Thursday, 2 December 2010

The $45 million vote

Australians woke to the news this morning that their $45 million investment in attempting to secure the 2022 World Cup hosting rights had yielded just one vote among the 22 FIFA executives.

For the bid team, the news that Australia was eliminated first in the voting process, failing even to trump either South Korea or Japan came as total surprise. Ultimately, this has simply provided another reminder of Australia's modest status and influence in world football.

Respected FFA chair Frank Lowy may boast a successful track record in influencing local politicians, but world football politics is many steps beyond. The ultimate, perhaps, well beyond even playthings such as the Olympics. Asian Football Confederation president Mohamed Bin Hammam demonstrated the benefit of his wide experience at the highest level, directing Qatar to glittering success at the expense of the US.

For FFA chief executive Ben Buckley, success with Australia's bid would have provided the ultimate adornment to his CV and provided a launching pad for greater personal glory. Instead, he along with Lowy will wear much of the blame for Australia's pitiful showing. Others will come in the firing line - Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who stayed away from the final bid presentation ( did she smell failure?) and other less obvious targets such as Aussie Rules chief Andrew Demetriou, cast by Aussie soccer fans as the prime villain for his code's obstruction in the bid process.

The response of the hardcore of Australian football critics within the country will be hard for lovers of the game to bear, but we've been there before, most typically in the wake of past failures by the Socceroos, or with the at times halting progress of the national league. Their pronouncements will be be predictable and painful.

The response of the local populace at large will be more interesting to monitor. There will be those who will crudely dismiss FIFA - and football - as corrupt, dismiss the voting as a simple success for the oil-wealthy, lambast Australia's bid as a total waste of time and effort, and find solace in the familiar, local pursuits which we understand better and with which we have greater success.

Genuine local football followers, devastated, will bounce back. While we will dream of what it would have been like to land the World Cup, and for those of my vintage reflect on the fact that the tournament will now most probably never be hosted in Australia within my lifetime, we are well used to setbacks to our beloved code in our country. As the pundits reflected last night, today feels more than a little like the morning after Iran 2-2 in 1997, and Uruguay 0-3 in 2001. But life goes on, the round ball continues to roll. We keep the faith!

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

A-league, aged 6, misbehaving

On a Friday night in December 2006 I was one of 50,333 who turned up to (then) Telstra Dome to witness Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC play out a 0-0 draw. The game itself never reached great heights but the occasion was unforgettable. Long-time watchers of national league football in Australia like myself were simply pinching themselves that night, never ever contemplating that they would witness a crowd of that proportion attending a club fixture in this country, in our lifetime. It was a night we simply celebrated football.

It couldn't last, of course. The following season provided the high water mark, with every A-league team but Perth Glory averaging gates over 10,000 . Now in season six, Melbourne Victory and Perth Glory are the only clubs to average more than 10,000 per game. And just tonight a barren 2,091 watched Gold Coast host Newcastle, the lowest A-league crowd since the hapless New Zealand Knights hosted Central Coast in their final season.

Worse than this, clubs are haemorrhaging financially under the strain of the reduced level of interest. The league model where cashed-up owners seem to single-handedly determine a team's future seems critically flawed. Newcastle, Gold Coast, North Queensland all in recent trouble. Prior to that Adelaide and Brisbane having to be bailed out.

The FFA has taken the brunt of the criticism from media, fans and the football community with bones of contention being the peak body's focus on the 2022 World Cup bid ahead of support for the A-league, and the lack of a separate and independent body to manage the league's affairs.

For Aussie football fans of a particular vintage, the current woes, together with some of the ludicrous suggestions to fix them, sound awfully like the dreadful lurching of the former National Soccer League over its often painful existence from 1977 to 2004. Some themes:

