So Near And Yet So Far...

The Soc­ceroos went to Rus­sia with a new coach, a new play­ing style and re­newed con­fi­dence. But the World Cup re­sult was sadly the same old story again for Aus­tralia...

Australian Four Four Two - - CONTENTS - Words John David­son

Com­pe­tent but im­po­tent – we take you in­side the Soc­ceroos’ camp at Rus­sia 2018

The coin­ci­dences were eerily sim­i­lar. In 2013 we were headed to an­other a World Cup af­ter qual­i­fy­ing through Asia. But that Oc­to­ber, head coach Hol­ger Osieck was sacked af­ter huge back-to-back losses against Brazil and France. Ange Postecoglou was in­stalled as his re­place­ment and quickly had to re­shape the na­tional team for the World Cup. Four years later, the coach wasn’t sacked, he walked – de­pend­ing on who you be­lieve – af­ter nav­i­gat­ing the qual­i­fy­ing play­offs, but again a new coach was brought in at the last minute to take the Soc­ceroos to an­other World Cup. While Postecoglou had nearly eight months to get his Roos right for the tour­na­ment in Brazil, Bert van Mar­wijk had just four friendlies in four months be­fore Rus­sia. The Dutch­man, like his pre­de­ces­sor, over­hauled the team in play­ing style and phi­los­o­phy, and partly in per­son­nel. Out was Postecoglou’s pos­ses­sion-based, high-press­ing at­tack­ing mantra and in was a prag­matic and com­pact counter-at­tack­ing style. Out also were Ange stal­warts such as Bai­ley Wright, James Troisi, Mitch Langerak, Alex Gers­bach and Brad Smith, and in came Daniel Arzani, Jamie Maclaren and a new po­si­tion in cen­tral de­fence for Mark Mil­li­gan. Six days be­fore their World Cup opener against France on June 16, the Soc­ceroos ar­rived in the Rus­sian host city of Kazan, cap­i­tal of Tatarstan, on the back of a month-long train­ing camp in Turkey. It had been an in­tense time on the train­ing pitch. Veteran Soc­ceroo Mil­li­gan re­marked: “The last three weeks has some­times been bor­der­line tor­ture. We knew we needed it in the way we wanted to do

