My Socceroos Team Of The Century

29 August 2022

Football Federation Australia is the process of announcing the Socceroos Team of the Century as part of that 100 Years Of The Socceroos celebrations. It’s judge by the fans and voting closes 7th September. Here’s the link. Remember to set your formation first. I chose a 5-2-1-2, which is a sweeper system, as I already knew most of the players I’d select were best suited to this system. In reality, it could be 5-3-2 or even 3-5-2. Three at the back gives your sweeper the liberty to go forward, while your wide players would add defensive cover. My team is a mix of players from an era that I first really engaged with the Socceroos (the early 1990s), and those that formed the golden generation that culminated in World Cup qualification in 2006 – the first such qualification since 1974.

My Socceroos Team Of The Century

Forwards

They pick themselves. Harry Kewell is arguably the greatest talent Australia has ever produced, while Mark Viduka is a dominant striker that can play various roles. While I believe he’s best with two up front, he can play as a solo striker, allowing the likes of Kewell to play deeper in a revised formation or simply to mix up the game if needed.

Midfield

Tim Cahill is simply a maestro of scoring goals when needed, and seemed even more lethal when playing deeper, rather than main striker as during the latter stages of his international career. If required, he and Kewell could switch roles. Ned Zelic was sadly lost to the Australian team when Frank Farina was coach, seeming to be a surplus requirement in his 4-4-2 formation. Despite that, it’s impossible to argue that Zelic was one of our most gifted players ever, and really made a name for himself when Australia qualified for the 2002 Olympics, beating Netherlands in the final playoff, with Zelic scoring all 3 goals, including the famous decider from near the goal-line in Utrect. Zelic was also proficient enough to play in midfield or as a sweeper, and played at the highest level of club football in Europe. Paul Okon became Farina’s main choice in midfield, led the team well for the 2002 World Cup qualification campaign, played in Italy’s Serie A, and in this 5-3-2 formation, there’s no reason both he and Zelic can’t be included. Zelic is this team’s captain.

Defence

Whether this formation is 5-3-2 or 3-5-2, there’s zero competition for the wide defenders. Brett Emerton on the right; Stan Lazaridis on the left. Both had speed, with Emerton able to nip in for goals and Lazaridis a superb crosser. Lucas Neill is clearly Australia’s best ever defender, so gets a spot as stopper. On the other side is Mehmet Durakovic, who was incredibly solid during his career of 64 caps, could score goals, and was famous for scoring the equalising goal against Canada in a playoff for the 1994 World Cup. When you’re talking sweeper, there was no better than Milan Ivanovic. Not just his reading of the game; it was also his ability to provide scything attacking passes out of defence. He was a freak at times. It’s sad he’ll be remember for losing possession to Diego Maradona in Sydney in the first leg of the playoff against Argentina for the final spot for that 1994 World Cup. He was exposed a little, and, of course, Maradona popped a sublime cross on the head of Abel Balbo. Australia soon equalised to go to Argentina at 1-1, before losing 1-0 there in a tight match.

Goalkeeper

As much as Mark Schwarzer, over his record career of 109 caps, had very safe hands, coming off the line was one of his weaknesses. This was noted most famously against Japan at the 2006 World Cup, and which ultimately saw him dropped for the game against Croatia. While Mark Bosnich was the most talented goalkeeper Australia has produced and played at the highest club level, he played only 17 times for Australia and, let’s just say it, it was a rubbish goal-kick that Iran rebounded to sink Australia’s hopes for the 1998 World Cup. So Robbie Zabica gets the nod. A stalwart during the first half of the 1990s, and was stoic in that second leg against Argentina for a spot at the 1994 World Cup. He was reliable and, most of all, had an affinity with the defenders in this team.

Substitutes

Essentially the next best options that missed the final eleven and potentially could fill more than one role. Frank Farina was Australia’s leading striker in the 1980s and early 1990s, Craig Moore a quality and enduring defender, Paul Wade was solid in midfield and a could pop up for goals, and Marco Bresciano was dynamic in midfield. Aurelio Vidmar could play up front or in midfield. Those to just miss the squad are Charlie Yankos and Robbie Slater.

The Coach

Likely a controversial selection for many, Graham Arnold simply emerges as the best option when you analyse the careers of all Australia’s previous coaches and considering the players he would manage. As colourful and patriotic that Frank Arok was, he never got Australia to a World Cup, and is most particularly remembered for the loss to Israel in a playoff before even the final playoff (against Colombia) for the 1990 World Cup.

