With the future of head coach Ange Postecoglou still uncertain, the team still relying on Tim Cahill and a stagnant A-League, all is not well for the Socceroos
17 November ~ On the morning after Australia’s 3-1 win over Honduras secured a fourth successive World Cup qualification, the front page of Brisbane’s Courier-Mail said simply “Yes! Australia” – referring both to the game and the result of the country’s postal survey on same-sex marriage, which returned a 61.6 per cent vote in favour on the same day.
The sentiment felt right, but in both cases “Yes, but...” might have been equally accurate. Politicians are still wrangling over legislation to implement the marriage vote, and the relief at reaching Russia was qualified by some nagging questions over the national team.
The first and most obvious is the fate of the coach, Ange Postecoglou, whose relationship with the media and the football public took an alarming downward turn in the latter stages of the campaign. Postecoglou was a breath of fresh air when he was brought in before the 2014 finals, after the increasingly grim tenures of Pim Verbeek and Holger Osieck. As a local coach steeped in Australia’s football culture who prized possession-based, adventurous football, his stock rose to untouchable heights when Australia won the Asian Cup on home soil in 2015, after a lively, if winless, 2014 World Cup performance.
But the current campaign turned into a sometimes agonising marathon, as the team struggled for fluency and Postecoglou became increasingly tetchy, offering spiky and dismissive responses to questions over his tactics and selections. Even after the Honduras victory, the coach complained that he would “always be an outsider” in Australian football.
He has framed the disagreements as pressure on him to adopt a more defensive, pragmatic approach, but in truth most fans and journalists have been more frustrated by the lack of a cutting edge at the end of his side’s painstaking build-up play than any defensive frailty – although there has been plenty of that too. In particular, a 2-2 draw with Thailand in Bangkok and failure to win the return by more than a single goal (a game in which the Socceroos had 39 shots, 16 corners and 70 per cent possession) cost Australia automatic qualification and sent them into the exhausting play-off rounds with Syria and Honduras.
At the time of writing Postecoglou still would not confirm or deny media reports over the past month that he would not take the team to Russia. Whoever is in charge will take a settled and potentially competitive squad, with one glaring weakness – the failure to find a successor to Tim Cahill, who will be 38 by the time of the finals and is currently not even starting for his A-League club, Melbourne City. Mile Jedinak’s deflected free-kick and two penalties that won the Honduras tie only served to underline the team’s struggles to score from open play.
Still, with the A-League stagnant and an interminable dispute over the governance of the game still unresolved (despite FIFA’s novel intervention as purported guardian of democracy), nothing could have been more dispiriting and divisive than a feeble exit in front of the 77,000 crowd in Sydney on Wednesday. “Yes, but...” will definitely do for now. Mike Ticher