Encapsulated within two particularly peculiar employments in the past two weeks is the crux of a nation’s World Cup ambitions. As radical as that very notion may appear, the Football Federation Australia’s (FFA) decision to appoint Bert van Marwijk – a veteran of these blogs, given his aforementioned involvement in recent Dutch and Saudi Arabian exploits – and the upheaval that brought Tim Cahill back full circle to former East London employers Millwall have grand short-term ramifications for the Socceroos as they attempt to reconstruct their image from one of torrid international treatment and disorganised mediocrity, an analysis particularly touted during their renowned qualification struggles for this summer’s tournament alone. It was a chapter that pushed former manager Ange Postecoglou to eventual resignation, tempering the national mood in the midst of an intercontinental play-off victory against tempestuous Honduras, and only further asserting the need for institutional reform. Equipped with a one-time World Cup finalist at the tactical helm, and a nigh-on mythical captain and talisman who has potentially recaptured stability at a highly competitive level, they certainly possess the ability to mount a serious challenge in Russia, and be taken just as seriously by the international media. Yet these transformations do not come overnight, and, in a contrasting perception, their pre-existing flaws may only be exacerbated by a manager who has encountered immeasurable recent chagrin, and an overburdened, expended striker. Either way, what faces a systemically complacent establishment in the FFA is a tournament that could justifiably enact revolution; such is its poignance over the ideals currently professed, and the historic intentions of the nation’s idiosyncratic sporting approach.
Nobody is naïve enough to suggest that the appointment of any single individual can transform the fortunes of a failed and evidently stubborn establishment. Yet it can certainly aid reform – if that is as the institution in question desires, at least. Bert van Marwijk does not strike any prospective audience as an ideological reformist, and possesses no tangible radical streak within his eminent and chartered past. Not anywhere close to the extent of the rivals tipped for the Aussie job a few weeks ago, at least; Marcelo Bielsa, Louis van Gaal, Slaven Bilic and Jurgen Klinsmann, or even local favourite Graham Arnold, an expert of the A-League who is now favoured to take over after the expiration of van Marwijk’s practicality. Nevertheless, the 2010 World Cup silver medallist has been a left-field candidate. Silver-haired, sharply dressed and borderline emotionless, not to say Dutch, he appears every inch the modern European metrosexual. In an environment as hostile to these character traits as Australia, his intentions – stating ‘I like creative football… but I also like to win’ in his first official press conference – may come into conflict with the stereotypical Socceroos fan, but after succeeding – insofar as going 24 months without the sack can quantify – as Saudi Arabian manager, given the extensive geopolitical and socio-economic controversies posed across the exploits of the Middle Eastern behemoth, little further administrative trial can surely exist. Not just in terms of social liberalism, either; even the Saudi state can be argued to have a more coherent footballing vision than van Marwijk’s new employers.
Joined, in circumstances by no means connoting nepotism, by son-in-law and former Dutch captain Mark van Bommel as assistant manager, the six-month contract granted to the duo displays the exact extent of the FFA’s recent certainty. In a manner perhaps more alarming, albeit less chaotic, than the Scottish Football Association’s recent calamity in the search for a replacement in Gordon Strachan’s wake, a little over two months were consumed in the presumably intense interviewing phase; a time period in which Postecoglou even found himself a new role at J1 League side Yokohama F. Marinos. For this to have been anything but another inconsolable demonstration of FFA disarray, the tournament – of course a winter one for those in the Southern Hemisphere, of which Australia are only alongside each of the five CONMEBOL nations in representing – much provide at least some discernible reason for the return of hope, and a sustainable groundwork for Arnold, or others, to bring to any degree of fruition at a later date. At this despondent present juncture, however, it appears improbable that such salvation will be cultivated by the managerial profiteer of a partly fortunate, partly KNVB-fostered generation of diverse Dutch talents in 2010. Never exactly a prolific helmsman, van Marwijk has in each chapter of his career appeared content enough to dine off former glories, and to never exactly realise aspirations; never assertive enough to reinforce his club pedigree after lifting the 2001-02 UEFA Cup with Feyenoord, and failing blatantly to sustain the bittersweet pride of a World Cup Final loss, with jobs in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund and Hamburg, respectively, twinned less than a decade apart by more than a shared nuance of disappointment.
