Sunday, 3 February 2008

On the road to find out

This Wednesday sees the start to another World Cup qualifying campaign for Australia. Rather like ring marks on a tree, I often muse on marking my life as a series of Aussie qualifying campaigns - how many left for me, I wonder?

This time around has a particular resonance, since it has the somewhat novel distinction of coming off the back of a successful campaign last time . Somewhat novel, but not unique, as I remember the last time this happened, with the qualifying campaign for the 1978 World Cup.

There was a similar euphoria when Australia qualified for and played in the 1974 World Cup. The buoyant mood helped provide the momentum to kick off a national competition, the Philips Soccer League in 1977.

With the national team, things were less rosy. Political infighting (largely NSW versus the rest of Australia) had contrived to produce a new national coach that in fact none of the states wanted - a Mr Nobody from the north of England called Jimmy Shoulder.

And thus we entered another qualifying campaign through Asia. First of all, there was the matter of dispensing with Taiwan, Fiji and New Zealand, then into the final qualifying group comprising South Korea, Iran, Kuwait, Hong Kong and Australia. In July 1977 I tripped along to Hindmarsh Stadium in Adelaide to see the Aussies breeze past Hong Kong 3-0, with local boy John Kosmina scoring twice. The Aussies were untroubled but not terribly convincing.

Fast forward 31 years, and Australia faces a rather different challenge in its hopeful path to South Africa in 2010. It's back in Asia for WC qualifying for the first time since 1977. (It would have faced Asian opposition in 1981 had it been able to get past New Zealand).

It's been slightly surreal to see Australia's first-up opponent Qatar training assiduously in Melbourne with its entire squad intact, while Australia has a most splintered build-up for this qualifier. It appears likely that nearly the entire eleven who kick off on Wednesday will have arrived only one or two days prior to the match, and be subject to the tactical desires of a new coach for the first time.

Back 31 years ago, Australia drew strength from its playing squad, all home-based, getting very used to playing with each other. These were the days when it was still not unusual for the national team to organise tours around the world to help the playing group gel.

I recall the first time that Australia made a particular point of rushing back overseas players, in this instance player, in the case of Eddie Krncevic for the critical qualifier against Israel in 1989. It failed - Krncevic, our most credentialled player, failed to spark, and Australia disappeared from the qualifying race.

So it's not the ideal set up for the Aussies in their first hit out. And frankly, there's not much latitude for Australia to have a shaky start, with Qatar nominally the weakest of our three opponents in this group. A draw at home would put pressure on from the outset; a loss, even scarier to contemplate.

Pesky Sydneysiders will point to Melbourne being a "bad luck" venue for the Aussies, harking back to the failed play-offs in 1997 and 2001, although Melburnians could point to Sydney playing its part in failures in 1981, 1989 and 1993! Thinking of Asian opponents and that 1977 campaign, I recall the wheels started to fall off in Melbourne when Dave Harding missed a penalty against Iran, who won 1-0.

By all accounts, the Qataris will be defending solidly and hoping to catch Australia on the break. It's likely to test the patience of Australia to find a way through Qatar's defence. Celtic's Scott Macdonald could be key to converting whatever chances Australia can manufacture. Tim Cahill will be another important element.

The road to determining Australia's 2010 destiny starts on Wednesday. It could be a nervy night.


Beechmont United said...

Interestingly you don't mention Pim Verbeek's reluctance to call on Kewell, Beauchamp or Carle as cause for concern. Also if Mexicans south of the border are going to quibble about luck in qualification games at their respective venues then maybe Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium should host the Qatar game. What do you think? Nice use of Yusuf Islam's song for your title and too bad the game wasn't being played tomorrow because then your follow up piece could be called "Tuesdays Dead". I enjoy your observations and wish you and the Socceroos luck on Wednesday.

Murtoa Road said...

Thanks Beechmont. I think Aussie Pim’s failing at present is the bluntness of his communication with the darlings of the media. In the case of Kewell, I assume Harry’s somewhat underdone nature and general fragility are reason enough to allow him miss this one – and maybe save him up for some of the bigger fixtures ahead – whether he’s made the right call on this will be clearer once Thursday morning has broken (urgh!). Carle himself has admitted his playing time lately (on the outer in Turkey, just starting with Bristol City) means he’s not ideally placed to contribute. Beauchamp I'm less sure of. I just hope Verbeek has communicated appropriately with these players, particularly Kewell, for whom a reversion to the bad old Farina days of “misunderstandings” would be tiresome and ultimately at Australia’s cost. Re Suncorp, indeed why not? FFA has been remarkably coy in outlining who gets the balance of the fixtures, although Sydney is lamentably in the box seat for the big ‘uns.