Countering that there’s voices in their head telling them it all doesn’t matter. It throws them off their concentration and race-plan, and reduces them to a physical and psychological wreck when they should be at their most confident and calm. In typical Australian fashion, their response to handling pressure is to bully the opposition. They always go out too hard rather than remain focused and be respectful of the task at hand. It’s no coincidence that the favourites all flopped and those swimming PBs came from the lower ranked swimmers. Swimmers from other nations were swimming PBs too. While you can pick out one or two of them that did fail, the difference is it was only one or two. With Australia it’s a pandemic within the team. It’s been enduring for past 20 years too.

Another problem is the timing of the selection trials. USA has theirs around 5 weeks before the Olympics whereas Australia’s is around 5 months. Ignore comments, particularly from former swimmers and commentators, that it works for us. That’s the typical Australian ego that likes to think it leads the world in everything. It doesn’t. Not when one Hungarian can win the same amount of gold medals as your entire team. After successive debacles, which includes the “successful Olympic meets” that still produced gold medals below benchmarks, it’s an unequivocal failure. It’s not even about gold medals. It’s about times, personal bests. Not enough swimmers produce them when it counts. They all can’t be suffering mental breakdowns or stage fright. It’s physical – as with Emily Seebohm. Remember, this is a 20 year embedded problem, not just the past two Olympics. Then consider the time lag means more chance of carrying an ill, injured or out of form swimmer to the Games. Conversely, late bloomers and those injured during trials miss selection. On a strategic level, Australia’s early trials also mean we lay a marker for the world to challenge, and beat.

The main concern with the American system of trials so close to a major event is the double taper. A taper is when athletes ease off after a period of hard training just prior to an event to re-energise the muscles ready to compete at peak performance. As a triathlete many moons ago and in many bodies ago, I can attest it’s a wonderful feeling to race after taper. You feel like superman and seem to have an endless supply of energy and power. Typically the taper period is about a week before an event. This will vary between sports, event and athlete, as will the training block needed just prior. For some, a few weeks won’t be enough, and if they can’t master the double taper, then it’s a decision to set for trials and hold form for the Olympics or set for the Olympics and rely on natural ability and the existing training base to qualify. Offsetting that is American swimmers don’t have to peak twice a year. Asking our swimmers to go through a hard training regime twice could be wearing down their bodies. Double-peak vs double-taper, you be the judge.

The USA’s continued domination on the world stage shows their system works. After an even world championships last year between the USA and Australia, it was a pummelling at the Olympics with the USA winning 16 gold to Australia’s 3. While you can argue they have a huge talent pool, and Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky, you can’t deny that those athletes that qualify are consistently successful at the Games. There’s also that Hungarian. Katinka Hosszu won 3 gold medals by herself, and it would have been 4 if not for the USA’s Madeline Dirado swimming a massive PB to just win the 200 backstroke. Our stars, like even Ian Thorpe in the 200 freestyle at Sydney, will more often flop.

Even more devastating with the USA is those swimmers that haven’t tapered for trials will swim much faster at the Games once they have tapered. In contrast, ours consistently swim slower times than trials. 73% of them did, according to former head coach Brian Sutton. We went into 9 individual events with the fastest time of the year, which included 7 world championship holders and a world record holder, and left with one victory. That was Mack Horton. Madeline Groves can’t be faulted either, swimming a PB in the 200 fly when second by a whisker. Kyle Chalmers’ win was compensation – and relief – for Cameron McEvoy’s failure in the 100 freestyle. The third gold was the women’s 4×100 relay – who were favoured. So it’s 3 gold from 10 events at a 30% return. In that sense, Rio was far worse than the “disaster” of London where it was 1 from 2 at a 50% return.

There were also some strange strategic decisions made in the 4×200 freestyle relays. Emma McKeon, who rebounded with a bronze in a hot 200m freestyle field after folding in the 100m butterfly, was dropped for the women’s 4×200. Australia missed gold by just under two seconds, so would she have been two seconds faster than the fourth best swimmer? Same in men’s event, where McEvoy was dropped, seemingly to concentrate on the 100m. That backfired spectacularly with Australia just inches back in fourth from a silver and McEvoy imploding in his race anyway (thankfully Chalmers was there to clean up the mess). In hindsight, this strategy for them to focus on fewer events only increases the pressure. McEvoy surely would have enjoyed the relay swim, and grabbing a medal would have eased pressure and boosted confidence for his individual race. Let’s look to the USA again, or even Hosszu from Hungary. They have no problems with heavy programs and will even swim twice in the one evening.

