No wins and no points, but plenty of memories. Matt Tilby dissects Australia’s time at the 2014 World Cup.
“We Socceroos can do the impossible.”
This quote from Australia’s 1974 World Cup captain Peter Wilson not only adorns the inside of the new 2014 kit, but also defines the workmanlike effort and determination of a footballing nation more often than not seen as also-rans.
It’s fair to say that the campaign for the World Cup’s lowest ranked team could have easily been a disaster: grouped with the reigning champions, the finalists and one of South America’s powerhouses, it couldn’t have been any more difficult. But Australians love a hard task. They thrive in difficult conditions and more often than not are happy to brandish the underdog tag.
While the Socceroos appeared a fresh, young and unheralded outfit in Brazil, 18 months ago the same could not be said about the state of the side. Beginning their qualifying campaign in Brisbane against Thailand, following an acceptable effort at the 2011 Asian Cup, the team featured a number of the older contingent of Australian representatives.
Despite qualifying with a nervy victory over Iraq on the final matchday, Football Federation Australia officials began to doubt the side’s ability to appear competitive on the biggest stage in world football. Their worst fears were realised, following consective 6-0 thumpings to Brazil and France late last year. Despite taking Australia to the World Cup, then-manager Holger Osieck would not be the one managing there, having been removed from his post shortly after these games.
Despite the interest from Guus Hiddink, who is still revered in Australian football circles, FFA quite rightly looked for a replacement from within their own shores. Hiddink’s “golden generation” could have only taken the team so far, and the stubbornness, arrogance and lack of faith in youth from Osieck prompted a wholesale change.
Ange Postecoglou was the man to enact it.
While some scratched their head in the decision to appoint a former Australian youth team manager over some of the finest managers of the last decade, including Hiddink, many who had previously seen his work were more than happy to welcome him into his post.
Here was a man who had given A-League side Brisbane Roar a complete overhaul, outlawing the chummy, “best friends with the boss” mentality, and injecting youth into a side which had previously believed experience was the way forward. Having used just half a season to determine his team, Postecoglou began the rebuild, and it paid off in the most rewarding of ways.
Having finished 9th the season before, Brisbane under Ange won not only the 2010-11 A-League minor premiership but also the championship, and saw the Roar begin what would eventually become the longest undefeated streak in all of Australian sport – an astonishing 36 matches – en route to a second consecutive championship.
Postecoglou was – and still is – a hard taskmaster. He’s not afraid to speak his mind, but only with conviction and intelligence. It’s an appointment that breathed new life into the national team, as Osieck’s tenure appeared negative, both in manner and managerial style.
It showed with the announcement of the squad that would represent the country in Brazil. Of the 23 players named, a staggering 17 had played in, or were still currently playing, in the A-League. A further 5 who had plied their trade in Australia’s top football league at some stage were cut in the preliminary phase, showing the faith that Postecoglou had in the competition that made him a household name in Australian football. It was also a damning response to the ignorance of the past two national coaches, whose belief that the A-League would never provide players good enough for Australia pushed the game back years.
Throughout Postecoglou’s tenure, there have been no doubts about the team’s style of play: cut-throat, aggressive and forward thinking. While defensively looking slightly fragile, as evidenced in the opening twenty minutes of their World Cup game against Chile, Ange gave the back four license to roam, allowing fleet-footed wingbacks Ivan Franjic and Jason Davidson to attack with intent. Wingers Tommy Oar and Mathew Leckie were not simply seen as support for the strikers; they were told to pin their ears back, run at the defence and “have a red hot go.” Gone was the pointless long ball, replaced by overlapping runs and smart through balls.
Not only does this style of play provide an exciting, entertaining and rewarding experience, it was also a far cry from the dour, route one football that had seen Australia limp towards Brazil rather than march to it.
That was one of the major talking points of Postecoglou’s management: his beliefs and connection with his players. While a decent tactician, the former South Melbourne defender was a fantastic man motivator, who believed in getting the best out of his players mentally and playing up to the Australian mentalities of effort and mateship.
It showed on that afternoon in Porto Alegre – any other Australian team would have crumbled under the pressure of facing the team who had dismantled the reigning world champions 5-1. But even after Arjen Robben raced on to a loose ball in midfield and slotted past Mat Ryan, no one, in their wildest dreams, would have predicted the response.
Tim Cahill – a man more accustomed to scoring goals with his head – took a long floated ball from Ryan McGowan, pushed off the shoulder of Holland defender Daryl Janmaat and pulled out a sumptuous volley that rattled the crossbar and bounced into the roof of the net. Pandemonium. Australia had equalised, and the man who pulled them back from the brink against Chile had provided even more fireworks. The lowest ranked team in the tournament were giving Louis van Gaal – the incoming Manchester United manager – a real run for his money.
And it seemed to galvanise the underdogs. Not long after half time, Ollie Bozanic persevered to chase down a nothing ball, and with a stroke of luck wins Australia a penalty. Converted by Australia’s captain, the uncompromising Mile Jedinak, the image of the skipper walking away to celebrate, stone-faced and fists clenched, was a message. Australia wasn’t just here to make up the numbers. While the match didn’t end in Australia’s favour – the Dutch showing too much class and perhaps a little luck with the game winning goal – the rest of the tournament noticed. The gutsy and gallant Socceroos were receiving attention of the right kind.
And so, Australia travelled to Curitiba in the most unexpected frame of mind. Incredibly, many believed that one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history was on the cards. Spain were already knocked out of the tournament and this match signalled the changing of the guard, with many players, including Melbourne-bound David Villa, perhaps playing their last match for the number one ranked side in the world.
But there would be no Australian fairytale. Villa cheekily flicked home a cross to open the scoring, while Fernando Torres and Juan Mata completed the scoring for the Spaniards. Australia were determined, but ultimately outclassed. There was no shame in the performance; they had been paired with a side with too much quality.
Australia finished their World Cup campaign with no wins, no points and 3 goals for, compared to 9 goals against. For any other team in Brazil, that would be considered laughable. But not for Australia. While the Green and Gold were humbled, they were not embarrassed. The three games they played against world class teams was a learning experience; one that will serve them well for the 2015 Asian Cup, being held in Australia. They will serve as the arrival of the new generation of the Socceroos, and as a reminder of the gutsy, inspired effort that encapsulates all Australian sporting teams.