The Diagnosis of the Socceroos

April 25, 1915 is a day etched in Australian history. During the Gallipoli Campaign in World War I, Britain, France, and their allies fought against the Ottoman Empire, and after some failed naval attacks in February and March, troops landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula, but the campaign proved to be an ill-fated one as the Turks emerged victorious.

The day when the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) soldiers landed at Anzac Cove is now known as Anzac Day and it is a day in which the landing is remembered as well as the soldiers who have fought for Australia and New Zealand.

Although the Gallipoli Campaign was a massive failure for the Allies, it is considered to be a gallant defeat, especially from an Australian perspective because of the great desire and spirit the soldiers had when the odds were stacked heavily against them.

The spirit of the Anzacs, the Australian battling attitude, has become ingrained in the mentality of the population. It’s certainly become ingrained in the mindset of Australian football. Even when the Socceroos are written off, there is the belief that the Australian fighting spirit will bring success.

Unfortunately, Russia 2018 ended with another group stage exit for Australia at the World Cup, with no semblance of fighting spirit or heroism. Perhaps we should’ve seen it coming; the warning signs were evident before Group C commenced. Poor form and a lack of impressive performances leading into the tournament were concerning, but the lack of natural talent emerging in recent years and issues with the FFA (Football Federation Australia) have also negatively impacted the fortunes of the Socceroos.

The Australian federation appointed Dutch tactician Bert van Marwijk six months before the tournament and ironically, he had resigned as coach of Saudi Arabia soon after the Middle Eastern team had sealed qualification for the World Cup, finishing ahead of the Socceroos in their group.

After Ange Postecoglou had resigned in November 2017 despite helping Australia qualify for the World Cup, the FFA hired a coach that was the polar opposite to his predecessor. While the Greek-Australian coach was an idealist who tried to win with style, the Dutch tactician was more pragmatic in his approach, and the now 66-year-old scraped the languid attacking style as soon as he took the reins.

What Postecoglou tried to do in four years had disappeared almost instantaneously. He encouraged the Socceroos to play in a more technical, possession-based style, instead of emphasising on physicality and fighting spirit, but it became evident that he lacked the personnel to successfully implement such a philosophy.

At club level, Postecoglou won two NSL (National Soccer League) titles with South Melbourne in the 1990s, and after a disappointing seven-year spell with the Australia U-20 team, he coached Greek club Panachaiki before joining A-League club Brisbane Roar.

His Roar teams were amongst the most successful in Australian football and sports history. He won back-to-back A-League titles in 2010/11 and 2011/12, a reign which included an unbeaten streak of 36 matches. That Brisbane team won and did it with flair, earning the nickname “Roarcelona.”

After three seasons in Brisbane, Postecoglou moved to Melbourne Victory, and although he did not win any major trophies with the Melbournians, the team thrilled crowds with its entertaining play, and Postecoglou laid the foundations for his assistant Kevin Muscat to succeed with the team as head coach.

He was brought in to replace German coach Holger Osieck in October 2013 after Australia lost two friendlies against Brazil and France 6-0 on each occasion. The Greek-Australian tactician overhauled an ageing squad which still had some of the heroes from 2006 remaining, and immediately implemented his style of play. He also looked around the world for players and selected a few from the smaller leagues in Europe, the lower divisions of Europe’s major leagues, and footballers from the A-League.

Although Australia did not collect any points at the 2014 World Cup, there were the gallant defeats against Chile and The Netherlands which hinted at something positive for the future. The Socceroos led against the Dutch before succumbing to a 3-2 defeat, but veteran Tim Cahill provided a great memory for Australian fans, scoring one of the goals of the tournament with a sumptuous volley.

Then, Australia hosted the 2015 Asian Cup, and the Australians triumphed 2-1 in the final against South Korea, and scored 14 goals over six matches. The performances were arguably amongst the best in Socceroos history, and Postecoglou seemed to have gotten his ideas across. One of images of the tournament is of the coach waving his arms in the air after the final had just concluded.


Afterwards, the form and performances declined. Postecoglou pivoted from the 4-2-3-1 formation to an unconventional 3-2-4-1, which was possibly due to accommodating as many creative midfielders as possible, but probably due to an apparent lack of in-form full-backs.

