A year on, the Socceroos prepare for second Russian campaign

After a turbulent 12 months, the Socceroos will be hoping to improve on the performances of their last visit to Russia.


Socceroos Source: TASS

What a difference a year makes.

51 weeks ago the Socceroos were in Sochi, a subtropical holiday destination on the Black Sea, preparing for the Confederations Cup.

Australia was in Russia by virtue of their 2015 Asian Cup triumph, a success still relatively fresh in the memory.

Then-manager Ange Postecoglou was keen to remind the media of that fact during the pre-tournament press conference.

“We are here as a reward for something we have achieved – it was not given to us,” he quipped.

While the road to the 2018 World Cup looked precarious, there was confidence that automatic qualification was still within reach.

Even a group stage exit precipitated by losing to Germany and drawing with Cameroon and Chile did not dampen spirits.

Tim Cahill’s enthusiasm following an impressive performance against the South American champions was palpable.

“Chile is one of the best teams in the world,” he said following the encounter, Australia’s last of the tournament. “We dominated large parts of the game.”

Fast forward to June 2018 and fans could be forgiven for wondering whether the drama of the past 12 months was all just one long nightmare.

The Socceroos were the penultimate team to qualify for the World Cup, after enduring nervy continental and intercontinental play-offs. On several occasions membership in the non-qualification club, alongside Italy and the United States, seemed imminent.

Postecoglou equivocated about his future in the role, then resigned barely a week after securing qualification.

Football Federation Australia was in crisis, then it wasn’t, then it was again, with FIFA intervention looming.

Bert van Marwijk’s appointment for the World Cup was lauded and criticised in equal measure; pragmatists drew comfort from his pedigree and win-at-all-costs mentality, Postecoglou devotees considered the same points to the opposite effect.

That Asian Cup triumph is no longer in the rear-view mirror, and a creditable draw against Chile – who failed to qualify for the World Cup – is little to celebrate.

The tumult of the past year will be of no benefit to the 11 Australians who commence the nation’s 2018 World Cup campaign on Saturday against France.

That is not to say that the Confederations Cup experience will count for nothing.

The Australian squad – the majority of whom were in Russia a year ago – will have a psychological and practical advantage over many of their colleagues, who have not previously acclimatised to this sometimes-unusual foreign land.

But when the Socceroos walk out on the Kazan Arena’s pristine grass carpet on Saturday, all eyes will turn to the present.

Les Bleus are notorious for , and Australia need to capitalise. Anything worse than a narrow loss would almost certainly put a premature end to the team’s hopes of group stage progression.

– the squad is valued at $2.19 billion – could paradoxically work to Australia’s advantage, with Didier Deschamps still settling on a preferred system and line-up.

The Socceroos then head to Samara – once home to the Soviet Union’s aerospace industry – where a clash with Denmark awaits.

While the fortune of the Danes is often determined by the form of Tottenham star Christian Eriksen, the emergence of Celta Vigo’s Pione Sisto and Bundesliga-based Thomas Delaney will cause further headaches.

Regardless of the result in Kazan, a point or more against Denmark will be essential.

Finally, Australia return to Sochi, where this Russian journey began a year ago.

The clash against Peru is likely to be critical for one or both of the teams.

With Peru at the country’s first World Cup in 36 years, the team and their supporters’ motivation will be sky-high if any chance of progression remains.

For some time now, Australian football has been divided into two camps: those with a broader philosophy, acting with a view to the future, and those who prefer pragmatism and results-oriented football.

While the same might be said of almost any footballing nation, the divide grew particularly stark and divisive during the reign of Postecoglou, with his explicit preference for the former.

To the uncharitable, van Marwijk’s arrival on a short-term contract represents a volte-face.

Almost a year ago, in a bland press conference room within the bowels of Sochi’s Fisht Stadium, Postecoglou offered unshielded insight into his philosophy.

“We saw the last World Cup as a missed opportunity,” he explained. “We performed fairly well but we lost three games.

“We do not want to be in that boat again, where we play well and not win. But having said that, it won’t be any more satisfying for me if we win and do not play well.”

Van Marwijk does not have the luxury of such philosophising.

His remit is to get results. Noting more, nothing less.

The next two weeks will be instructive as to whether this approach – which flies in the face of Postecoglou’s efforts of the past four years – is the right one.

Matches against France, Denmark and Peru may not entirely resolve this broader structural debate inextricably linked to the future of Australian football.

But they will make one thing clear. It has been a long 12 months for the round ball game in Australia.

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Published 14 June 2018 at 4:12pm
By Kieran Pender in Kazan