A woeful night for Australian football last night. First, the Young Socceroos were shirt-fronted out of the U19 Asian Championships in Myanmar at the group stage. Needing to beat Uzbekistan after a loss to UAE and a narrow win against Indonesia in their earlier games, their hard fought 1-0 lead vanished in the final 10 minutes when Uzbekistan equalised to secure a draw. In truth, Uzbekistan were the better team and deserved to progress with the UAE. Later, another shirt-front, this time on the senior team, which lost 1-0 in Qatar. This result came after a 0-0 draw in the UAE Friday night.
In a way, the youth team’s elimination might do some good. Asia was never meant to be a walkover. Moving there from Oceania was to be mutually beneficial. Australia would be challenged while the challenge of Australia would help the other Asian teams. Missing the occasional World Cup will be part of this process. Given the volatile nature of talent at this level, it’s also difficult to be hyper critical of the team. The elimination could just be symptomatic of Australia being down while the UAE and Uzbekistan are up. Where Oceania never exposed these flaws until actual World Cups, Asia exposes them much earlier. We know we must improve. It’s been 20 years since the country had a decent youth team. The famed “Dutch experiment”, now going almost 8 years in this country, so far has not produced anything and is almost at a point of examination.
The senior team has bigger problems. Clearly Australia don’t have the players. The front third is a joke. The defence barely any better. UAE had the best chance of their match with a shot cleared off the line. Alex Wilkinson was the saviour after Jason Davidson was caught out of position (again) on Australia’s left flank. Qatar simply waltzed through with a slick one-two move to score that match’s winning goal. In attack, Australia was mostly impotent and could barely fashion a well constructed chance. To not score in either match seems unfathomable.
Australia has one warm-up match before the Asian Cup – against Japan in Osaka next month – and that’s it. It looks like Australia will be experimenting at the Asian Cup proper when the team should be long settled. The perplexity being faced by Coach Ange Postecoglou is this contrast between coaching a club and a national team. With a national team being a representative team, there’s neither the time or the capacity to create a “Team Australia”. You pick the best players available and then get them to play their best.
Ange is also finding, much like his predecessors, that the cupboard is bare. Would you return to the older players? Certainly not on a grand scale. Would you have one or two for experience and a tad more potency? Why not. Joshua Kennedy has always proven a handful for Asian opposition, and even the long forgotten Scott McDonald might suddenly click under the new coaching regime. Even as bench or squad players, there just needs to be other options than going to an even a less experienced player.
Four years ago, at the U20 World Cup in Egypt, the Young Socceroos returned one of their worse results at any World Cup – losing all three games. The tournament was noted more for SBS’s bizarre response to it as a success because of “performance”, rather the appraising by conventional barometer of results. Stranger than that, the performance was weak anyway – with SBS seeming to have an agenda to support the newly installed Dutch coaching structure right through the game regardless of a results and to vindicate its long established railing against coaches of Australian or British origin. Read more at the website, under “Action > Egypt 2009”
Turkey 2013 was similar. While the Dutch influence has faded thanks to a German (Holger Osieck) now coaching the Socceroos and an Australian (Paul Okon) now coaching the Young Socceroos, it’s still present at a “technical” level and obviously needs to endorsed. Whether your mantra is “results are secondary to performance” or “results are primary to performance”, the Socceroo Realm examines both via posts made to SBS’s own theworldgame.com.au website.
Australia vs Colombia – 1-1
A match in three phases: Colombia started strongly, Australian dominated much of the middle, Colombia the end when chasing a result. Against the South American champions, it was a bright start, and the team looked really good. That got both the fans and Craig Foster in lathers of drool.
Can we actually reach the group phase before hyperventilating? Remember, 24 teams at this tournament, so knockout phase includes four best third placed teams, so making it is actually minimum standard. If we beat El Salvador then that’s enough for qualification. We want to then win one knockout and see quarter final at least.