Implanted in an FFA establishment under the firm grip of billionaire real estate and shopping centre magnate Steven Lowy, as well as former semi-professional cricketer and Rugby League administrator David Gallop, in Chairman and CEO roles, respectively, van Marwijk and van Bommel hold no realistic hope of evolving a programme drastically lacking direction. The perennially bespectacled Lowy and Gallop double act – the former wispy haired and sternly faced, ever the image of any city businessman, and the latter a rangy figure with greyed locks swayed back to accentuate clean-cut facial features – have invited comedic jibes ever since the 2015 appointment of Lowy as a near-unanimous candidate from existing FFA and A-League dignitaries. Yet for all of the apparent business nous of the former, and sporting insight of the latter, the relationship has yet to prove profitable, nor overtly cohesive. Amidst their egotism over national influence, the 2013-appointed ‘Head of National Performance’ Luke Casserly has pandered to their edict and in return been shrouded from widespread contempt. Casserly, a centre back with suburban Sydney’s Marconi and North Sydney’s Northern Spirit in the mid-to-late 1990s National Soccer League (NSL) before a career-defining two-year spell at AIK Stockholm when signed by Stuart Baxter – another journeyman manager that we’ve touched on here before during his current tenure as South Africa manager – in the Swedish capital, worked subsequently for almost a decade as a semi-professional footballer and ‘National Retail Sales General Manager’ for Moraitis Pty Ltd, a food distribution company; the latter experience presumably appearing more compelling evidence of his suitability than his eight international caps accumulated between 1997 and 2001. When assessing his credentials, it is almost preposterous that he was handed the position. It can, after all, be for one of only two rational reasons. Firstly, his insight into the pain inflicted by the Socceroos’ last-gasp surrendering of a place at the 1998 World Cup in a 2-2 second leg play-off draw against Iran under Terry Venables’ post-England management may count in his favour. Secondly, the hierarchy installed by Lowy and Gallop may care very little about the fate of the nation’s exploits, and be exploiting Casserly’s incompatibility simply for the protection of their own positions.
Jaundiced insights such as these aren’t rare in Australian football. Cynicism has infiltrated the system at all levels, and especially on the international stage, where, I would certainly argue, after four prior World Cup finals appearances, tangible improvements should be experienced across the establishment, for the benefit of all. Over its history, after all, the FFA has been well-respected for its plight in the face of adversity, and its ability to overcome these circumstances to achieve rapid developments in cultural benchmarks. In 1974 – its first World Cup finals appearance – they entered with a squad vastly consisting of amateurs, and exited with a point from encounters against Chile, East Germany and hosts/eventual victors West Germany, yet were dissatisfied with the haul. After agonising eliminations at play-off stages in 1966, 1970, 1986, 1994, 1998 and 2002, they recouped to feature at the last three tournaments (2006-) and return for another instalment of their ongoing melodrama this time around. Theirs is only a relatively brief heritage, given the formative status of the nation on a global scale, the predominance of other Commonwealth-promoted sports such as Rugby Union and League, Cricket, Tennis and Athletics, as well as the notorious self-formed ‘Aussie Rules’, and from their first Trans-Tasman international in 1922, they have come a long way. Yet nearly a century on, their progress has stalled with an administration that demonstrates few reliable attributes other than ineptitude.
Given the repeated disappointments at an intercontinental play-off stage for the length of the preceding 40 years, I certainly recognise the FFA’s decision – tangled in all forms of controversy and mired in legal bureaucracy – to switch regional association to the AFC from the OFC in 2006 as a marriage of convenience. They could no longer afford to be posed with opposition from the likes of the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga and American Samoa, and though this appears a move of callous elitism, it has forged a new path for the likes of New Zealand and Tahiti back in their true home, and enabled the FFA to assume a role more befitting of their prominent nation; ever since, placed on a global pedestal with this their fourth successive competition. Aside from the remnants of the infamous 31-0 defeat of American Samoa back in 2001, and others who competed in an OFC-affiliated age, few major talents have however emerged for the Socceroos. Mark Schwarzer, Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell, Lucas Neill and Brett Emerton still led the national cause by 2010, while Cahill has been left to stand ahead both in 2014 and to this day.
Perhaps inadequacy and mediocrity only inevitably succeed this calibre of once Premier League, even Champions League-quality player. Rarely do we today witness Australians consistently defying the global establishments; at present times, only Aaron Mooy, Mathew Ryan and Matthew Leckie are playing in any of the unofficial ‘big five’ European divisions, and though modestly successful within the constraints of Huddersfield Town, Brighton & Hove Albion and Hertha Berlin, have not demanded global attention. There is, of course, the counterargument which states the lack of star power in the squads of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Morocco, Tunisia, Panama, Peru and Iceland in preparation for this summer, but each of these nations possesses something Australia currently, and perhaps perpetually, lacks. A decorum that is inevitable with any nation for whom qualification is a true privilege, and for whom the opportunity is unparalleled. Throughout their stuttering qualifying campaign, and peaking with draws against Thailand and Syria, was a damaged pride for the Socceroos that sept the blood of entitlement. They appeared almost paralyzed by the occasion, and fearful of the ramifications of belying the national character. Generally, their approach smacked of indecency and misguided value.
Throughout this period, the FFA, and its playing representatives, have evidently retreated back to home comforts in an attempt to pander to A-League chiefs and encourage an apparent revolution from the base up. In earlier decades, this would have been an admirable move, but in an increasingly globalised world economy, and a financial structure only more acute in the footballing industry, their decision is little other than a desperate attempt to satisfy the businessmen to which they are inevitably accountable. Its Trumponomics without the irreverent presidency, and has achieved nothing other than further Socceroos senior misery.