  • "We need to create a second division" The A-league is struggling to keep 11 clubs afloat, yet there are those who would welcome double the number. The short-lived North and South conferences of the old NSL and the failure rate of so many clubs tells a cautionary tale.
  • "Old soccer needs to be welcomed back to the fold" An undeniable factor in the A-league's success in cities like Melbourne has been the absence of any ethnic association with the clubs.
  • "The FFA needs to be run by soccer people again" The most ludicrous charge in the current mess is that FFA CEO Ben Buckley is apparently an AFL-conspired Trojan Horse, set loose in the FFA to inflict damage on behalf of other codes. The best administrators the peak football body has had in this country have been John O'Neill, a rugby man, and Buckley a former AFL man. The eternal petty politics, back-stabbing, conflicts of interest and sheer amateurism of the former NSL administration remains an ugly memory of days gone by.
  • "We need a national cup competition" Notwithstanding that the FA Cup appears to have shed substantial gloss over recent years, the concept of a national cup competition, where rank amateur suburban clubs could battle progressively through preliminary rounds, later bringing in State League, then A-league clubs, does have a certain romantic appeal. Never mind that similar concepts in the days of NSL never really got off the ground. But the effort required now to make this initiative work would be an unnecessary distraction from making the league work.
  • "It needs to be on free-to-air television" Unsurprisingly, this notion seems to feature most heavily on the website of SBS, the free-to-air network that most covets the rights held by Foxtel. Possibly, the Ten network might be interested in using its One channel for A-league, but I'd be hesitant in assuming that the grass is greener on the free-to-air side of the fence.
Some may categorise this "crisis" as part of the necessary growing pains of a new league. And there are some that are calling for a reality check on attendances, pointing to the rather meagre followings in selected long-established European leagues. But at the least, the FFA needs to find a way, with the clubs, to inject interest back into the A-league. There are many like me that will be desperate to avoid reversion to the bad old days.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Australia - the wash-up

In the end, it was as I predicted. Not that I'm wanting to gloat, and I wished it had all ended differently. But Australia's failure to progress from the group stage was always going to be the most likely outcome.

Pundits and Aussie coach Pim Verbeek pointed to our 4-0 drubbing by Germany as the reason for failure. Not sure I agree. After that game we knew wins against Ghana and Serbia would get us through. We didn't achieve that - and didn't get through.

We weren't helped along in our quest by being down to 10 men in two games. Tim Cahill's red card in the second half against Germany was probably harsh, although his tackle was reckless and naive. Harry Kewell's first half red card v Ghana, despite the hysteria in Australia, was merited. It capped a thoroughly miserable campaign for Australia's pin-up boy (well, Channel 9's at least). But we did have chances to put Ghana away, even though we were disadvantaged numerically. Wilkshire, Kennedy and Chipperfield would have wished for calmer heads and a more adroit touch when faced with gilt-edged chances.

Our strike force always looked under-strength. Verbeek chose only three strikers in his squad - Kennedy, Rukavytsya and Kewell - didn't select any to start against Germany or Ghana, and none of them scored in the three group games. Richard Garcia was bizarrely given a forward assignment in the Germany debacle.

In midfield, it was a very mixed bag. Grella totally down on form, then fitness. Bresciano struggled to impress, a victim of an injury-interrupted few months. Culina went missing for long periods. Cahill only showed against Serbia what he was capable of. Valeri certainly wasn't the worst of this bunch. Emerton did quite well given his long absence leading to the finals. The best, incredibly, was the much-maligned Brett Holman. He was sparky in each of his appearances, and scored a wonderful goal against Serbia. In hindsight, Pim should have given him more minutes.

The concerns in the middle of defence, amplified in the warm-up games, were there for all to see against Germany. Moore, exposed in that fixture, lifted for the Ghana game, which will be his last in the green and gold. Lucas Neill didn't have a great tournament, as player or captain. Beauchamp was an adequate replacement for Moore against Serbia.

Luke Wilkshire contributed throughout, albeit out of his depth on occasion. Chipperfield was poor against Germany, but came back well in his Socceroo swansong. Carney battled gamely.

Pim Verbeek lost his nerve before the Germany game, upsetting team balance with a bizarre line-up bereft of attacking intent. Although pundits such as Craig Foster were totally unforgiving in their damning of Verbeek, the Aussie boss got his tactics more or less right in the last two games. His legacy for Australian football however will be rather anonymous.