things and the way we want to de­fend and at­tack. We had to be at the peak of our pow­ers phys­i­cally.” In van Mar­wijk’s first match in charge, the Soc­ceroos had been in­cred­i­bly dire in a dis­mal 4-1 loss to Nor­way in Oslo. A bat­tling draw against Colom­bia in March, fol­low­ing by im­proved dis­plays in wins over the Czech Repub­lic and Hun­gary in June, lifted ex­pec­ta­tions ahead of the tour­na­ment de­spite their dif­fi­cult group. Van Mar­wijk es­chewed play­ing any more friendlies o max­imise time in train­ing. The per­fec­tion­ist wanted all 23 of his squad pre­cisely drilled in what was re­quired in ex­act terms of shape and dis­ci­pline. When Aus­tralia landed in Kazan, they were greeted by a Rus­sian city un­like the me­trop­o­lises of Moscow and St Petersburg, the grim­ness of Sa­mara or the re­sort town of Sochi. Kazan is a melt­ing pot of east and west, of Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam, a meet­ing of Europe, the Mid­dle East and Asia. Known as the third cap­i­tal of Rus­sia and home to the eth­nic group the Tatars, as well as Rus­sian Premier League Rubin Kazan, it is unique and wel­com­ing. The con­trast with Brazil four years ago couldn’t have been more vast. In 2014 the Soc­ceroos were based in the coastal Brazil­ian town of Vi­to­ria, pop­u­la­tion around 360,000, and best de­scribed as the Brazil­ian Noosa. Sleepy and pic­turesque, it wasn’t a host city for the 2014 World Cup and largely kept away from the fer­vour of the tour­na­ment. Stay­ing in a five-star se­cluded beach-side ho­tel, se­lected by Osieck, the Soc­ceroos had long travel times to train­ing each day and flew in and out to host cities on match day. This time Postecoglou had de­cided Aus­tralia would get a flavour of the World Cup at­mos­phere and stay in a host city, close to its train­ing ground. While he wouldn’t ben­e­fit from his choice, van Mar­wijk and his staff did and Aus­tralian me­dia and fans would at­test that be­ing based in a thriv­ing city like Kazan was an ex­cel­lent se­lec­tion. The team’s home train­ing base was the Tru­dovyye Rez­ervy, a bou­tique sta­dium that was cov­ered in wel­com­ing para­pher­na­lia and pic­tures of past Soc­ceroo greats such as Johnny War­ren and Harry Kewell. The fa­cil­ity and ac­com­mo­da­tion was of lo­cal ice hockey team Ak Bars Kazan andhe Soc­ceroos’ digs were prac­ti­cal, rather than pala­tial, but with a mere three-minute walk to train­ing ev­ery day. The com­plex had every­thing – gym, pool, games room, kitchen and the rest (even an ice rink!) – the squad could ask for. The stage was set. The lead-up to the open­ing match against France was dom­i­nated by ques­tions about the mis­match be­tween Aus­tralia and Di­dier Deschamps’ sev­enth-ranked team in the world, one of the favourites to win this World Cup. How would the likes of Josh Ris­don and Mil­li­gan stop An­toine Griez­mann, Kylian Mbappe and Paul Pogba? How could the Soc­ceroos re­ally com­pete? The fear was that a heavy de­feat, like the 4-0 maul­ing by Ger­many in 2010, could de­rail the cam­paign be­fore it had barely be­gun. Nei­ther van Mar­wijk nor his play­ers gave much away be­fore the date with Les Bleus. The wily Dutch­man be­came blunter and more abrupt when asked about tac­tics and selec­tions in press con­fer­ences. As thou­sands and thou­sands of Aus­tralian sup­port­ers streamed into Kazan, dom­i­nat­ing the city’s vi­brant Las Ram­bas-style Bau­man Street pedes­trian mall of shops, bars and restau­rants, even the weather played ball with the sun com­ing out for a per­fect match­day. The phoney war was over – now the real ac­tion be­gan. On a warm day at the lovely 43,000-seater Kazan Arena, Aus­tralia’s fifth World Cup ex­pe­ri­ence got un­der­way. Around 10,000 Aussie sup­port­ers were in the sta­dium…but it felt like 100,000. The sta­dium was awash with gold shirts and Aussie voices. The Soc­ceroos fans made the game seem like a home match, played at ANZ or Eti­had Sta­di­ums, not on the other side of the world. Ev­ery Aus­tralian touch was cheered, ev­ery French pass booed.

France’s Manch­ester United star Pogba ad­mit­ted af­ter­wards: “It was in­tense. The Aus­tralian fans were shout­ing, they were even boo­ing our play­ers so we felt like we were play­ing in Aus­tralia.” Af­ter 90 min­utes, they were left hoarse and dis­ap­pointed, but proud. The Soc­ceroos had gone down 2-1, but won a lot of new ad­mir­ers. Only a de­flected Pogba goal and a con­tentious penalty, sand­wich­ing a Mile Je­d­i­nak penalty, had sep­a­rated the two teams. The green and gold had come down on the wrong side of his­tory – the first coun­try in the world to have a Video As­sis­tant Ref­eree (VAR) de­ci­sion go against them, with Ris­don con­tro­ver­sially ad­judged to have brought down Griez­mann on goal. It was a bit­ter pill to swal­low. The first game may have been a de­feat but the man­ner of the per­for­mance left op­ti­mism. Many ex­pected France to bat­ter Aus­tralia like Die Mannschaft did in South Africa, but in­stead Di­dier Deschamp’s men had to set­tle for the slen­der­est of wins. The brave dis­play earned praise from many sources: “You can see to­day they (Aus­tralia) play very well, de­fend very well, they play al­to­gether,” Pogba said. “That is not a small team.” Mil­li­gan re­vealed the French de­feat par­tic­u­larly stung: “I think it’s been a while since a loss has hurt that much. It hurt so much be­cause we put so much ef­fort in, be­cause they’re such a good side. In­di­vid­u­ally, across the park and ev­ery­where. There was so much made by you guys, by all the me­dia, about how dan­ger­ous they are go­ing for­ward. To be hon­est, we kept them to prob­a­bly two or three half-chances.”

