Preview 3 – Australia

As a footballer, you have pride in yourself and your performance and helping your mates out. But right now, without doubt, we’re going to get hammered.

For a nation whose image within the popular sporting psyche is one of relentless bellicosity, former captain Paul Wade’s summary of Australian prospects in Brazil make for sobering reading. A lack of self-confidence is not something usually associated with our antipodean cousins, whose monolithic prowess at those other Anglian sporting exports of cricket and rugby was built on the cult of the larrikin – a term reclaimed from its pejorative origins to become a byword for an uncompromising and unremitting desire for victory.

No matter the odds or unfavourable conditions, we have grown accustomed to expecting a degree of chest-jutting belligerence from the Australians (a notion that, perhaps uncomfortably, extends beyond the parameters of sporting achievement and finds its genesis in the ANZAC campaign at Galipoli). The perilous draw in 2006 was met with a determined shrug followed by an expectation-confounding progression to the knock-out stages. An even more unnavigable draw in 2010 brought a near miss tinged with misfortune and a sense of underachievement. Australia, it seemed, had cemented a place as serious players in the second tier of international football.

As Wade’s comments illustrate, this bright future has not so much stalled as started rolling backwards down the hill – sparks flying and passengers wailing, like a bad scene from Last Of The Summer Wine. It’s not just Wade playing down the Socceroos’ chances. In a particularly joyless set of media briefings prior to this tournament, manager Ange Postecoglou has adopted the self-limiter’s vocabulary of choice, bandying about terms like “transition” and “regeneration” and making little secret of the fact that the Asian Cup and the subsequent qualifying campaign for Russia 2018 are this team’s priorities.

Appointed on a ticket of team rejuvenation last October, Postecoglou has overseen the dismantling of 2006’s “Golden Generation” with old stagers like Lucas Neill, Harry Kewell and Mark Schwarzer swiftly jettisoned in favour of a group of younger, predominantly home-based players. The fossilized husk of Tim Cahill is the most notable exception to this rule and he, along with Crystal Palace’s Mile Jedinak, at least provide a modicum of experience in an otherwise embryonic squad. At the time of writing sixteen of Australia’s provisional party have ten caps or fewer. Seven are based domestically – a sign that the A League is slowly improving or that the Australian team is declining, depending on your point of view – with only Swindon Town midfielder Massimo Lugano and Preston defender Bailey Wright joining Jedinak in fulfilling the quota of anglocentric interest so relied upon by commentators.

Openly dismissive of their chances and with a squad so lacking in international nous it makes England’s own youthful effort look like a gaggle of superannuated veterans, Australia would be one of Brazil 2014’s least fancied sides even without the additional barrier of a dreadful draw. Lumped in with 2010’s finalists and a Chilean side who, whilst not quite matching the manic, Bielsa-tinged brilliance of 2010, progressed through the COMMEBOL qualifiers with ease, Australia’s chances look even bleaker than their public self-abasement suggests.

Further testimony to Australia’s status as one of the weakest teams in the tournament comes from their apologetic limp through qualifying – a mix of defensive obduracy and late goal fortune allowing them to cling to contention before a victory over Jordan and fortuitous win against Iran sealed their spot. Unlikely to make much of a mark in Group B or the tournament itself, it is in the very fact that Australia faced the likes of Jordan and Iran in qualifying where the real interest coalesces around this side.

Fed up with routinely racking up double figures against the likes of New Caledonia and Kiribati – a state of affairs so acutely uncompetitive that three of the top four individual goalscoring records in international football are held by Australians – before habitually failing to make it through a play-off, Australia withdrew from the Oceana Football Confederation in 2006. Since then, they have become a case study in geographical disconnection – the apotheosis of the steady erosion of boundaries in international football. Germany may be the popular example in terms of playing staff, and the semi-artificial furore over Adnan Januzaj’s convoluted lineage demonstrated that England are not immune from such intrigue, but for an entire nation to swap affiliation for sporting rather than geopolitical reasons is without precedent in the modern game.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise. In an age where national and individual self-identity has been marketised almost to the point of obsolescence, it is little wonder traditionally rigid lines grow fuzzier. Likewise, the Australian change in perspective is not limited to the sporting sphere, with a steady politico-economic shift towards the geographical expediency of closer ties with China, Japan and Indonesia. As the Oceanic construct begins to look increasingly anachronistic, Australia’s sporting move begins to look like one of a number of fault-lines the full effects of which will be played out over the coming decades. That one of the side effects is the type of habitual World Cup qualification that makes for the dismissal of a quadrennial competition as a transitional staging post is unlikely to be lost on a nation of sporting winners.

Posted by Ron Hamilton

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