The Eddie Thomson era was an interesting one, given he was first to load the team with high profile players based overseas, and to much publicity too. Farina, Zelic, Slater, Arnold, Vidmar, Bosnich – they were all there, while Thomson wisely stuck to a core group of domestic players in defence, who already had formed themselves into a solid, cohesive unit.

The blistering exhibition Thomson promised from the team materialised when routing New Zealand, and after a tight 2-1 loss in Canada (Australia led despite goalkeeper, Robbie Zabica, sent off), Thomson promised Australia wouldn’t get beaten at home by a team like this Canadian one and couldn’t wait to get them in Sydney. In a game Australia could have won 10-0, a goalkeeping error by Mark Schwarzer (replaced the suspended Zabica) saw Canada lead 3-2 on aggregate before Australia scored late and Schwarzer famously redeemed himself in the penalty shootout.

Next was Argentina, in the final playoff, where Thomson disappointed many in the home leg by starting with only one striker (Graham Arnold) up front instead of the double striker of the previous games. While Australia played well to draw 1-1 after going behind, they would need to score in Argentina to have any hope. They couldn’t, with an unlucky deflected cross lobbing into the goal to give Argentina a 1-0 win. This lack of faith in the players at critical moments is something that would taint the record of several future coaches.

Australia famously fell short for 1998, losing to Iran in a playoff after leading 3-1 on aggregate in Melbourne, with arguably Terry Venables opting to play nuggets in defence, including the under-prepared Steve Horvat, instead of the reliable Milan Ivanovic to partner Alex Tobin, being the critical failure. Despite Australia dominating throughout, Iran scored two goals in the last 15 minutes to level the series 3-3 and win on away goals.

As much as Guus Hiddink was lauded for imprinting upon the team a new belief and style, he made blunders at the 2006 World Cup, notably starting Zelko Kalac against Croatia and conceding an early penality, and leaving substitutions too late against Italy, thinking a better strategy was to overrun them in extra time (Italy had a man sent off early in the second half). He also got lucky in the tie against Uruguay, which could have been over in minutes had Alvaro Recoba not missed early in Sydney. Uruguay had plenty of other chances too, meaning Australia would need to score 3 goals to win the playoff, instead of the 1-0 that pushed it to penalties.

If you look at match results against high calibre oppoents, Frank Farina arguably reigned over Australia’s most successful period. Australia finished third in the 2001 Confederations Cup when beating world champions France in the group phase and Brazil in the playoff for third. They lost to Japan 1-0 in the semi final, which is indicative of a frustrating pattern with Australia’s international sports teams and athletes of doing well as underdogs and choking as favourites.

Facing Uruguay in a playoff for the 2002 World Cup, the high hopes after a tough 1-0 win in Melbourne were unravelled within 15 minutes in Montevideo when Uruguay scored and levelled the tie on aggregate. Farina foolishly believed the team needed a goal in Uruguay when clearly protecting their lead was more important. While his theory was sound that an Australian goal under the away-goals rule would transform the tie and make it very difficult for Uruguay, surely you start with a solid defence, because stopping goals is easier than scoring them.

Until the 90th minute when Uruguay scored their third goal, this mystical away-goal scenario was actually still alive. Uruguay going up 2-0 in the 70th minute still meant an Australian goal would see them qualify on away-goals. Alas, Australia couldn’t score. Instead, they were reckless, got caught out early, and lost 3-0, with Farina adamant in belief that Australia always needed a goal. He probably still believes that. After famously beating England in England in 2003, results soon began to sour for Farina, which included 3 spectacular losses at the 2005 Confederations Cup (spectacular in that Australia still scored plenty of goals against Germany and Argentina!) and that’s when Guus Hiddink was brought in for the final qualifying stage for 2006. He noted Australia’s style at the Confederations Cup as something like 4 across the back, 4 across the middle, and 2 cowboys up front.

