Socceroos' time of transition sees baton pass from Cahill to Arzani | John Davidson

The World Cup has shown 18-year-old Daniel Arzani is the future of Australian football

“Bert draws a blank,” the Courier-Mail’s back page screamed after Australia’s 1-1 draw with Denmark. “Golden opportunity goes begging as Socceroos coach leaves our greatest goal-scorer sitting on the bench,” went the standfirst. But the Queensland tabloid wasn’t the only one unhappy as Tim Cahill received zero minutes in Australia’s two World Cup matches to date.

The Daily Telegraph’s sports editor-at-large accused head coach Bert van Marwijk of disrespecting Cahill by leaving him out. Former Socceroos Robbie Slater and Mark Bosnich also chipped in. Slater, a Fox Sports football pundit, described it as “a national outrage,” while fellow commentator Bosnich tweeted that “questions must be asked of the manager as to why Tim Cahill was not used with 10-15 minutes to go”.

The bleating and complaining about the non-use of Cahill in Australia has been immense. On the one hand, it’s completely expected. The striker is Australia’s greatest-ever goal-scorer with 50 goals in 106 matches. He’s saved the Socceroos’ bacon more times than Jesus performed miracles in Galilee – off the bench against Japan in the 2006 World Cup, scoring crucial goals to qualify Australia for tournaments in 2010, 2014 and 2018 and banging in one against Serbia eight years ago just to name a few. His place in Australian sporting history is already assured.

On the other hand, the melodrama over Cahill’s absence is completely overblown. The forward is 38 years old, turning 39 in less than seven months. His best days are clearly behind him. He is five years older than skipper Mile Jedinak and six years older than Mark Milligan, the other two veterans of the squad.

Unlike Jedinak and Milligan, Cahill has barely played club football in the past year. He has played 16 first-team games since October, for Melbourne City in the A-League and Millwall in the English Championship, and not started any of them. As a substitute his sum total of goals is zero.

His total time on the pitch in the past season? A mere 157 minutes. That’s less than two full games.

Warren Joyce didn’t rate him enough to give him regular game-time and neither did Cahill’s close friend and former teammate, Neil Harris. Why would Van Marwijk be any different? The speculation is that FFA pushed Van Marwijk to take the veteran to Russia for commercial reasons. True or not, Cahill does not suit the Dutch coach’s counter-attacking, defensive-minded game-plan. The quicker and more mobile Andrew Nabbout, who can press and harry defenders does, hence his starts against France and Denmark.

To accuse Van Marwijk, a man who has coached at the elite level of European football for more than two decades, and who led the Netherlands to the 2010 World Cup final, of footballing ignorance is absurd. The 66-year-old knows what his team wants and needs, and won’t be swayed by hysteria or nostalgia. Cahill certainly does have some value as a leader, as a big-brother influence and as someone who can help advise and assist younger teammates. And on evidence in Russia he has done just that without complaint.

Football is a young man’s game – you only need to look at the likes of Kylian Mbappé at this World Cup or Pelé, Michael Owen and Lionel Messi at previous tournaments – as evidence. And the youngest player amongst all 32 nations in Russia is Daniel Arzani. In just two matches this Khorramabad-born wing-wonder, an Iranian migrant who grew up in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, has delighted not only Australia’s footballing community but caught the eye of the world.

Many are clamouring for the 19-year-old to receive more minutes and even start in the Socceroos’ must-win game against Peru in Sochi. Considering Arzani has played just 24 first-team games in his whole life, all in the A-League and only four times lasted the full 90 minutes, that may be a bridge too far. Still, his rise is nothing short of remarkable. Against Denmark he almost scored, set up two excellent chances for teammates and skinned Pione Sisto in just a 22-minute cameo.

Already European clubs are lining up to lure Arzani overseas. PSV Eindhoven, Juventus and Bayer Leverkusen have all been linked with the forward. Arzani is under contract with Melbourne City, who are owned by Manchester City for another season. As a result, Manchester may do a similar deal with Arzani as they did with Aaron Mooy by loaning him out and then cashing in on the prodigious youngster.

Whatever happens after the World Cup, the attacker’s future is exceedingly bright. Fast, skilful, confident but humble, some believe Arzani has potential to be better than former Australian golden boy Harry Kewell.

Ironically, Cahill has been one of Arzani’s biggest fans. The 38-year-old took the playmaker under his wing in the past two seasons while at Melbourne City and has undertaken the same role in Russia. He also admits he has never had the natural abilities the 19-year-old possesses. Talking about his mentoring role with the current Socceroos squad last week, Cahill said: “I didn’t have [Arzani’s] explosive talent, but what I had was hard work. So how now do I fuse hard work and discipline into his life? I give him no choice.”

Like it nor not, the transition is taking place from master to apprentice. Cahill may or may not see game-time against Peru. But the World Cup has shown that Arzani is the future of Australian football and potentially the one player than can decide the Socceroos’ on-field fortunes in Russia and beyond. The baton has been passed and everyone else needs to accept it.


John Davidson in Samara

The GuardianTramp

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