The reason the the team received so much criticism was because Olympic sports receive so much of taxpayer money. This is no criticism of the funding. After all, the $332 million over four years is peanuts compared to the $1000 million we pay every single month on our national debt, and Australian success at the Games boosts national morale. The last thing we want is the return to the old days of barely any gold. It’s merely about return on investment, and the public has a right to expect a minimum standard of performing to your optimum. Of that $332m most went to swimming ($37.9m), cycling (34.1), rowing (32.4), sailing (29), hockey (28.6) and athletics (27.9). Also implemented was the “Winning Edge” program, where funds are directed to those at the top – those sports likely to win gold. Reputedly it’s a copy of Great Britain’s successful program that saw them win 29 gold in London and another 27 in Rio. Australia is at 8 after four years of a 10 year plan, so the “copy” aspect obviously still needs more work, even if Britain’s budget is much higher at 274.5 GBP (about 475m AUD). It’s worthwhile continuing with it until at least Tokyo 2020 before any review.

REVIEW OF SPORTS

Here’s a breakdown of the success of all sports at Rio with the amount in millions invested.

Swimming

$37.9m – 3 Gold, 4 Silver, 3 Bronze

Running through the events…

Men 100f – Cameron McEvoy: According to the head coach, he got “stage fright”, and finished 7th at 1 second slower than his best. Even within half a second of his best would have seen him win gold. When Kyle Chalmers came through and won, you could really sense the excitement mixed with relief on the faces of the coaches. Like most of us, they would have been watching McEvoy, exasperated at yet another impending Australian failure, only to catch a glimpse of Chalmers in the last metres surging through for the win.

Men 400f – Mack Horton: Came into Rio with the world’s fastest time of the year, and won gold, just pipping Sun Yang. Horton caused the biggest attention outside the pool with his criticism of Sun’s drugs record. The Chinese claimed the drugs were for angina and were later removed from the banned list. Interestingly, the Australian Olympic Committee encouraged Horton to speak up and hog attention in contradiction with their “One Team” philosophy. Ask Nick Kyrgios about that philosophy and he’ll say it’s only when it suits them, is politically correct or is in their own sanctimonious favour. Anything remotely controversial coming from the mouths of athletes and the speech police are out in force.

Men 100b – Mitch Larkin: Went out too hard, being just in front of world record pace, faded to fourth at .3 off his PB. Hitting is PB would have been good enough for silver only.

Men 200b – Mitch Larkin: Similar to his 100, except improved to silver, and cost himself gold by swimming .8 below his PB. He was thankful merely for the medal at this stage, expressing an “at least it’s something” attitude.

Women 50f – Cate Campbell: This was even more disappointing than the 100. With the pressure off after that flop, and for an event that requires no pacing, expectations were for her to rebound. It would have been an easy gold if she swam near her PB. She finished fifth. Her sister, Bronte, and world champion, was expected to get silver. She finished 7th. Bronte apparently had should problems leading into the Games so wasn’t fully ready.

Women 100f – Cate Campbell: The most famous meltdown of the Australian swim team and “possibly the greatest choke in Olympic history”, in her words. Fastest time by miles over anyone in the field and broke the world record only a few weeks earlier. That raised suspicions at the time she might have peaked too early. Anything near her best time and it’s a certain gold. Finished sixth. Her sister, Bronte, like with the 50, was the world champion and expected to get silver. She finished 4th.

Women 100b – Emily Seebohm: Hopelessly out of form. Her best time would have seen gold. Finished 7th.

Women 200b – Emily Seebohm: This time couldn’t even make the final. Best time would have won gold.

Women 200bf – Madeline Groves: One of the big chances based on producing the fastest time of the year. She did everything possible: swam fast, beat the Americans, beat the Chinese, beat just about anybody you’d suspect as tough competition. She lost to Spain’s Mireia Belmonte by just 3/100th of a second. She kept producing PBs so she can’t be faulted.

Women 4x100f relay: Justified their favourtism for an easy win, and in world record time. This result – on night 1 of the Games – proves the Campbell sisters arrived in form. It’s inexplicable both failed in the individual events.