Pim Verbeek managed Australia through the World Cup campaign for 2010 in South Africa, and for the tournament itself. After so long in Oceania and subjected to cruel, random playoffs, 2010 was the first time Australia qualified through Asia, notably through a group phase, where one or two bad results would not crucify you. With the bulk of the stellar 2006 team still in the squad, it was an easy passage. Verbeek would be judged in South Africa. “Pimbecile” headlines were already fermenting when Australia started against Germany with no strikers, and they were quickly confirmed with Australia all at sea and losing 4-0. The Verbeek era was essentially over. He simply had no faith in Australian players, especially from the domestic league, and the only time he got adventurous was when the team took charge against Serbia and looked like they could qualify for the knockout phase. The 2-1 win wasn’t enough, and Australia missed out on goal difference, even with the same results in 2006 of a win, loss and draw (1-1 to Ghana). Had they held Germany to 1-0, they would have qualified.

Ange Postecoglou had almost complete impunity to do as he pleased at Brazil 2016 after Holger Osieck was sacked just prior to the tournament. Two 6-0 losses in preparation games (to Brazil and France) compounded a reality of a tired and aging squad. Osieck, like Verbeek, had almost zero faith in domestic players, hoping the aging list could last until Brazil. While the youthful team that Postecoglou managed did play well (particularly against Netherlands), they left Brazil with three losses and were clearly exposed as substandard.

Postecoglou would win the 2015 Asian Cup on home soil before almost failing to get the team to the 2018 World Cup. Before Australia comfortably handled Honduras in the final playoff, Syria just missed scoring in the dying seconds of the third placed Asian playoff, which would have seen them play Honduras. Postecoglou then notoriously quit on the eve of the 2018 World Cup, meaning he left with his job and legacy as mission incomplete. He whinged about lack of support from Football Australia; in truth, he’s been a coach to quit on a high or when tough scrutiny begins to emerge, unable to cope with even mild criticism. Bert van Marwijk took over duties in Russia and summed up the two losses and a draw as “I’m not a magician”.

Then there’s Rale Rasic, who took Australia to their first World Cup, in 1974. It was a different era, so it’s difficult to compare. Australia certainly had a tough run to qualify, needing to win a group that involved New Zealand, Indonesia and Iraq, then beat Iran over two legs, then beat South Korea over two legs. That final series ended in two draws, so a third match in neutral Hong Kong was arranged in which Australia won, 1-0. In Germany, Australia lost to both East and West Germany, before drawing with Chile. They didn’t score a goal.

When speaking of toughness, arguably Graham Arnold has had the toughest job since Rale Rasic to get Australia to a World Cup. While qualifying top two in one of two final Asian qualifying groups sounds easy in simple terms, in reality the current generation of players are one of the weakest bunch Australia has had, and then add COVID-19 forcing home matches played away and creating other problems, and there were two sudden death playoffs to navigate, including a tough opponent in Peru in the final one, Arnold and Australia had so much against them. Qualifying for Qatar 2022 was a true triumph, easily comparing, if not surpassing, 1974 in difficulty. Another factor in his favour is that Arnold is from an era where he’d understand the mentality, and have faith in, many of the players selected in this team. Specifically the likes of Ivanovic, Durakovic, Lazaridis and Zabica in the final eleven, Farina, Vidmar and Wade on the bench, and even with Viduka and Emerton, who both emerged through the domestic soccer league before playing overseas. While Arnold’s yet to be tested at a World Cup, a competent display will be enough to compare equal to his predecessors and even be seen as a triumph.

25 September 2022

Update

Football Australia announced the official Socceroos Team of the Century. More a squad of the century, as it includes 23 players and no specific positions defined. The forwards are the most obvious picks and align with my choices. Midfield and defence differ (six omissions), as does the coach (an assistant). Sixteen of the positions were chosen by fans, while a panel of historians chose the rest (in bold).

Players: John ALOISI, Mark BRESCIANO, Tim CAHILL, Scott CHIPPERFIELD, Reg DATE, Brett EMERTON, Mile JEDINAK, Harry KEWELL, John KOSMINA, Joe MARSTON, Judy MASTERS, Jimmy MCNABB (GK), Craig MOORE, Aaron MOOY, Lucas NEILL, Alf QUILL, Mathew RYAN (GK), Mark SCHWARZER (GK), Alex TOBIN, Tony VIDMAR, Mark VIDUKA, Johnny WARREN, Peter WILSON.

Head Coach: Guus HIDDINK

Assistant Coaches: Graham ARNOLD, Ange POSTECOGLOU, Rale RASIC

Socceroos Team of the Century