It has been two decades since the last men’s World Cup without an Australian side.
Back in 2001, the image of Tony Vidmar’s tears as he left the field following a 3-0 loss to Uruguay in an intercontinental playoff threatened to become one of Australian football’s defining images. That is, until it was mercifully replaced by the jubilant scenes of qualification four years later. These days Vidmar is an assistant to Socceroos coach Graham Arnold, charged with ensuring this generation does not experience the heartbreak he felt on that November afternoon in Montevideo.
However, unlike Vidmar’s home-and-away legs against La Celeste, Tuesday morning’s do-or-die playoff with the Peruvians will be staged as a one-off in Qatar. And, given Peru enter the meeting as frontrunners, such a format is perhaps auspicious for the Socceroos. Under these rules they do not need to better their opponents twice, including at the cauldron that is Lima’s Estadio Nacional, but just once and on neutral ground.
Any nation which emerges from the crucible of South American qualification to earn an intercontinental playoff place will almost invariably enter as favourites regardless of opponent. Yet make no mistake, under coach Ricardo Gareca, La Blanquirroja represent a capable, functional foe who would give most nations pause. Despite lacking high-profile European-based talent or a strong domestic league to call upon, Gareca has fashioned a collective which operates at a level far greater than the sum of its parts. It is a team who trusts in themselves, each other, and their system and are able to absorb blows and respond in kind. Put simply, they are not just a good collection of individuals, but also a good team.
Perhaps more than any other in world football, they demonstrate the importance of coaching. When Gareca took over in 2015, the Peruvians had lost 16 of their 17 games outside their homeland. Ironically enough given what would follow, his arrival in the Andes did not attract much goodwill. Nonetheless, the results and performances spoke for themselves and offered pertinent lessons in talent utilisation, long-term planning and making the best of what one has. This is all wisdom from which Australia can benefit regardless of Tuesday’s result.
Coming off the back of a 2-1 win over the United Arab Emirates, Arnold has repeatedly invoked the nebulous spirit of “Aussie DNA”, telling SEN’s The Run Home that the South American style is “an attractive style of game, they’re very technically individually very good”. “But we’ve got to get in their faces,” he continued. “We’ve got to make a fight of this, a war of this, and make sure that when we go out on the pitch that we rattle them. When we do that, that’s our best chance.”
Beyond what this says of Arnold’s perception of his own side’s ability, this appraisal of South American football is peculiar, given it sits in contrast to what he said in March when, justifying a surprise call-up of Uruguayan-born Bruno Fornaroli, he declared that the striker brought a “South American mentality” of “fight ‘til you drop”.
The shift in Arnold’s tone from the start of this World Cup cycle to now is evident. Grand statements about this being the greatest Socceroos team ever or wanting to play like Liverpool have been replaced by laments that his side do not know how to hurt in defeat and that “coaches are only as good as the players they work with”. The gravity of his side’s situation, with results now catching up with performances, appears clear.
Despite these frustrations with the on-field approach and off-field rhetoric, every Australian will still be rooting for the Socceroos.
The entire purpose of fielding a national team is winning the World Cup. Missing a tournament can never be a good thing, and there is never a guarantee of when the next will come around. Peru went from 1982 to 2018 without making one, and approved a national holiday to watch this qualifier.
To claim that missing out will provide a necessary wake-up call for Australian football is misguided. None of the lessons to be heeded require an absence from the world’s showpiece event. And given that every major stakeholder has spent years touting the need for reform, who exactly remains to be woken up anyway?
It would absolutely be the best outcome to see Arnold emerging from the dugout, beaming from ear to ear with qualification secured. The Australian public might not expect to win, but hope springs eternal.