Big challenge for Ange Postecoglou
28 October ~ The new Australian national team coach, Ange Postecoglou, is a large, gruff man, whose brief international career as a player ended in 1988, as Australia beat New Zealand 2-0 in a friendly in front of 3,000 people in the Victorian town of Bendigo. Postecoglou, who won four caps, was probably not too disappointed he missed the next game, a 1-0 World Cup qualifying defeat to Fiji. Postecoglou's roots in those times of struggle and his solid career with South Melbourne in the old National Soccer League (including an unflattering cameo in the 1991 grand final) are now relevant to the national team again.
After eight largely disappointing years under foreign coaches, he is charged with reconnecting the Socceroos to the rest of Australian football, while convincing sceptics that local coaching has come far enough to cut it on the international stage.
Australian football has thrown some strange shapes in the eight years since the last local coach, Frank Farina, was shown the door. In June 2005 it was just emerging from its long-established hourglass shape, with strong grassroots enthusiasm and a popular national side, but a feeble professional league. The arrival of Guus Hiddink as Farina's replacement and the start of the A-League in that 2005 season seemed to promise better things to come on all fronts. As it turned out, Hiddink's brief but glorious tenure, securing qualification for the World Cup and a memorable performance in Germany, was a high water mark.
Since then the middle has bulged unevenly, with the A-League progressing in fits and starts, but the head has withered under Hiddink's successors, the Dutchman Pim Verbeek and German Holger Osieck. Successive 6-0 defeats against Brazil and France sealed Osieck's fate but his hold on the job, like Verbeek's, was made more tenuous by a distant relationship with the football public and the local players. Neither showed much interest in the A-League, either as a direct source of players or an important breeding ground for the longer-term.
That attitude seemed to matter much less in 2006, when Australia had a crop of players doing well in top European leagues. That generation has well and truly faded – of the current squad no one is performing at a higher level than Mile Jedinak in Crystal Palace's relegation effort and Robbie Kruse as a regular substitute for Bayer Leverkusen. On the other hand, the A-League has developed to a point where its players have to be considered as serious contenders for a national team otherwise relying on mostly ageing legionnaires scattered from Japan to Switzerland via Qatar.
Enter Postecoglou, until last week the coach of Melbourne Victory, who made his name by turning Brisbane Roar into the most sophisticated and successful team in the A-League (this time directly picking up the pieces from Farina, given his cards by the Roar in messy circumstances in 2009). Before that Postecoglou spent seven years coaching Australia's Under-17 and Under-20 teams, a period of limited success that ended not long after his now famous confrontation with the pundit Craig Foster live on TV.
But Postecoglou's appointment has been hailed by just about everyone in the media and among the large contingent of former Socceroos who watch anxiously over the national team's progress. That confidence rests largely on the transformation he wrought at Brisbane, whose modern, positive, youthful pressing and possession game contrasted so markedly with the recent stodge served up by the national team under Osieck.
Whether he can quickly translate that into a convincing display in Brazil or, more realistically, when Australia hosts the Asian Cup in January 2015, remains to be seen. But in a country where the domestic league and the national team have had a tortuous and mostly long-distance relationship, for once any success for the Socceroos would also reflect well on the credibility of the A-League. Mike Ticher