I'm the son of an Englishman who has been around long enough as a supporter in both England and Australia to see the issues, and perhaps how to fix them. As you may know by my "This Season In Travel" blog piece from last year, we spend a lot of time together and a lot of time talking football.
Here are my dad Keith's opinions and takes on how to fix Australian football. This will be a series split up into multiple parts, as it discusses many issues and potential fixes. He's been working on this for a long time, since I put him to task to put his opinions into a productive piece.
- - - -
After another heroic World Cup failure™, by the “Socceroos” in 2018 and with the Asian cup underway, I thought it was time to offer my view on just where football in Australia is going wrong, why under the current system it can never succeed at the World Cup and how to fix it.
These are bold statements, so what are my credentials? I am Englishman who has lived in Australia for 26 years. I have followed Fulham and Sydney FC as well as England to one European Championship and one World Cup. I am familiar with abject disappointment and have relished some wonderful highs. I have been a follower of the Australian National team and have been keen for it to be successful – enjoying the Asian Cup experience of 2015 immensely. Luckily, I am just removed enough to have a slightly dispassionate view. I should say that I cannot call them the Socceroos as I feel this is emblematic of the problem. I will adopt Simon Hill’s nomenclature – “The Roos”.
Additionally, I have been involved in community football as a licensed coach for 11 years. I acknowledge that my credentials are no different to many people though strangely, many people I know with similar experiences have similar views to those that I am about to espouse.
Over the years I have watched successive Australian World Cup performances – whether failed qualification campaigns or Finals, I feel that there have been many similarities in the journey to the outcome. Craig Foster, that SBS commentator with whom I often vigorously disagree does, in my opinion, offer one absolutely correct assertion on the National team – though not perhaps in the way he intends.
Foster often talks about a failed performance as not following Australian Football culture, citing some mythical moment when Australia somehow had the background of Brazil, or Argentina or even England that can be traced back to the dawn of time. I should point out that the Roos have won two games in the World Cup Finals – ever. This hardly constitutes a culture – more a burgeoning underdog fighting its way to mid table obscurity.
No, when I think of Australian Football Culture, I think more of the problems that beset the game and believe that the only way forward is to abandon any current perceptions of culture and reinvent – much like Germany did after its disastrous Euro 2000 campaign.
My assertion is that Australian football culture owes too much to the current popular local codes and has become a victim of a cultural cringe to those codes. Worse, the constant belief that the Roos have performed magnificently in defeat and are punching above their weight emanates from a public perception that Australia is basically no good at football and that we shouldn’t expect much. This is a narrative that is undone by the slightest of scrutiny. Australia has over 500,000 registered players – or more players than Iceland has people. We have a population of around 25 million, where Denmark has around 6 million, Uruguay has 4 million and Sweden has 10 million. Ultimately, football is only eleven a side plus substitutes…
1) Underdog syndrome
This leads me to the first key issue in Australian Football – the underdog syndrome. The 2018 World Cup is just one in a long line of tournaments where the team has lost narrowly, have had lots of possession and not conceded many goals. The issue here is that this has been historically constant with plenty of near misses. The reason in this World Cup was that it was the way the team played. It played in an ultra-conservative style with no ruthless striker and the constant threat of Tim Cahill coming off the bench. That’s right 38 year old Cahill with around 65 minutes of competitive game time in 2018, who represents a disciplinary liability having been suspended by the English Football
League for elbowing a player in the face on his last appearance for Millwall. He was clearly along for the marketing (CahillTex – really?) and to appease non-football loving middle Australia.
Make no mistake – he was past it and should not have gone. His place could have been taken up by McLaren who is at least a promising finisher and young. The price being paid six months later is a total absence of a fit and lethal striker.
In Russia, the team was set up to limit the damage. It passed the ball interminably like a low rent Spain in all of the areas where teams don’t get hurt. The lack of striker impacted the approach play and the good fortune in winning two similar penalties hid the general ineptitude in front of goal. The Roos never really looked like scoring.
Then, to compound the heroic failure we have the generally accepted wisdom of all fans that the team was robbed by the referees. We had this in 2006 (it WAS a penalty – not to mention incredibly sloppy defending) and in 2018 when the “harsh“ penalty against France was discussed ignoring the generous one won against Denmark. Bang up to date after the game against Jordan, Mabil was complaining about the referees. This culture of blame deflection needs to end and I hope that Arnie addresses it under his “no dickheads” philosophy. I had the pleasure of chatting to Graham Arnold at the start of the 2017/18 season and this was a clear factor in Sydney’s Double Success.
This feeds the culture crisis in Australian Football, because every four years middle Australia takes a break from AFL, NRL, Swimming, tennis or whatever to cheer on the Roos in a competition they don’t fully understand. When Australia doesn’t win – and it appears they were unlucky with referees, cheating, diving foreigners or the general rub of the green they walk away back to their safe sports which Australia wins at. This plays into the xenophobia of Australian Sport.
I remember trying to explain the away goals rule after the Roos loss to Argentina in 1993. This wasn’t easy as I was talking to someone who didn’t follow any football at all.
- - - -
That concludes part 1 of this long piece. The next part will be published by the end of the week.
I'm interested to hear the thoughts of the public, as well as hopefully spark some good discussion in #SokkahTwitter circles. You can follow my dad on twitter here.
Thank you for reading.
Follow me on twitter @VuvuZuvela