Women 4x100m relay: With their best times, they would have won. Ended up second by just under 2 seconds.

In summary, 9 gold would have been the optimum return. You also counter that with the hope some swimmers improve from the trials, and you got that with the likes of Madeline Groves, who missed gold by a whisker.

Archery

$2.6m – 1 Bronze

Took a well deserved bronze in the men’s team event, and nearly caused a boilover when pushing the eventual Korean gold medalist to sudden death in the men’s singles.

Bastketball

$21.1m – 0 Medals

Women choked. Won all 5 pool games, led Serbia through the quarter final, lost by two points. Too many turnovers cost them and couldn’t cope with Serbia’s swarming defence. Warning signs were there in the pool games, where they had to make last quarter surges in their final two games to defeat Japan and Belarus. The men suffered a similar fate, also losing to Serbia, unable to cope with the pressure defence, and shooting so poor that their half time tally was only 14 points. This after beating Serbia in the pool games by 15 points, and the only loss being a close one to the USA. Then it was heartbreak in the bronze medal game, losing by 1 point to Spain. It’s the fourth loss in a bronze medal game, and one that will be rued. Not so much the bronze medal game, more the wasted opportunity in the semi final. They deserved a silver and to play for gold. While the funding seems high for the opportunity for only two medals, basketball is such a popular game that it’s worthwhile the investment. Also, had the men got that medal it would be have been one of our best and most celebrated of the Games.

Canoe/Kayak

$18m – 2 Bronze

Jessica Fox made an outstanding run in the K1 finals to secure bronze. It would have been silver if not for a faint touch on one of the gates. The Spanish winner was in a class of her own. Next Olympics C1 will be introduced for the women at the expense of the men’s K2. That will give her – and no doubt her precocious younger sister – an extra option for gold. The flat water was disappointing. The men’s K2-1000 bronze was the only medal.

Cycling

$32.5m – 1 Silver, 1 Bronze

A shocker. Even though Australia had no outright gold medal favourites, they had a plethora of top contenders and the result of zero gold is an abomination. There are some excuses, like the women’s pursuit team crashing in practice, and the ridiculously dangerous road race course saw Richie Porte crash out. Australia’s best hope, Simon Gerrens, was already out of the Games after a crash in the Tour de France. Rohan Dennis needed a bike change in the road time trial after breaking his handlebars, which cost him silver. The men’s pursuit team broke the old world record in the gold medal race only for Britain to break it by a greater margin – and win by just .8 seconds. That was superb effort. The women’s and men’s omnium events suffered from bad luck and a crash, respectively.

No excuses for our sprinters, with Anna Meares’ lone bronze the best achievement from six events. Meares entered the Games with dubiously low expectations for someone of her calibre: do better in the keirin than in 2012 (not hard since it was disaster) and to win a medal (took bronze in the keirin). Rio seemed more like farewell tour than a real, intense effort for gold. A nonchalant 10th in her pet event, the individual sprint, said it all. Matthew Glaetzer in the men’s events showed none of the speed seen in recent international events.

BMX was a wipeout with Caroline Buchanan just missing the final after a careless crash in her the final heat of her semi final. She’d not have beaten the Colombian winner, Mariana Pajon, in the final anyway. Pajon backed up after her 2012 gold medal to really demonstrate the meaning of pressure. In the men’s, both Australia’s best hopes reached the final undefeated from the semi finals, only to blow it in the final to finish 6th and 8th. Both had poor starts than usual. Quite possibly they wasted too much energy in the semi finals, allowing for fresher legs to steamroll them. The only equivocation is that BMX has a sudden death final for gold, which opens the possibility for misfortune. Earlier rounds are run over three heats, and this would be a much fairer approach to decide the medals.

Swimming’s big failures has meant cycling – particularly on the track – has escaped attention. No gold medals is outrageous for a sport that receives so much money. Authorities would have expected at least 3 gold medals, and hoped for more. With the exception of Athens 2004, cycling are perennial under-achievers. It was only one gold in London and none in Beijing. Even considering the dominance of the British track riders over those Olympics (7 from 10 in London, 6 from 10 in Rios), one gold in three Games is outrageous. Like with swimming, it’s no point popping up at world championships in other years and dominating. It’s about the Olympic Games and the sport needs an overhaul.

