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...
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.
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...