Despite the lack of outstanding performances in the World Cup qualifiers, as well as being eliminated from the group stage of the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup, Postecoglou stuck to his guns and persisted with his philosophy, even in a crucial qualifier away to Japan. The 2-0 defeat in the penultimate match against the Samarai Blue in August last year all but denied Australia direct qualification for the tournament.

A 2-1 victory against Thailand in the final Group B qualifier was not enough for the Socceroos to finish ahead of Saudi Arabia on goal difference, so they had to defeat Syria in a play-off, a 3-1 win which required extra-time in the second leg and for the evergreen Tim Cahill to score twice in that game.

An inter-confederation play-off was required to decide the final spot left at Russia 2018, and after a 0-0 draw away to Honduras, Australia won the second leg 3-1 in Sydney, in what turned out to be Postecoglou’s final match in charge.

Many people were left perplexed by the decision, especially the timing, and there was not a great deal of clarity from Postecoglou himself as to why he resigned.

Some people suspected it was because of the scathing criticism about his tactics in the Australian media, particularly from pundits on FOX Sports, others suggested it was because of his reportedly uneasy relationship with former FFA chairman Frank Lowy and his son and current chairman Steven Lowy.

Rumours about him getting a job at club level circulated too, and they were proven to be true by December 2017 as he was appointed coach of Japanese club Yokohama F. Marinos.

With Postecoglou out of the picture, Bert van Marwijk had to reorganise the team, and he brought back the 4-2-3-1 formation, but he started off on the wrong foot with a 4-1 defeat to Norway in March. The Socceroos did win two friendlies and drew another afterwards, but the performances did not show a great deal of improvement from the Postecoglou era.

Australia opened its World Cup campaign on June 16 with a 2-1 defeat to France, a match in which the Socceroos defended gallantly, especially Jiangsu Suning defender Trent Sainsbury. Captain Mile Jedinak converted a penalty after a VAR review spotted French defender Samuel Umtiti handling the ball in the box, and there were spells in which the Australians had possession, but they failed to test Les Bleus shot-stopper Hugo Lloris.

Drawing 1-1 with Denmark was a match that the Socceroos will ponder what might have been. The Danes attacked early and took the lead thanks to a fantastic Christian Eriksen volley, but this forced the Australians to come out of their shell and bombard the opposition.

Despite creating an abundance of chances, the lack of a quality out-and-out striker was evident, and it hindered Australia from taking advantage of those golden chances.. Kasper Schmeichel was excellent in the Danish goal, and Australia needed another penalty from captain Mile Jedinak to score. VAR came to the rescue again, as Yussuf Poulsen was adjudged to have hand-balled in the penalty area.

The Socceroos needed not only for France to defeat Denmark, but to also beat Peru themselves. They set out with a different line-up from the last two games: Tom Rogic for Andrew Nabbout, but La Blanquirroja defeated the Australians 2-0. Cahill was finally given a chance to play at his fourth World Cup, but he was unable to score with the limited half-chances presented to him and he missed out on joining Pelé, Uwe Seeler, and Miroslav Klose as the only players to have scored at four different World Cup tournaments.

Australia finished with just a solitary point in three matches, scoring twice, and conceding five times. Both Socceroos goals came from penalties courtesy of decisions made by VAR. Had it not been for the brand-new technology, it might have been their first World Cup since 1974 in which they failed to score a goal.

Not many Australian players covered themselves in glory either. Winger Robbie Kruse endured a torrent of personal abuse on social media after his underwhelming performances at the tournament. Injuries have affected his career in recent years, but his lack of risk-taking and inability to use his non-preferred right foot infuriated Australian supporters.

Mathew Leckie showed the best and worst of his game. The Hertha Berlin winger worked tirelessly for the team and ran directly at opponents, but his lack of football intelligence and finishing prowess halted him from being a greater threat to opposition defences.

Celtic attacking midfielder Tom Rogic was a player that was expected to perform better than he did. Van Marwijk’s conservative approach did not help his situation, but Rogic lacked the guile to create space for himself or shrug off defenders.

On a more positive note, Sainsbury was a rock in defence, Josh Risdon was a revelation at right-back despite his involvement in the penalty awarded to France, Aaron Mooy was competent in his ball-winning and ball distribution, and the mercurial winger Daniel Arzani provided moments of unpredictability with his speed and trickery.