Diving

$8.6m – 1 Bronze

Popping up with gold two times since 2004 might have boosted funding. A minor medal or two is usually our standard, and that was the result here.

Equestrian

$10.5m – 1 Bronze

Led the eventing after dressage and cross country in both individual and team, only to lose it in the showjumping. While the individual had the precarious requirement to jump clean, the team of 3 riders could afford to drop 4 rails. That buffer was gone with the first rider. The second rider jumped clean only for the third rider – the individual leader – to drop two. That’s equestrian, and the team was really only in such a strong position after a superlative cross country. Rio will be a good base to build for Tokyo 2020 and get four more years experience into the horses.

Football

$8.1m – 0 Medals

Women lost their quarter final to Brazil in a penalty shootout after a 0-0 draw. Probably a tactical error that Michelle Heyman shot sixth, instead of on the potentially winning fifth kick. Midfielder Katrina Gorry missed that with a poor attempt, whereas Heyman, a striker, was clinical with hers. It’s an opportunity lost as the USA had already been eliminated by Sweden, leaving the gold medal race wide open. Sweden, who would have been Australia’s semi final opponent, lost 2-1 to Germany in the final.

The men had long choked when they couldn’t even qualify. They couldn’t even score a goal in their final qualifying tournament against the UAE and Jordan. Only against lowly Vietnam could they win a match. After a similar disaster four years prior in which they went entirely goalless through the final qualifying round, the question really must be asked whether it’s worth the effort to try qualify. Australia couldn’t get many of their players from overseas clubs again, and football itself goes almost unnoticed at the Games as the public and media focus on all the other sports. Most matches are played outside the host city, so it’s a very detached Olympic experience for the players too.

Football’s history at the Olympics is also a dubious one. In the amateur days, it was dominated by European communist countries. Once professional athletes were allowed in 1984, FIFA didn’t want the Olympics to rival the World Cup so European and South American nations could only field players that never played in a World Cup. That lasted until 1992 when it became an Under-23 competition. From 1996, three over-age players could be added. This compromise for legitimacy has perpetually undermined the value of the men’s competition. There’s no restrictions for the women.

If football didn’t earn so much money for Olympic organisers, it would be dumped. In fact, it should be dumped. Brazil finally winning their first gold medal in the sport is perfect timing for it to go. The money Australia spends is no issue, given it is the world’s most popular and biggest sport, and it offers the most prestigious competition in sport: the World Cup.

Golf

$4m – 0 Medals

Australia led the men for two rounds before, you guessed it, choked. In fairness, Marcus Fraser had the better of the conditions on the first day to build a lead. He was never in it after that. More important is the boycott by many of Australia’s and the world’s best golfers that undermined the credibility of the event. The women, at least, took it more seriously, and now Rio has its very first golf course. Whoopee!

Hockey

$26.7m – 0 Medals

The men, as hot favourites for gold, capitulated 4-0 to the Netherlands in the quarter finals. It’s yet another massive choke from a team of perpetual chokers. Their record is now one gold in 40 years and 11 Olympics despite consistent, and sometimes dominant, favouritism. The women were battered 4-2 by New Zealand in their quarter final to add to their woeful record in recent Games. For such a strong sport that nearly always produces a medal, Rio was a disaster. If funding is all about medals, you also must question the value of funding a sport with only two chances to win medals and only a niche appeal in Australia.

Modern Pentathlon

$0.190m – 1 Gold

Our best, and most surprising gold, of the Rio Games, if not ever for Australia. Seeing Chloe Esposito trying to control the tears as she’s running the final lap of the cross country combined and knowing she’ll win, it brings tears to your own eyes. I can’t remember a more emotional one. Up there are Debbie Flintoff-King in 1988, Cathy Freeman in 2000, Alisa Camplin in 2002, and Anna Meares and Sally Pearson in 2012 – and I’d say Esposito surpasses them. It was a remarkable win, needing to overcome a 45 second deficit in that final event to win gold. Missing only one of her 20 shots at the shooting range, she won easily and set an Olympic record. The $190k of funding received by Modern Pentathlon – the smallest amount by far for any Olympic sport – would only cover basic expenses. With Chloe’s younger brother, Max, finishing 7th in the men’s event and their father as coach, it’s primarily a family affair keeping the sport going. It’s a an old school gold medal in that sense, built on dedication, desire and sheer determination. A total contrast to the prima donna swimmers that are pampered to excess and full of excuses. Esposito surely would have carried the flag in the closing ceremony if chef de mission, Kitty Chiller, was not a former pentathlete herself.