Australia now faces a challenging road for 2014 qualification, with the 2006 generation probably all gone by then. Moore and Chipperfield have retired, and Emerton, Kewell, Bresciano, Neill and Grella unlikely to go beyond next year's Asian Cup finals. Culina, Cahill and Schwarzer may last a little longer. Wilkshire, Valeri and Holman may form the basis of the next challenge.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Kiwi joy contrasts Aussie gloom

A delight to see New Zealand snatch a late equaliser against Slovakia in their first finals appearance since 1982. Most of the football world were expecting the plucky Kiwis to be the whipping boys of the tournament but it became quite plain quite quickly in this fixture that they were not going to be over-awed - well not by Slovakia at least.

The attitude from the All Whites even before they arrived in South Africa was quite refreshing. Simply, they had already achieved their goal - to make it to the finals. Anything in addition to that would be pure bonus. And indeed, the bonus has already been realised, with their first point ever in the finals.

Compare and contrast the teeth-gnashing over in the Aussie camp. They have set themselves a target of getting to at least the final 16. And such expectations have been amplified and exaggerated by the mainstream media and the much of fan-dom back in Australia. So therefore in light of their stunning failure against Germany such ambitions appear stymied, just 90 playing minutes into the tournament.

Over my lifetime there's been a ebb and flow between the respective fortunes of the Australian and New Zealand national football teams. Traditionally set against each other in World Cup qualifying, the Socceroos had the edge over the All Whites in the 1970s, managing outright qualification in 1974.

Come 1981 and the tables had turned. Australia lost its way principally owing to the brief and erratic reign of football journeyman Rudi Gutendorf. After the godlike Rale Rasic had been the victim of petty politics, Gutendorf was the third in line of distinctly unimpressive Socceroo managers - Brian Green, who was sacked after caught shoplifting, then the unknown Jimmy Shoulder who failed miserably.

Meanwhile over in the Kiwi camp, Poms John Adhsead and Kevin Fallon assembled a solid bunch of amateurs and semi-pros. After a 3-3 draw in New Zealand, the united Kiwis managed a historic, deserved 2-0 win in Sydney over a clearly disunited Australia. Gutendorf was sacked on the spot, and New Zealand progressed to final Asian qualifying, which turned out to be an epic tale. Nearing the end of the phase, having copped a late equaliser in a critical tie in Kuwait, the Kiwis trudged to Saudi Arabia needing a 5-0 away win to equal China's record, 6-0 or better to progress. History records they blitzed their opponents in the first 45 minutes, scoring 5 times, aided at this stage by an emerging Wynton Rufer, yet in the second half couldn't find the net again. Thus a play-off against China was required; a 2-1 win got them to Spain.

The All Whites managed to out-do the Aussies 1974 effort by actually scoring in Spain, but they lost their three games (the Aussies had eked out a point against Chile).

From 1986 onwards however, the Aussies were back on top, and apart from an Oceania Nations Cup win in 2002, the Kiwis ambitions were continually blocked by their "West Island" neighbours. This all changed for 2010 qualifying with their path suddenly laid clear with the Aussie defection to Asia.

What the rest of the tournament will bring for Kiwis isn't clear. They will be hoping to avoid embarrassment. They've made a very good start in that regard.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Aussies humiliated in Durban

It was a night of acute pain for Australians - fans and players alike - as the Socceroos were outplayed and out classed by Germany. The shortcomings of our squad were exposed and amplified by a bewildering team selection by Verbeek, then the despair was completed with the harsh sending off of strongest outfield player Tim Cahill.

If Verbeek has been known for one thing it has been his blind devotion to players and formations. Thus it was a major surprise to see Richard Garcia given an attacking spot alongside Cahill, and for Bresciano and Kennedy to be dropped to the bench. Verbeek stated the latter two hadn't shown good from in the lead-up games, but then neither had Garcia. As it turned out Garcia had a great opportunity in the opening minutes to put Australia ahead, a half-chance that perhaps a Scott McDonald may have taken, but that chance was spurned.

One thing Verbeek can't be blamed for was the very poor performance of Lucas Neill at the back. His attempt to catch the German attackers offside ahead of their opening goal was poorly judged and naive. He gave Klose too much space for the German striker to make it no.2 later in the half, and Neill seemed more occupied with berating the officials than on lifting his team. Reflecting on Neill's pre-match extolling of the German's superiority, one wonders if he had the fight for the contest. Whatever his motivation, like several of the ageing Aussies his form is a fading shadow of 2006.

