Low expectations accompany Aussie outsiders
It was only Australia's second FIFA World CupT and their first in more than 30 years when they qualified for Germany 2006. You could assume that this is being praised as the continuation of a glorious era now that the Socceroos are qualified for their sixth straight global championships.
However, there isn't really a lot of optimism or anticipation surrounding the team's trip to Qatar. Most Australian supporters didn't anticipate being in this situation earlier this year, and many even called for the team's coach to be fired at that time.
Graham Arnold is made of stern stuff, though, and his vow – that the out-of-form Socceroos would “get the job done” in June’s Doha play-offs – was borne out by narrow, hard-fought wins over United Arab Emirates and Peru.
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Arnold reflected after that “no-one in Australia had given us a chance”, and described his side’s qualification – at the end of a COVID-hit campaign in which they had to play 14 of their 18 preliminary matches overseas – as “one of the greatest achievements ever”.
It would be incorrect to imply, however, that the tenacity displayed in those play-offs has inspired a rise in confidence among Socceroos supporters. Those fans will head into Qatar 2022 with low expectations and modest ambitions due to their team's lack of stars from previous World Cups and their track record of failing to win any of their six games.
Arnold’s approach and tactics
It may not come as a surprise that the Australia coach has chosen a style that is best characterized as functional given that his team lacks stunning individual skill.
It is quite doubtful that Arnold's Socceroos would dominate Qatar 2022 in terms of goals scored and chances created. They are not a squad that aims to control possession. Additionally, despite their coach's early comments that he wanted to model his Australia team after Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool, they don't frequently press hard and high in the opponent's half.
This Socceroos team has often been constructed on the pillars of shape, stability, and an emphasis on taking advantage of set-piece situations, and more of the same may be anticipated in Qatar. Arnold has still always made an effort to incorporate players with the potential to produce the spectacular, such as Ajdin Hrustic and Tom Rogic. Additionally, the addition of Martin Boyle, a Scotsman, has given the club the much-needed speed on the counterattack.
The Australia coach has additionally shown that he is open to trying new things and is willing to take chances by putting different formations to the test this year. The best illustration of the latter was his eventually inspired choice to substitute Andrew Redmayne for captain and starting goalkeeper Mat Ryan in the shootout versus Peru, where the 'grey wiggle' ultimately prevailed.
Star man: Ajdin Hrustic
Born to a Bosnian father and Romanian mother, Hrustic could have represented either of these European nations – and was courted by the former. But there was never any question of him rejecting the country of his birth.
“Australia gave me everything. They also gave my mum and dad a life,” he said recently. “They flew from Bosnia in 1995; Australia accepted them, gave them a house, they had work.”
That fateful ’95 flight has provided the Hrustics’ adopted country with, arguably, the most talented Socceroo of his generation. The attacking midfielder was certainly the star of Australia’s qualifying campaign, scoring the winner in the AFC play-off victory over UAE having previously found the net with a couple of stunning free-kicks along the way. Watch out for more of those in Qatar.
Hrustic, who won the UEFA Europa League with Eintracht Frankfurt last season and is now playing in Serie A with Verona, also boasts experience of elite European leagues that most of his team-mates lack.
One to watch: Tom Rogic
Many Australian supporters would like to see Garang Kuol in this section. The highly regarded kid was recently signed on a long-term contract by Newcastle United of the English Premier League. Arnold has given him a cap, but the Socceroos coach has downplayed hopes for him to play a significant role at the World Cup, saying the 18-year-old "has a long, long way to go."
But Australia might have a secret weapon in the form of a much older player. Rogic caused a stir when he pulled out of the Socceroos' World Cup play-offs for unknown personal reasons. He then spent the following four months, having just finished a successful run at Celtic, appearing unhurried to find a new team.
But now that the 29-year-old attacking midfielder is back with West Bromwich Albion, Arnold has hinted that a World Cup recall is likely. The Australia coach is aware that this sluggish, extraordinarily talented No. 10 is the best player on his team at finding gaps in opposing defenses and making long-range shots.
Australia’s World Cup history
The Socceroos weren't visible on the international stage until 1974, when a team made up primarily of part-timers played admirably and earned Australia its first point with a 0-0 draw against Peru.
The Australian flag didn't fly for another 32 years, but when it did, the country was transformed into a football powerhouse with a star-studded lineup. With players like Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, and Tim Cahill on the team, Germany 2006 is still regarded as the team's pinnacle moment, as they advanced to the round of 16 before falling to eventual champions Italy on the strength of a contentious late penalty.
But while they have been to every World Cup since, the Socceroos have crashed out at the group stage each time and picked up just one point from a possible 18 across Brazil 2014 and Russia 2018. Improving on that dismal recent record will be the challenge for Arnold and his team of Aussie underdogs in Qatar.
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