Rowing

$31.1m – 1 Gold, 2 Silver

Kim Brennan came through in the women’s single sculls and was the second most deserved to the carry the flag at the closing ceremony (see previous paragraph). The men’s quad sculls and fours finished with silver. Both hoped for Gold. The quad sculls the most disappointing, dominating the event internationally for the past two years, only to lose when it counts. It wasn’t pleasant either, with Germany, out in lane 1 after qualifying through a repechage, rushed to an early and insurmountable lead, seemingly without the Australians realising. In the words of one of Australia’s crew, Germany “pulled a swifty”. Australia’s normally strong finish wasn’t good enough, and apparently the strong headwind didn’t help. The fours were beaten – again – by Britain. No great surprise there as the British have dominated this event for 5 Olympics now. Considering all the funding to the sport, rowing finished at least one gold too short.

Rugby Sevens

$6.6m – 1 Gold

The women won as expected. The men were outclassed as expected. This is one of the better new sports to the Games, as it’s exciting, is open to both genders, will quickly build depth, and is cheap to run. You only need a rectangular field, and all Olympic cities would have at least one of those. You wonder whether athletes from other sports might feel envious at this instant gold for Australia. They dream all their lives, and across generations, about the Olympics and here is a bunch of women scrambled together over a few years from other sports around the country and suddenly they are gold medalists at the Olympics.

Sailing

$29.3m – 1 Gold, 3 Silver

Four medals from seven events entered, so mirrored London in total medals (3 Gold, 1 Silver) and can’t be faulted. If you were picky, you might want an extra gold. In truth, it could have been four silvers if not for a masterful display by Tom Burton in the men’s Laser to finish by the required 5 places over Croatia in the Medal Race. He said his tactics to pin the Croatia before the line and force a penalty had less than a 10% chance of succeeding. Or it could have been two gold if the Nacra 17 crew finished five places, not 4, over Argentina in their Medal Race.

Shooting

$8.9m – 1 Gold

Didn’t hear a peep from it other than a surprise gold from Catherine Skinner in the women’s single trap early on (she needed a shoot-off just to reach the semi finals). Expect that to continue for future Games.

Track and Field

$29.2m – 1 Silver, 1 Bronze

Dani Samuels could have got a medal had she thrown her best. She finished fourth. Women’s middle distant events saw many Australian finalists, including 3 in the 5000m,with a consistent burst of personal best times. Not that any of them transferred into medals. The spectacular derriere of Genevieve LaCaze proved to be the biggest highlight, and I’m not even an “assman”. There was a bronze in the men’s 20km walk, and Jared Tallent took the silver in the 50km walk to match his gold from London. Track and Field is one sport that shows the value of participation means almost as much as winning medals. It’s the glamour competition of the Games, and arguably a gold there means much more than3 golds in sailing.

Tennis

$0.684m – 0 Medals

As usual, a waste of time. Samantha Stosur looked good in early rounds then folded. The men and doubles teams never on the radar. The only bright side was Monica Puig to win Puerto Rico’s first ever gold medal. Her tears made you think twice about tennis’ inclusion of the game. Then you think of all the other players that don’t care that much, that Grand Slams are still far more important, probably even for Puig, and tennis is a waste of time at the Olympics.

Triathlon

$8.5m – 0 Medals

Top 10 finishes in both events was about expected.

Water Polo

$14.3m – 0 Medals

The women choked, losing a penalty shootout after giving up a 2 goal lead to Hungary in the last quarter. The men, who were never a realistic chance for a medal, were knocked out in the group stage. Much like hockey, so much money for a sport with only two events available. In fact, it’s worst: the men only ever make up the numbers.

Other Sports

Badminton (2.2), Boxing (3.8), Gymnastics ($9.6m), Judo (3), Table Tennis (1), Taekwondo (1), Volleyball inc Beach (8.8), Wrestling (0.06) and Weightlifting (1.6) are the other sports to receive funding. All figures quoted from Australian Sports Commission, credit: ABC media.