The one issue of this match was towards the end. When the match really counted and Colombians applied pressure, we weren’t that good. Before that, the Colombians were lazy (or arrogant), not really closing us down, then they were chasing the game. Colombia’s goal came from appalling defensive organisation too. The match against Turkey will be our real test.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It was one match, at a YOUTH World Cup, against a lazy opposition that didn’t quickly close us down. In the latter stages of the second half, when they did, the boys ran out of options, playing too cute at times, and constantly losing possession, much like the senior team does. In all due respect, that 2009 team was a farce. They played a few patches of nice passing (mostly in the defensive half) and then were hammered. Most of the guys there haven’t progressed, so a lot of good it did them. Fozzie made an embarrassment of himself congratulating a team that displayed little and produced even less.
The U20 WC is also one tournament and is merely the terminal point of a short international youth career of a player’s total career. Players return to their clubs, and that’s where the real development takes place. Still the single biggest factor affecting results at any Youth World Cup is the talent itself, and that’s the area this team seems to have great potential. Of course, we won’t know until the knockout phase or really know for 4 or 5 years, not whether they can knock a few balls around in group matches of this tournament.
Australia vs El Salvador – 1-2
A cracking early goal from Joshua Brillante seemed to portend the win that most expensive against apparently the weakest team in the group. That wasn’t the case. Australia was lethargic and let down by poor concentration to go behind and then lacking any inspiration going forward. Did they believe their own press? Attitude seemed a problem, not paying enough respect to the opposition, as is often the fault of the Australian “bully” sporting psyche when supremacy gathers air. To compound that, Okon waited far too long to make substitutions. It was El Salvador’s first win at any World Cup. Congratulations to them.
Now, let’s not write off the team. With Colombia beating Turkey in the other match (after Turkey beat El Salvador 3-0 in the first game), that suggests not only is Australia at least equal chance to beat Turkey too, it also confirms the vagaries of the sport. Anything can happen. If Australia win, that then means the next phase as this tournament is 24 teams so the 4 best third placed teams go through.
How the tide turns. After Colombia, the tone is hyperbolic and Fozz couldn’t wait to post his blog about all the footballing misconceptions (maybe this was written before even the team played?), and now it’s all doom and gloom. Facts are that Colombia were so lazy in closing us down. Only at the end, with the game on the line, did they bother. Maybe they were pacing themselves, as they then went on to beat Turkey. El Salvador, on the other hand, gave us nothing. Even Fozz admitted this post match in the studio. It was worse than that, as ES had most of the better chances and far more dangerous. Australia were totally useless going forward, and for all the talk of ES’s “cheap” goals, ours was just as cheap – being a long, speculative shot that was helped with the goalie obscured.
Australia vs Turkey – 1-2
This was the quintessential tight, World Cup match. Both teams had chances to win. The problem was that with all teams in the group already having a win, Australia had to win to ensure the next phase. Turkey only needed a draw, or even a loss could suffice. Australia scored first – at the start of the second half – only to be promptly snuffed with a cracking shot from outside the box. Turkey finished it off with an even better effort – a long range chip into the top, left corner of the net.
A bit of an embarrassment. Australia couldn’t even get the basics rights. They led all three games and finished with one draw. Who cares if you can knock the ball around a bit? Now we know that those bright moments against Colombia were definitely because Colombia allowed it. We get all hyperbolic about, two matches later, Colombia tops the group and Australia the bottom.
Les Murray tweeted: “Young Socceroos outplayed Colombia, copped El Salvador on a very good day and outplayed themselves v Turkey. Overall some very good signs.” It could just as easily be seen as Colombia had an off day or took Australia too lightly, Australia did likewise against El Salvador, and didn’t have the polish of Turkey. What does “outplayed themselves” mean anyway? If they had played a normal, conventional game, they would have won? If that’s the case, yes please.
Thankfully the team did not listen to this SBS nonsense of “results secondary to performance”. It’s a World Cup. If you don’t go for results there, where will you get them? These players now return to their clubs where the true development takes place. Both them and the coach were rightfully shattered. For all the hopes we had with this team, you simply must be critical of the final result. Let’s also remember, it is about the final result. The sport is a game of vagaries of nuances: not just within the game itself, also within a succession of a few games. Analyse tournaments at the end.