The post-match dis­cus­sion fo­cused on the VAR and its use at the World Cup. Trent Sains­bury voiced his dis­plea­sure at the sys­tem, but also the re­al­i­sa­tion that the Soc­ceroos just had to get on with it. “I’ve never been a fan of the VAR, I’ve made that clear from day one,” the cen­tre back said. “I’m a purist when it comes to foot­ball but at the same time, if that’s the way it’s go­ing to go from now on, then so be it. I can’t change it. I’m not the one sit­ting up in the box. You just need to roll with it, I guess.” The elec­tric cameo of Daniel Arzani off the bench in Kazan also caught the eye. More and more calls were made for ex­tra min­utes to be given to the 19-year-old wing-wiz­ard as at­ten­tion turned to the Den­mark game in Sa­mara five days later. Af­ter the Danes had knocked off Peru 1-0 in their opener, the Soc­ceroos needed to bounce back with a win. Spir­its re­mained high as the match at the Cos­mos Arena crept closer. Again van Mar­wijk stayed true to his ideals and be­liefs, pick­ing the same XI and 4-2-3-1 for­ma­tion that had taken the field against France. But in Sa­mara, just like in Kazan, Aus­tralia had to fight back from an early goal down. Slack mark­ing al­lowed Ni­co­lai Jor­gensen to lay the ball off to Chris­tian Erik­sen, and the Tot­ten­ham tal­is­man did the rest. But the Soc­ceroos re­cov­ered and took the game to the Scan­di­na­vians. Their pres­sure was re­warded with an­other penalty – bizarrely com­ing from a hand­ball again, this time res­cued by VAR – and the score was locked at 1-1 af­ter Je­d­i­nak tucked it away. Aus­tralian fans out­num­bered their Dan­ish coun­ter­parts eas­ily but the Soc­ceroos could not con­vert their pres­sure into an elu­sive win­ning goal. They had more pos­ses­sion and chances than Den­mark, but lit­tle re­ward for it. Van Mar­wijk made the same sub­sti­tu­tions as the first game – Arzani re­plac­ing Rob­bie Kruse, Tomi Juric for An­drew Nab­bout and Jack­son Irvine for Tom Rogic, all in the sec­ond half. Tim Cahill was left with­er­ing on the pine once more. Arzani’s rep­u­ta­tion grew as he al­most scored and cre­ated two good goalscor­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for team­mates. A na­tion re­joiced when he skinned Dan­ish winger Pione Sisto on the right wing. But again it was an op­por­tu­nity lost as Aus­tralia had to set­tle for a point. A lack of cut­ting edge up front was costly. They were still alive in the World Cup, with a draw and a loss af­ter two games, but would need to beat Peru in their fi­nal game and hope France did them a favour against the Danes. The odds were length­en­ing. “In the game against Den­mark, our striker – and also the sec­ond striker and our num­ber 10 – some­times they pressed in the wrong mo­ment,” van Mar­wijk said in the days af­ter. “They did it on their own, then the rest of the team can­not come close to them. There was too much space be­tween the lines and it was too dif­fi­cult to con­trol mid­field plays for the game. So that is a mo­ment you can ex­plain they do some things them­selves… only you have to do the right things your­selves.” While the Soc­ceroos rued a chance to take all three points in