ELSEWHERE

The Olympics are unique in that often there’s misery one day and elation the next. I watch more for general performances, and found great moments even among our depressing ones. The USA’s Simone Manuel (who said black girls can’t swim?) and Canada’s 16yo Penny Olensiak tying for first in Cate Campbell’s race (100m freestyle), and the tears from Denmark’s Pernille Blume winning the Campbell’s other failure, the 50m freestyle. It was Denmark’s first swimming gold since 1948. She would then go help the team win bronze in the 4×100 medley relay and there’d be even more tears.

The triple tie for second with Michael Phelps in the 100m fly – the first time there’s ever been a triple tie for a position in swimming. Even more amazing was Singapore’s Joseph Schooling winning the race, and beating his idol. It was Singapore’s first ever gold and meant a $1m reward for Schooling. USA’s Ryan Held, as part of the USA’s men 4×100 freestyle relay, was also in tears by sharing a podium with his hero, Phelps.

A wonderful bronze medal was New Zealand’s 19yo pole vaulter Eliza McCartney. Seeing her explode into tears after Australia’s Alana Boyd missed her final jump was amazing (sorry, Alana!). Usain Bolt was wonderful, if not overly self indulgent. It must be compensation for running for such a short time that the sprinters feel the need to spend so much time celebrating and prancing about after the race. He was trumped anyway by South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk breaking the 400m world record, and possibly Britain’s Mo Farah doing the double double of 5000m and 10,000m in successive Games. Finally, who could forget Fiji in the Rugby Sevens, or Brazil in football. It was one of the first times in ages I was cheering for Brazil.

Not quite the highlight was Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte in the 100 breaststroke. She was a big highlight in London when winning as a 15yo, and I’ve been watching her career since and hoping she could repeat in Rio. She was 4 seconds off her best (as world record holder) and finished seventh. Notably she was bulkier than 4 years prior and probably lost that suppleness in her stroke and sits a bit lower in the water.

PUBLIC REACTION

Needless to say, there’s been much criticism against the criticism of Australia’s poor result. Comments like 8 gold medals are a great achievement, expectations were too high, that by population we did well, and the athletes did their best, all miss the point. First, they (read: swimmers) did not do their best. They readily admit it themselves, failing to produce anywhere near their best performances. Second, medal predictions were based on benchmarks – an athlete’s best recent time. Produce that, you win, it’s that simple. Clearly something went horribly wrong when so many failed. Third, population is irrelevant, it’s about wealth and funding, Australia funds generously. Fourth, that funding is supplied by the taxpayers. Three gold from swimming equates to a cost of $13 million each. That’s unacceptable by anyone’s measure. Cycling was even worse with 0 gold.

For the record, we are proud of our champions. We’re proud of Esposito, Brennan, Skinner and Chalmers – all of whom did step up. That doesn’t mean we can excuse the failures. The team is funded with the aspiration of a top 5 place, which is about 15 gold and 45 medals. We don’t send them for participation medals and to be gracious losers. With the taxpayer as their sugar daddy, there must be a level of accountability. Otherwise, withdraw the funding, and let’s return to the days of little Aussie battlers scratching out a handful of gold.

TELEVISION

My only complaint with Channel 7’s coverage was switching sports all over the 3 channels. It made it impossible to record anything – annoying when this was the first Games I didn’t take holidays to watch. Some structure would be nice. While the app had everything live (if you wanted to pay $20 for it), who can watch things at 4am every night. Also, you couldn’t record or watch on delay, or stream it to your TV. Oh, and Bruce McAvaney, Chile recently won the Copa America, not the Copacabana! He messed that up during the opening ceremony. He also fluffed the description of Usain Bolt’s 200m win calling it the double triple. No, it was the triple double.

I was also peeved that some nights two of the channels were consumed with tennis and golf. These became more an intrusion to the Games than an inclusion. Yes, I’d rather see sailing, shooting and judo during the Games period than sports I can see any day of the week outside the Olympics. In fact, any sport where the Olympic Games is not their most prestigious competition, it should be out. As mentioned earlier, football is one of them. For sheer stupidity, out should go synchronized swimming, and possibly rhythmic gymnastics. These are purely artist events, not sport. Besides, both are sexist, because there’s no events for men.