Overall, Australia were competitive in all games; they just lacked the killer punch forward (too much messing around as seems to be the hallmark of Australian national teams these days), and lacked in defence. While Australia were unlucky to score more, they were also lucky not to concede more. With some defensive stout, this team could have topped the group. It was that even.
We also need to end this nonsense of slamming opposition goals as “cheap” or “gifted” as coach Paul Okon often did. That’s poor sportsmanship. Most goals in football games are cheap if you analyse them. Of Australia’s goals through the tournament, the first should have been saved, the second was the type from long range that 90% of the time will end in the stands, and the third was a technically tough mid-range volley at pace – again, more often miss than hit. Most of the goals we conceded also could be considered as low percentage chances or could be defended better. That’s football. Don’t whinge. Just get on scoring the next one, or do better stopping them in the first place.
Emulate Spain and Barcelona? All great in theory, totally unrealistic in practice. We are not Spain. Not even far more pedigreed and established teams like the Netherlands are Spain. We just don’t have the players. While we can do it in spurts, and usually against opposition of less credentials or against teams that allow us (like Colombia at this WC), when it comes to the crunch, we don’t have the ability – and we are decades away from it. Our players are so sporadic in ability that our national teams should adapt to them for the time. If we have two gun strikers, we play them. If our midfielders are strong, we go heavy there.
This is not club football where you can pick a squad and develop it over years. They are representative teams. You pick your best, and play them in their best positions. We learnt that through the senior team’s qualifying phase. At a World Cup, it’s even more important is it’s the summit of the campaign, so you want the best possible results. The mantra of “results are secondary to performance” is utter nonsense. Maybe it is in warm-up games, it’s not in the real thing. No nation would even contemplating going to a World Cup to disrespect the opposition and the integrity of the competition itself just to experiment with a playing style that they’re ill-equipped to perform. For Australia, it’s even more than that. It’s un-Australian not to fight.
Now done with the World Cup, where to these players go now – A-League, lower Euro clubs, Qatar, UAE? We reap nothing in “performance”, only get embarrassment from the result. If these players infiltrate into the national team in years time, it will be on the back of development at club football, and then within the national team environment itself.
In all sport, the best indicator of performance is winning. At world level, as we’ve just seen in the senior World Cup qualifying, we need to adapt. There’ll be times of grinding out results, stout defending and swift passing. It depends on the opposition. The youth team did one of those aspects reasonably well; failed in all others.
Let’s note: they led all 3 games and left with 1 draw. That exposes glaring faults to be examined, not faux gold medals and congratulations because you liked a few passages of play – or even like the intent to play nice passages of play. At least the boys and the coach saw the importance of results. They were clearly shattered at the early elimination. That will do them far more good than a letter of congratulations from Craig Foster for the “performance” of knocking the ball around when under little pressure.
Long term, the strategy for strong national teams is developing the A-League. When it’s 14 teams with 50,000 crowds at most games, then we’re a mature football nation, and then the flow-on effects to the national teams will be automatic. No top nation has a weak national league. We’re fooling ourselves if we believe we can succeed by any other method. This is the ethos of the “I told you so” mantra by the late Johnny Warren. Too easily have we run away with the sentiment while forgetting its foundations.
22/06 18:00 Trabzon Colombia 1:1 (0:0) Australia
22/06 21:00 Trabzon Turkey 3:0 (1:0) El Salvador
25/06 18:00 Rize Australia 1:2 (1:2) El Salvador
25/06 21:00 Rize Turkey 0:1 (0:0) Colombia
28/06 21:00 Trabzon Australia 1:2 (0:0) Turkey
28/06 21:00 Gaziantep El Salvador 0:3 (0:2) Colombia
Team P W D L GD Pts
Colombia 3 2 1 0 4 7
Turkey 3 2 0 1 3 6
El Salvador 3 1 0 2 5- 3
Australia 3 0 1 2 2- 1