Sa­mara, back home a coun­try raged. News­pa­pers and ex-in­ter­na­tion­als de­manded why Cahill, for so long Aus­tralia’s saviour, hadn’t re­ceived a minute yet. Some ac­cused van Mar­wijk of dis­re­spect­ing a na­tional sport­ing icon in Cahill. Others di­rected their abuse at Kruse, who had proved largely in­ef­fec­tual in front of goal against Den­mark. The on­line vit­riol aimed at Kruse turned ugly and in­cluded death threats. Back at their Kazan train­ing base, se­cu­rity was stepped up in re­sponse to the out­burst. The Soc­ceroos them­selves closed ranks around their un­der-fire team­mate. “For his own peo­ple, Aus­tralians, to be slag­ging him off, it’s not OK and ev­ery­one’s up­set about it,” Leckie said. “It’s re­ally dis­ap­point­ing what’s been said. We’re rep­re­sent­ing Aus­tralia and peo­ple are say­ing those bad things. It’s un­der­stand­able peo­ple might like other play­ers more than others, but it doesn’t give any­one a right to abuse a player. “It’s very hard to stay away from it. It’s sad be­cause we rep­re­sent our coun­try as play­ers and he’s do­ing all he can to rep­re­sent him­self, his fam­ily and our coun­try. Hope­fully it tones down and peo­ple can un­der­stand the rea­son be­hind why he’s play­ing. He’s not play­ing be­cause the coach has a pri­vate lik­ing to him, (it’s be­cause) he does so much for the team on the pitch that peo­ple don’t see.” Aziz Be­hich also stepped in to de­fend Kruse. “It’s peo­ple who sit be­hind a com­puter and they’ve prob­a­bly never kicked a ball be­fore,” Be­hich said. “It’s a bit dis­ap­point­ing, it’s got no part in our game. Ul­ti­mately, it’s just a sport. We’re out here to en­ter­tain and do a job. Krusey’s a true pro­fes­sional and he’s a good mate as well. “I love hav­ing him around, we play on the left side to­gether and for the peo­ple who crit­i­cise him, I don’t think they ac­tu­ally watch the game and how hard he works dur­ing the game, es­pe­cially de­fen­sively and how he wears down the op­po­nent. What he’s been through in his ca­reer like in­jury set­backs and for him to be at a World Cup in the first XI, I think a lot of play­ers would’ve crum­bled a long time ago. It just shows the char­ac­ter he’s got.” Head­ing into the Peru clash, the mis­sion was com­pletely clear – de­feat the South Amer­i­cans and hope France prove too good for Den­mark. Goal dif­fer­ence could be Aus­tralia’s sav­ing grace. The team trav­elled to Sochi – Rus­sia’s ver­sion of the Gold Coast – with de­bate sur­round­ing whether Cahill and Arzani would re­ceive more min­utes. Would van Mar­wijk throw cau­tion to the wind? Would ‘Timmy’ start and get his chance at scor­ing at a his­toric fourth World Cup? Could a poacher like Maclaren be also thrown into the fray? The Dutch­man though was not for turn­ing and stayed true to his ear­lier form. As ex­pected, Juric re­placed the in­jured Nab­bout and no other changes were made. The Soc­ceroos ap­proached the Peru game as they had their other two Group C fix­tures: they would rely on their dis­ci­pline, or­gan­i­sa­tion and structure to get the re­sult they craved. The day be­fore the game, for­mer FFA chair­man Frank Lowy flew in to give the team a pep talk.

