For those well-versed in football and Australian sport, the Australian national team’s early exit from the World Cup should come as no surprise. The three losses – to Chile, the Netherlands and Spain – can be mostly explained by football’s global nature.
While Australians boast about the country’s prowess in swimming, netball, rugby league, rugby union and Australian Rules football, these sports do not have the international reach and diverse competition of association football. Australia cracked in Brazil because of the competitive nature of the sport. Australians need to realise there is a different magnitude to the prestige associated with being a World Cup winner in football, compared to that associated with world championships in swimming or hockey.
We did, however, learn much from Australia’s overall performance in Brazil. First, the team played outstanding football in patches against Chile and the Netherlands, especially in the first half against the Dutch. Even during its 34-year absence from the World Cup, Australia always played with a never-say-die attitude and overachieved against higher-credentialed opponents.
Australia coach Ange Postecoglou could have been tempted to “park the bus” (football-speak for tight marking and defending) in front of the opposition’s goal, and limit the heaviness of the losses. He chose instead to go for results and play positive, attacking football. The national football team regained the respect of the Australian public, which had been wavering in the wake of poor results and a coach sacking last year.
Postecoglou also axed most of the remnants of the “golden generation”, such as Lucas Neill, Mark Schwarzer and Harry Kewell, and regenerated the team with youth. Since his appointment, Postecoglou has made it clear that there would be no-one would be entitled to a place in the squad on past glories alone.
Before Postecoglou, Australian coaches failed to re-energise and reinvigorate the team after the success of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The coaches were not keen enough to exclude the golden generation despite some of the players having lost their hunger. This was reflected in their performances, and as a result, Australia didn’t dominate against weaker teams such as Jordan, Iraq or Qatar in qualifying for Brazil.
Australia is heading in the right direction football-wise, and there is little doubt that the national team will play in the Asian Cup final, which Australia will host next year. Young players such as Matthew Leckie (arguably Australia’s best performer across the three games), Oliver Bozanic and Ben Halloran will lead the charge to make Australia the dominant football nation in Asia.
While the performances were encouraging, critics of the Australian team and the sport in general will argue that the results speak for themselves. Australia played three, lost three, conceded nine and scored three. In fact, Australia has played six games in 2014 and lost all but one (a draw against South Africa).
However, it would be foolish to be troubled. Football is here to stay in Australia, and there is reason to be hopeful about what the future will bring. The A-League is a now legitimate national competition, even though it sits behind Australian Rules football and rugby league in commercialised sport.
While football has always enjoyed very high levels of youth participation, its growth in the grassroots level is almost complete. Today, at the grass-roots level, football is the dominant sport in diverse communities including former rugby heartlands in western Sydney.
Even elite private schools, such as Newington College in Sydney, now have more football than rugby union teams. At the University of Sydney, the firsts’ football team is coached by former national coach Raul Blanco and there are more 40 teams in competition. Football is now the preferred sport in various girls’ private schools.
If Australia can avoid the unhelpful trend of hothousing young players, the talent pool will continue to grow.
Mainstream Australia may now finally realise what the rest of the world understood more than 90 years ago when the World Cup was first held. There are many social and educational benefits that are worthy of pursuing through playing and supporting football – but internationally, the competition is stiff.