Since 2006, Australia has participated at every World Cup, but the Socceroos have not been able to replicate the heroics that they produced in Germany, where they reached the Round of 16 before losing in controversial circumstances to eventual winners Italy. Gallant defeats have become a recurring theme for the Australian national team, and that looks unlikely to change soon.

FFA chairman Steven Lowy and CEO David Gallop have been criticised for their lack of action in helping football progress in Australia, particularly with their reluctance to either expand the A-League or even add a second division. There was speculation suggesting that the board could have been overthrown by FIFA, but the status quo remains for the time being.

Youth development has been another concern for football in Australia. Although Arzani is an exceptional talent, the Melbourne City winger is in the minority at the moment. Not many youngsters are breaking into senior clubs at a young age, and not many of them end up in Europe’s big leagues.

Although grass roots participation is in its millions, parents are struggling to pay for registration fees for their children to play, and it is cheaper for kids to play Australian rules football, or AFL, instead of soccer.

Very few teams at junior level follow the FFA National Curriculum, which was created by technical director Han Berger in 2013, and which was based heavily on the model used in his native Netherlands. So far, the model has been met with scepticism, and it remains to be seen if the model produces a sufficient amount of quality players.

Cutting funding for football at the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) has not helped either. Most of the Golden Generation of the 2000s were developed there, and the man who coached the majority of those graduates, Ron Smith, believes that the current way of developing players produces “robots” and does not encourage footballers to express their natural ability.

Former Socceroos such as Craig Foster and Peter Katholos in mainstream and social media have advocated for more technical styles of football and a proactive approach from Australian teams, but the lack of investment and proper coaching has prevented recent generations of youngsters from establishing themselves.

In addition, the quality of the national league is underwhelming in Australia. Aside from the lack of world-class talent coming through the academies, the imports in the A-League are not of the same calibre of those in previous seasons. No longer are the likes of Dwight Yorke, Romário, Alessandro Del Piero, David Villa, and Shinji Ono moving to Australia; instead, the biggest names head to the United States or China for lucrative contracts in the twilight of their careers.

Despite the multicultural identity of Australia, Anglo-Saxon values are still prevalent nonetheless, and the emphasis on fighting spirit, work ethic and battling still exists in football. Although waves of immigrants who love the sport have arrived in the country in the post-war era and played a significant role in the game, tactical nuances and technical skills still need improvement.

There are nations and clubs that merely talk about heart and fight, but Australia cling on to them religiously. A country like Uruguay is known for its claw or “garra charrúa,” but for all the determination and tenacity that Uruguayan teams have, the South American nation has produced footballers with great intelligence and technical ability to boot throughout the decades. Australia must learn that battling qualities should give a team an extra edge, but not the main ingredient for success.

The FFA has turned to the past for the next Socceroos coach, with Graham Arnold being announced as the new coach in March, and this will be his second spell in charge of the national team. His first stint was a rather disappointing one, replacing Dutchman Guus Hiddink after the 2006 World Cup, and then underachieving with the majority of that squad in the 2007 Asian Cup, as they lost to Japan on penalties in the quarter-finals.

He has rebuilt his coaching career since then, developing players at Central Coast Mariners and winning the 2012/13 A-League title with the New South Wales club. During his time at the club, the likes of Mathew Ryan, Sainsbury, Tom Rogic, Mustafa Amini, and Bernie Ibini-Isei all rose to prominence under his tutelage.

A spell at Japanese club Vegalta Sendai lasted less than six months, and he returned to his homeland and coached Sydney FC from 2014 until 2018, finishing on top of the A-League ladder twice and winning the 2017 Grand Final.

His approach has been considered to be conservative, as he often prioritises the defence before attack, but as he showed in his final season with the Sky Blues, he can set-up a team to score an abundance of goals. The caveat is that Sydney relied on foreign imports like Miloš Ninković from Serbia, Adrian Mierzejewski from Poland, and Bobô from Brazil for most of that creative spark and finishing prowess.

The picture looks rather bleak at the moment for Australian football, but the continuous failures at World Cup can and should be served as catalysts for rejuvenation and improvement. Otherwise, the heroics of 2006 will begin to look like a distant memory for Socceroos supporters.

By: Vito Doria

Photo: Toby Zema