Russia and South Africa could barely be more different. But if they were similar, it might feel like 2010 again.
Then, as now, Australia’s World Cup finals campaign began with a loss against the group’s top seed; its next match was a draw; and, to progress, the Socceroos needed victory in their last match and a helpful result elsewhere.
Even Australia’s second-match venues had similarities. Both the stadium in Rustenburg, where the Socceroos played Ghana in 2010, and the one in Samara, where the match against Denmark was held, were surrounded by vast empty land.
There are plenty of subtle differences between now and eight years ago of course but the overriding sentiment for most fans is the same. We know the odds are against progression to the knockout rounds but we are daring to hope nonetheless.
I have the good fortune of being at a World Cup for the fourth time. The worst game I’ve attended in these tournaments was the Socceroos’ match against Spain in Brazil four years ago. Both teams had already been eliminated and it felt like a glorified friendly. With a game to play in the group stage, there’s one thing that’s far worse than having your destiny in another team’s hands – being out of the tournament altogether.
It only took about five seconds of catching up with news from back home to work out that there has been fierce debate about Bert van Marwijk’s choice of substitutes against Denmark. But most have praised the way he’s made the team competitive.
The Aussie fans here in Russia are having the same conversations. But the vitriol expressed by some about the decision, for instance, not to use Tim Cahill seems to be far worse at home.
There’s nothing wrong with agreeing with some things a coach does and disagreeing with others. But I get the feeling that part of the reason why we have the more extreme – “Bert’s tactics are awesome but wtf is he doing with his subs?” – commentary is that Australians aren’t used to a manager like the Dutchman who’s masterminding the Socceroos’ campaign.
There’s a lot we can learn from the way van Marwijk has set up the team.
It’s pretty obvious that van Marwijk doesn’t give a stuff what anyone else thinks. And I’m cool with that, particularly given that we don’t have pundits/analysts who are as good at their jobs as he is at his.
There’s a simple answer to questions like “Why start Robbie Kruse?” or “Why bring Juric/Irvine on instead of Timmy?”.
And it’s that he’s making the calls he thinks are necessary to maximise our chances – something he clearly does give a stuff about.
Now I don’t know why he hasn’t used Cahill. But I also don’t see the squad train every day like he does.
I can guess, however, and the answer might be that he has wanted to keep the team as mobile and structured – the way he wants it structured – as possible.
Which might also explain the faith in Kruse, everyone’s favourite whipping boy.
Oh, I know, he could do better on the ball, however, he is playing a big role for the team. His movement and defensive work are intelligent and disciplined and, frankly, pave the way for Daniel Arzani to replace him in the second half and have greater freedom to take opponents on.
Perhaps the nature of the discussions about team selection shouldn’t be surprising given that we’re in the biggest month of international soccer’s four-year cycle. But it’s unfortunate that the story of Australia’s World Cup so far isn’t that a team that has struggled for several years and scraped through qualifying looks like it belongs on this stage again.
Have we forgotten that not so long ago the Socceroos dropped points in qualifying matches against Iraq and Thailand? That they finished below Saudi Arabia in that group (my, how bad that looks now)? That a Syrian free kick which, if successful, would have eliminated Australia hit the post?
Before the tournament began 11 days ago, betting markets and power indexes (the latest in-vogue measure) had the Socceroos sitting within the worst six teams here. Three losses out of three was a popular prediction.
Yet, while we’re being praised by, among others, a coach of a nation that isn’t even in our group, back home self-serving agendas are pushed through the creation of straw men, such as the suggestion that we’re all good as long as our losses are “honourable”.
Thanks, yeah, there are plenty of matters that need to be addressed in Australian soccer. But who is suggesting otherwise just because we avoided being thrashed by France?
Sadly, the one thing we’ve probably missed is that there’s a lot we can learn from the way van Marwijk has set up the team.
It won’t guarantee a good result against Peru, who will be desperate to avoid leaving their first World Cup finals for 36 years without a win. But I’m grateful that our team is still alive and has performed better here than some more fancied nations.
Yes, you can question our manager. But Bert knows best.
Paul Marcuccitti is InDaily’s soccer columnist.
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