As Abdullah Fawaz stood over the ball in the 89th minute of the World Cup qualifier between Australia and Oman, it was impossible to ignore the high stakes. His penalty, which he duly deposited beyond Mat Ryan to make it 2-2, were not be enough to keep Oman’s qualification alive, while it placed the Socceroos in a state of existential precariousness.
After being held to a draw at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex, Australia’s men now sit in third place in Group B with just two games remaining – on the outside looking in at the two slots that carry automatic qualification for Qatar. Heading into the final slate of games next month, Graham Arnold’s side must defeat the top two –Japan and Saudi Arabia – to hold out any hope of directly punching their tickets, while hoping that other results see goal difference fall in their favour.
The only faint positive Arnold can take from the result is that his side now, at the very least, have guaranteed themselves a place in the intercontinental playoff pathway. That will involve a single game against the third-placed side from Group A, likely to be the United Arab Emirates, and then potentially a one-off game against the fifth-placed side from South American qualifying, a slot currently held by Peru.
For a commentariat not inclined for optimism at the best of times, the result in Muscat and the ensuing scenarios are hardly what Australian football needed. The doomsday scenario of being absent from the world’s biggest sporting event for the first time since 2002 looms.
Beyond the heartache of missing out, the increased interest that reaching a World Cup brings has become a critical part of the local game’s model over the past 16 years. Boys and girls who see the Socceroos facing off against the world’s best swells participation numbers and the heightened levels of coverage and awareness from the corporate world boosts Football Australia’s perennially light pockets.
The last time football had to confront an absence from the tournament, the game was run by Soccer Australia and its top-flight was the walking corpse of the National Soccer League, the old regime that collapsed soon afterwards. These days, the game is in a significantly healthier state, but the potential ramifications from missing the tournament are unnervingly nebulous and would likely force a significant period of introspection (although that could present a potential silver lining).
FA CEO James Johnson, in a rare acknowledgement of the perilous state of the campaign, declared last November that the federation could weather the storm of missed qualification thanks in part to the strength of the Matildas’ brand (which raises the stakes of Tony Gustavsson’s tenure even further given his Asian Cup failure), and the A-Leagues, which in theory are now somewhat insulated against the struggles of the national teams thanks to their newfound independence. Nonetheless, a win against Oman would still have had the game facing down these issues, even if it would have helped soothe some nerves.
As in the Vietnam fixture, the Socceroos started brightly in Muscat. Indeed, their first-half might have been their best all-around performance of qualification, as playing Tom Rogic and Jackson Irvine in front of Aaron Mooy in the midfield again paid dividends.
Yet a second stanza fadeout again eventuated and, unlike last week’s game , the rub of the green and a pumping home crowd could not favour the Socceroos. Oman, despite missing a number of players to Covid, took advantage of the downturn and drop in incisiveness to twice come from behind and ensure the spoils were shared. For Australia, it was vexing in isolation, but even more so when placed in the broader context of the campaign.
Had the Socceroos laid a foundation and built on their play in the opening halves of the past two games, with tweaks to personnel and approach, their position would be far less precarious. Instead, obscured by an 11-game winning streak that in hindsight did not so much paper of the cracks as mummify them, pragmatism and a blunt attacking approach became embedded for much of the qualification campaign – culminating in a home draw against Saudi Arabia and inability to defeat China. And should the Socceroos miss out on qualification for the tournament Qatar, it will be those fixtures that are looked back on with some regret.