Brett Emerton provided a rare bright spot for Australia on his return from injury, but apart from Wilkshire and a good second half performance from Holman, the Socceroos were very poor. The options for Verbeek are limited. We simply don't have the depth in the squad to try a lot different to what we saw last night. Kewell and Bresciano will surely play some part going forward. Australia can still make the second round with wins in its remaining games, but the chances of success appear remote.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Yanked back to reality

And so it comes to this. No more warm-ups, no more what-ifs, no more how-abouts. Aussie boss Pim Verbeek has declared his hand, leading out with the same starting XI for the final two hit outs against Denmark and the USA. With the average Aussie football follower now thinking - is that it?

For the cold, hard reality is this - our best is looking pretty average. Against the US, we were exposed where we feared we would all along - in the soft centre of our defence, and in our lone attack.

The preceding Denmark fixture was, in retrospect, a distraction from the conclusion. An anonymous, somnambulant ninety minutes with players drifting around the park, trying to control the ball, trying to create something. Blame the ball, blame the pitch, blame ... well just blame. And Australia coming out of it with some quiet comfort having edged the game courtesy of Kennedy's scrappy strike.

Compare and contrast the US bouncing out with open, honest intention on Saturday and the Aussies just couldn't live with it. 3-1 should by rights have been 5-1, in any case our first loss ever to the stars and stripes.

Craig Moore was exposed for the second time in three games and Pim's resolve to keep him in the starting line-up ahead of Beauchamp must be wavering. Up front, lanky Josh Kennedy's shortcomings were evident, fluffing two excellent chances to score. Tim Cahill scored a nice goal, but generally has looked ineffective the last three outings. Grella continues to be a liability.

Amid the gloom, some brief rays of light. Veteran Scott Chipperfield has added great value overlapping on the left, and game-shy Bresciano has been gathering form. Luke Wilkshire largely remains dependable.

And occupying massive column inches, particularly for the great unwashed (and for his Nine Network sponsors), is the Kewell question. Will he, won't he? Well, even the most optimistic now concede neither he nor the similarly impacted Emerton will start against Germany. I'll wager Kewell will be given 20 minutes at most.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Disgraceful, depressing - apart from that, ok

Australia's hit out with New Zealand last night was a desultory affair for most of the 55,000 that traipsed to the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It was a "farewell to the Socceroos" which we Melburnians had a nice taste of four years ago when 95,000 saw Australia host a similar friendly against the visiting Euro champs Greece before heading off to Guus-inspired glory in Germany.

But this time around, rather than spicy souvlaki, the fixture doled out flavourless mutton. Not that the visiting All-Whites weren't fair-dinkum opposition. In the first half the visitors outplayed the Aussies and held a deserved lead until well into the second half and over the 90 minutes contributed an honest open display. No, it was the performance from the home side that caused the teeth-gnashing.

Aussie Pim decided to leave out some of the injured and some of the already qualified to concentrate on the fringe players and those lacking match practice. With underwhelming results. For the first 45 minutes brought home supporters the sight of Australia failing to keep possession, failing to move forward with any zeal, and its only achievements were a series of stud marks left on opposition limbs.

Churlish Kiwi Rory Fallon had stupidly predicted an injury-ridden fixture and Aussie Vince Grella just as stupidly provided a retort. But if the more highly valued Aussie playing stock had sensed the risk of World Cup ruining tackles, the stud was on the other boot as in the space of seven minutes, Milligan, Grella and Cahill had executed a succession of agricultural swipes at the opposition. Leo Bertos of Wellington Phoenix bore the brunt of the two worst challenges, which should have drawn straight red cards for Grella and Cahill. Grella's two footed, premeditated lunge in particular was simply disgraceful. It was to the Kiwis' eternal credit that they showed the self control not to retaliate.

Australia progressed from disgraceful to depressing. Craig Moore woefully out of form at centre-back, Carney more left-footed than ever, Bresciano and Culina struggling in midfield, McDonald marooned up front. How our stocks have fallen. Yes, we were missing the dependable Wilkshire and Chipperfield, and the now less dependable Kewell and Emerton, and the lone beanpole Kennedy. But this is a squad that is older, slower, unfit, with few shining lights emerging.