RIO

Despite all the troubles with organisation, the lack of local interest, dirty water, muggings and stray bullets, the Rio Olympics ultimately proved a success. That’s because of the one great constant of the Olympics itself – the fabulous sporting competition. As a host city, it won’t be remembered well, and that will have ramifications for the choice of future host cities, which will need to be large, safe and with most infrastructure in place. Tokyo 2020 will be peerless in that sense.

SUMMARY

At 8 gold medals, Australia ended up with the bare minimum as marked in the preview. Even then there was some luck to reach that. Catherine Skinner in the shooting, Tom Burton in sailing, Chloe Esposito in Modern Pentathlon, and thankfully Kyle Chambers meant Cameron McEvoy’s flop was irrelevant (other than costing a minor medal). It was good timing to add Rugby Sevens to the Olympic program too. Of course, you will always end up with surprise gold medals, and that is the beauty of the Olympics. It’s the reason I rate Barcelona 1992 so highly because Australia had struggled for so long and suddenly we had 3 golds within a few days with Kathy Watt in cycling and two in equestrian, and eventually finishing with 7. Overall medals this time was 29, which is lower than 35 of the London debacle, and the lowest since the 27 in Barcelona.

Still a problem is our poor conversion of medals to gold medals. The best performed countries always have more gold than silver and bronze. Australia went 8, 11 and 10 compared to, say, Hungary at 8, 3 and 4, or Britain’s 27, 23, and 17. It’s more evidence of our choke culture, which we can see all the way back to Sydney. They were our Silver Games, not Golden Games, when the 16 gold medals had 25 silver medals as companions. Only Athens has shown some balance since. The “Winning Edge” program needs to include that so that even a poor Games by total medals will still look good when by gold medals. Actually, this Games would have proved exactly as so if not for the massive choke.

In comparison to similar sized and wealthy nations, Netherlands and Hungary also won 8 gold, with the Dutch unlucky to finish on a sour note when Dafne Schippers had to settle for silver in the 200m on the track and the women’s hockey lost in a penalty shootout to Britain when attempting to win their third gold in a row. Britain, in fact, were phenomenal and clearly the best performed nation in my estimation. Lower down Croatia was superb with 5, and that’s despite losing to arch rivals Serbia in water polo. Brazil will be rapt with their 7, picking up gold in men’s volleyball and beach volleyball to add to football in team sports. Other gold medals were judo, sailing, pole vaulting and boxing. Commonwealth cousins New Zealand and Canada won 4 gold each.

Realistically, the AOC’s aim to finish top 5 I feel diminishes the value of each gold medal. In fact, we don’t even care about silver and bronze anymore, unless it’s a spectacular result, like almost the men’s basketball. Countries like Britain (if their funding ever dries up), France (10 gold), Italy (8), Japan (12) and Korea (8) are roughly our direct competition on the table, and we should aim to settle at 30 medals per Games, with an average of 10 gold medals and a top 10 spot. The exception are years when we know we’re in for a strong Games, because those ones (Rio) should make up for the bad ones (London). Now with this double disappointment, is it look out Tokyo 2020?

Medal table from Rio 2016 Olympics

Rio 2016 Preview & Predictions

England-Who too classy for Socceroos

28 May 2016

It’s a sign of the times when the England XI contains only one recognisable name in Danny Drinkwater. That was only because I’d tuned into two of Leicester City’s late season games as they won that memorable English Premier League title. On the bench was Wayne Rooney, the only surviving member when the two teams last met – a 3-1 loss in London in 2003. That was about it. With the A-League growing and becoming more and more relevant to Australians, the English Premier League has taken a backseat in this small realm of the universe. Perhaps it’s even beyond the backseat and now dragging along the road from the back of a trailer.

Wayne Rooney scores England's second goal vs Australia, Sunderland, 2016-05-27

Wayne Rooney scores England’s second goal vs Australia, Sunderland, 2016-05-27 (image: theguardian.com)

More than 2003, this match was experimental: England in preparation for Euro 2016; Australia for World Cup qualifiers in September. While Australia were at full strength in 2003, in 2016 they were without 6 players from Asian leagues. This match was not on an official FIFA international window. England were also experimental, making 8 changes from their 2-1 win last week against Turkey. It wasn’t as bad as 2003 when the entire team were changed at half time. Even then, come the 60th minute, the game fell apart, as is often the case with these types of matches, when both teams made an endless stream of substitutions.

