The Socceroos’ narrow win over Syria did not pacify a country who expect more from their national team, despite the relative lack of talent available
12 October ~ Australia’s hopes of reaching a fourth consecutive World Cup are still alive, but only just. Had Omar Al Soma’s last-minute free kick been an inch to the left of the post, it would have been Syria rather than the Socceroos who would be heading for an intercontinental play-off against Honduras. Not that Australia could have had many complaints. Since qualifying started back in 2015, the road to Russia has become something on an ordeal for the team in green and gold.
Since the Socceroos moved to the Asian confederation a little over a decade ago, they’ve never failed to qualify for the World Cup but have laboured badly over this current campaign. Drawn into a relatively straightforward group, Australia started brightly but a series of draws, including against bottom side Thailand, and a failure to beat Japan forced them into a play-off against a well-drilled Syrian side.
Much of the blame has been directed at national coach Ange Postecoglou, whose demeanour has grown increasingly prickly during the campaign. As one of Australia’s most successful coaches in the modern era, Postecoglou’s achievements in taking the Socceroos to the 2015 Asian Cup title have been quickly forgotten during a season where tactics and personnel have changed regularly, with the coach unable to settle on a favoured formation or line-up.
Postecoglou can point, with some justification, to Australia’s shallow pool of players to pick from. Tim Cahill is still heading the attack at the age of 37, while left-back Brad Smith has been a regular pick despite only seeing 90 minutes of League Cup action with Bournemouth this season. Nonetheless, decisions to bench Huddersfield’s Aaron Mooy, one of the few players to be playing regularly in a top European league, and persisting with Hertha Berlin winger Mathew Leckie at wing-back, have tested the patience of fans and pundits alike to the point that Postecoglou may not even make it to the World Cup, even if he gets the better of Honduras next month.
Years spent in the Oceania federation mean Australia are used to tight qualification play-offs and memories are still fresh of John Aloisi’s penalty against Uruguay in 2005 to take the Socceroos to their first World Cup in 32 years. But qualification is now expected rather than hoped for despite this current squad not being on the same level of the golden generation of Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka et al, and celebrations in the stands following the Syria victory were rather muted. For a nation that has winning built into its sporting mentality, the concept of a mediocre team who are neither a plucky underdog nor particularly successful is proving hard to get behind. Gary Andrews