After half time, on came Holman, Jedinak and others. We looked quicker, and New Zealand, tinkering with its own formation, looked less likely. We buzzed around more in midfield, and fashioned a goal for Vidosic, who was having his own struggles. And from the controversial AZ Alkmaar midfielder Holman, we saw a classic Holman performance. Plenty of buzzing about, incomplete control and poor passing. Surely at some stage Pim would give one final opportunity for Nicky Carle, who has got vision, who can pass, who can make things happen. But no. And to make matters worse, Holman pops up for a winner with the last kick of the night. Maybe that's a bit harsh on him.

Today, Pim drops Carle and McDonald. Depressing. Four years ago, palpable excitement gripped Australia's football followers. After last night, we were gripped with the almost certain prospect of first round elimination.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Aussies may find it tough on the rebound

The upcoming World Cup finals in June will be the tenth such instalment that I've actively followed. Each tournament marks for me another adorned figure passing in life's rich pageant.

Sadly for me, for nearly all I've witnessed over the years I have been more a bystander than active participant, for my country Australia has walked a dusty World Cup trail for much of that time. After the fairytale of qualification by our distinctly amateur representatives in 1974, the next 32 years saw a parade of under-achievement, near-misses, bad planning, bad luck and ever-present frustration.

The sense of release and relief was palpable when Australia edged Uruguay in 2005, and those feelings gave way to unbridled joy when Japan and Croatia were overcome in Germany, only to be toppled in dubious circumstance by Italy and denied a place in the quarter finals.

With appetites well and truly whetted by the 2006 experience, Australia threw itself into 2010 qualification, this time via the refreshing challenge of Asia - an alluring prospect after the years of tedious boredom in Oceania - and safely negotiated passage to South Africa with only the occasional blip.

So what of the chances for the green and gold in June? Well, the natural pessimist in me thinks that this time the mountain will be harder to climb. Consider

  • We're not as good this time around. While Tim Cahill and Mark Schwarzer are at the height of their powers, Australia is struggling for quality. Up front, the ebullient Mark Viduka has disappeared into the ether and his principal replacement Josh Kennedy may have impressive stature, but lacks the guile and touch of the V-bomber. Kewell may be one of Oz's all-time great exports, but sadly is well past his best and can't be expected to provide the moments of impact seen in Germany. Stalwarts Emerton, Bresciano and Grella are all retained from 2006, but the 2010 versions are all of diminished quality and/or fitness. And Australia has problems directly in front of Schwarzer. Lucas Neill and Craig Moore are still around but have had scant exposure at the highest level in recent times.
  • Our group is tougher this time . In 2006, Brazil was untouchable but Croatia and Japan fair game. As it turned out, we broke even (W1 D1 L1) and progressed. This time around there is another untouchable (Germany), but Serbia and Ghana will prove tough to take points off. Essien's likely absence may slightly ease the spectre of the Ghanaians but only marginally so.
  • The element of surprise will be missing. In several quarters, Australia was deemed to be deserving of only minnow status in 2006. The US coach damned Australia with faint praise leading up to the tournament, and Croatia heaped scorn on the Aussie's third-world football status before their critical group encounter. Australia benefited significantly from such underestimation, and following the unlucky exit against Italy had garnered a modicum of respect. It's difficult to see its upcoming opponents acting with similar naivety.
  • Pim is no Guus. Pim Verbeek may have satisfactorily extended Australia's love affair with Dutch managers, but in the face of Guus Hiddink, Verbeek is a mere journeyman. Pim has proved to be reliable, likeable and adroit throughout the qualifying campaign, but will lack the ability to sufficiently raise Australia's performance in the highest company.
Australia's showing in 2006 greatly enhanced football's standing and credibility down under, no mean feat in a country traditionally dominated by two other competing codes. For the first time in a generation, the populace at large gained insight into why the rest of the world is besotted with the round ball game.

This time around, Australia expects. Having had a taste four years ago, the punters are hungrier for more. This makes the stakes rather more compelling. With the opponents tougher but the talent weaker, this will be a task comprising a much higher degree of difficulty. Perceived failure could prove difficult for the nation to swallow.