It was a disastrous and unlucky start for Australia, conceding just after two minutes when Marcus Rashford (who?) scored from close range from a deflected cross. Raheem Sterling (who?) also nearly got on the end of a good ball after 35 minutes. Otherwise, Australia dominated possession for much of the rest of the half, without creating many serious chances. They started just as well in the second half, only to be hit on the counter attack on 55 minutes with Wayne Rooney blasting home from just outside the box. Australia snuck one back on 75 minutes after substitute Eric Dier (who?) scored a poor own goal.

For all of Australia’s pressing, Fraser Forster (who?) only had one serious save for the match – that, late, off Robbie Kruse – as Australia remained poor with their final passes and shooting. Kruse was decidedly off for the night, while Tom Rogic returned to old habits of fluffing too many good shooting chances. Massimo Luongo seemed lost at times. Easily the best player was Aaron Mooy, who’s passing, vision and thought processes often seemed miles ahead of his team-mates’.

Overall, a decent effort and 2-1 a fair result. Australia need to do more with possession to really take the next step as a serious international team. England constantly looked dangerous on the break, as we’ve already seen with Asian teams exploiting Australia’s gameplan. Possession is useless if you do nothing with it, and by the game’s end England led that statistic anyway, 51-49.

It’s now two matches at home against Greece for Australia, the first next Saturday, and hopefully it’s solid performances from a solid test with solid results.

Summary

2016-05-27
Stadium of Light, Sunderland
England 2 – M. Rashford (3′), W. Rooney (55′)
Australia 1 –  E. Dier (75′, OG)

Full Report and Highlights

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

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

On the precipice of mission accomplished

28 January 2015

26/01 Sydney: Korea Republic 2 – Iraq 0
27/01 Newcastle: Australia 2 – United Arab Emirates 0

Another polished performance saw Australia bound into the final of the Asian Cup after defeating the UAE 2-0. An impressive Korea Republic awaits them. Both teams won their semi-finals comfortably and both look to be the two teams entering the latter stages of the tournament in the best form and in the freshest condition. The final will be a rematch of the group A encounter in which the Koreans inflicted the Socceroos only loss. Korea enters the final not only undefeated, they haven’t conceded a goal during the entire tournament. While Australia has scored far more, they have conceded two. One was the very first goal of the tournament by Kuwait, and the second the solitary goal against the Koreans.

Like the quarter final against China, the semi final against UAE was broken open by two quick goals. This time they came within the first 15 minutes of the game, rather than around half time. One was a headed corner by Trent Sainsbury and the other a mid-range shot by Jason Davidson after it pinged out from a goal mouth scramble. The goals effectively killed the match, both in the UAE’s capacity to recover, and also killed the atmosphere. At 2-0 up, Australia was only in a position to lose, and without further goals coming, there seemed little to keep the crowd interested. The UAE’s best chance came immediately after Australia’s first goal, with a shot that skimmed the post. Other than that, any encroachment into the penalty box was easily snuffed out, leaving them restricted to mostly longer range efforts.

The only blemish with Australia’s performance was, for a second successive match, the inability to consolidate a result from the many chances created. Even ignoring the referees denying several goal chances with wrong offside calls (the one against Tim Cahill when he was 2 metres in his own half was particularly ridiculous), the conversion rate must improve against the miserly Koreans.

Curiously, Sainsbury made news during the week by saying UAE’s star player Omar Abdulrahman’s laziness could be exploited: “Very tidy on the ball, not the hardest worker and I think we can exploit that”. That they did, because Abdulrahman let Davidson waft forward to ultimately score that second goal. Abdulrahman made a late rush and challenge, to no avail. Australia also kept him under control, with that early opportunity that skimmed the post the only really dangerous chance he created.

Saturday night is shaping up to be a pivotal night in Australian football. It will be the first major trophy for the men’s team (the Matildas won the 2010 Asian Cup) and even the wretched rainy weather experienced in NSW for much of the tournament has disappeared for mostly fine days leading into the big night and on the night proper. When Ange Postecoglou was appointed as coach barely more than a year ago, the clear mission was to produce a plan to maximise the chances of winning the Asian Cup. Right now, he’s on the precipice of mission accomplished.

Full site: socceroorealm.com