At Fisht Sta­dium, in swel­ter­ing hu­mid­ity, La Blan­quir­roja fans were out in full force. Sochi was awash with red and white. The Soc­ceroos would not be able to rely on more crowd sup­port this time. But the start to the game was promis­ing – Aus­tralia set­tling quicker than their Latino op­po­si­tion. Rogic was caus­ing prob­lems in mid­field and Leckie and Kruse were find­ing space on the flanks. Then came the sucker punch in the 18th minute. A long ball reached Pablo Guer­rero in space af­ter Sains­bury’s er­ror. Was Guer­rero off­side? Maybe by a mil­lime­tre, but play went on re­gard­less and he found An­dre Car­illo in sup­port. The Benefica for­ward made no mis­take with a stun­ning, un­stop­pable vol­ley. 1-0 to Peru and the Soc­ceroos’ mis­sion had just about be­come im­pos­si­ble. The In­cas had barely been in the game but still they were a goal ahead. Aus­tralia re­sponded with Rogic danc­ing past de­fend­ers and set­ting up chances for Leckie, Kruse and Juric. But the fin­ish­ing was poor and Peru scram­bled to block shots and close down space. It stayed at 1-0 as half-time dawned and the Soc­ceroos’ hopes got slim­mer and slim­mer. Not long af­ter the break and it was game over. Guer­rero turned his marker and his shot, de­flected off Mil­li­gan, beat Ryan on the way into the net… 2-0 and good­night Aus­tralia. Van Mar­wijk turned to his bench and threw on Cahill, then Arzani and Irvine in des­per­a­tion. The green and gold’s in­ten­sity rose and chances con­tin­ued to open up, but no goals fol­lowed. As the Aussies surged for­ward, huge gaps were left at the back. Only the post stopped Peru go­ing 3-0 ahead. It was an­other after­noon where the ball just would not go in. In the end the Soc­ceroos had fired in 14 shots to Peru’s four, but the Peru­vians were as clin­i­cal as a sur­geon. There was no fairy­tale Cahill fin­ish. Aus­tralia were out of the World Cup, sent pack­ing dis­ap­point­edly with only a sin­gle point from three fix­tures (although that was still one more point than in 2014). The sta­tis­tics af­ter­wards made for alarm­ing read­ing: The Soc­ceroos had failed to win a match at a World Cup tour­na­ment for the third time in their five par­tic­i­pa­tions. They have not kept a clean sheet in any of their 13 matches at their last four World Cups be­tween 2006 and 2018. Aus­tralia had been hard to beat, tough to break down, but of­fered lit­tle in at­tack and that ul­ti­mately proved their down­fall. “Against France, we were at least equal, and against Den­mark even bet­ter and this was the same but we couldn’t score and that’s some­thing this squad are lack­ing at this level,” van Mar­wijk con­ceded. “If you cre­ate chances, you have to score. “I saw France and Den­mark against Peru and in both games they had chances to win both those games like we did, so you can come to the con­clu­sion that France and Den­mark had more luck than ei­ther of us.” In Sochi af­ter the game, the play­ers praised van Mar­wijk and his staff’s in­flu­ence. They be­lieved progress had been made in Rus­sia, de­spite the early exit. Je­d­i­nak and Mil­li­gan re­mained non-com­mit­tal about their fu­tures with the na­tional team, while Cahill de­parted with­out a word to the press. Arzani was off to Lon­don to meet with his agent, as a Euro­pean move from Mel­bourne City beck­oned. The post-mortem, both Down Un­der and in Rus­sia, rolled on. An­other hon­ourable loss from the Soc­ceroos, an­other World Cup of hope and prom­ise but ul­ti­mately ended in fail­ure. Many were tired of the re­cur­ring sto­ry­line. Van Mar­wijk had got Aus­tralia or­gan­ised and structure, but like Postecoglou, couldn’t get them out of the group stage. And with that, the Dutch ex­per­i­ment was over and the Gra­ham Arnold era has now of­fi­cially be­gun. The prob­lems of find­ing a striker and get­ting the at­tack to fire are now left to Arnold and his staff to an­swer. With the Asian Cup less than six months away, the for­mer Syd­ney FC boss has no time to waste. Arnold will have to make do with the tools at his dis­posal. A na­tion waits and watches to see what hap­pens next.

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Left Fears of be­com­ing French toast were al­layed by a strong Aussie per­for­mance. Right There’s only one beard you turn to for a World Cup spot kick...

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