Or perhaps its credit where credit is due. Graham Arnold would not be in line for the Aussie job, after all, had it not been for many of his home-grown Sydney FC players; although yet to gain a senior cap as of yet, 23-year-old Brandon O’Neill and the currently long-term injury afflicted 26-year-old Rhyan Grant driving the club’s ambitions alongside 24-year-old Josh Brillante, who gained the last of his five caps in 2014, and an extensive guard of Socceroo elders including Alex Brosque, Alex Wilkinson, Luke Wilkshire and David Carney. Josh Risden, a right-back for Western Sydney Wanderers of 25 years of age, had plied the entirety of his trade in Perth prior to his 2017 move, and has earned five caps throughout, while appearances at the 2017 Confederations Cup for James Maclaren and Dylan McGeown elevated them from employment at Brisbane Roar and Adelaide United, respectively, to SV Darmstadt and Paços de Ferreira, although currently on loan at Hibernians and South Korean outfit Gangwon. Even this trend replicated the events of three years earlier, as WSW’s Matty Spiranovic soon switched to Hangzhou Greentown, Newcastle Jets’ Adam Taggart immediately enacted two sullen seasons with Fulham and Dundee United (to the extent of nine appearances and no goals) and Brisbane’s Ivan Franjic sealed a single-season switch to Torpedo Moscow only weeks after 2014 World Cup involvement. Needless to say, none succeeded after making the trip abroad.
Fundamentally, this is a cultural flaw within the FFA’s ranks. A subservience to A-League brokers has only fragmented the vision and continuity of any coherent player, and more importantly squad, progression model in a desperate case of flawed constitutional practice. These domestic demands, after all, were only the response to the events of the late 1990s and early 2000s, as the exodus led by Schwarzer and Cahill, and further fulfilled by Kewell, Neill, Emerton, Scott Chipperfield, Mark Viduka, Archie Thompson and, albeit in a less distinguished role, Casserly. This was a burden that proved too arduous for A-League, or then NSL, chiefs following the original exports ushered in amidst the ‘Golden Generation’ of 1991 World Youth Championships fourth-place finish fame; Mark Bosnich, Paul Okon, Tony Popovic and future “most hated man in football” Kevin Muscat amongst the vast majority of the 18-man squad who would play at least one season in Europe before the turn of the century. Attempting to alter the national perception of footballing success, and in so doing promote their own product, in the midst of 2002 World Cup qualification malaise, FFA – or then Soccer Australia – officials, led by then-chairman and Lowy dynasty patriarch Frank, initiated the now-renowned Crawford Report with the aid of an Australian Federal Government antagonised by public opinion suspecting of systemic institutional corruption. The independent investigation, conducted primarily by highly influential former statesman and businessman David Crawford and former national team captain, 1974 World Cup veteran and all-round Australian icon Johnny Warren, provided the blueprint, and unaccountable edict, for a reformed institution renamed the FFA to establish a domestic division and attraction at the time desperately required, but today outdated and obtrusive.
The financial concerns of that era were relevant, having lost major sponsors and assuming an illogical broadcasting stance with the Seven Network. Given all that has happened since, and the unbroken influence of the Lowy dynasty over FFA fortunes, the events of 2003 surely had commercial undertones that cannot be escaped while Steven Lowy is still in occupation of national chairmanship. Such fixations are, evidently, impossible to shirk with the monopoly established by a hierarchy that appears entirely in favour of current insubordination.
Perhaps this is a deeply-entrenched psychological status. To reaffirm national ambitions after the reform that initiated with the Crawford Report and culminated with continental reaffiliation in 2006, resulting in four consecutive World Cup finals appearances, is a task only worthy of an eternal optimist, some may argue. To present as fact the statement that the FFA is currently an aspirational and enviable working environment, however, is pure fallacy, and it is their self-satisfaction that has besmirched the once-good name of Australian ‘soccer’. It requires only pragmatism to realise that the nation’s full capacity – currently recorded as the most popular participation sport, despite only resonating as the fourth most popular televisual and infrastructurally advanced product – has not been yet reached, especially given the near-25 million people that populate the godforsaken island. Generally, however, all Australian sport has fallen from its proud pedestal in respects of international performance in recent times – an epidemic of regression. Few such associations have consolidated on the prowess of the late 1990s to early ‘00s cricket side, the swimming squad of the past two decades or the Rugby Union team at the turn of the millennium, and yet the Olympic cycling team achieved its greatest historic medal haul at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Only in the most technologically advanced sporting event has there been significant improvements, speaking volumes about the approach of other institutions to the demands of a changing environment.
Sited far from the ongoing developments and expansive sporting culture of Western Europe, inevitably Australia may be left to its own cultural devices with few genuine regular rivals other than New Zealand. The entire intention of the move to join the AFC was focused on this geopolitical status, yet as a Western-modelled economy and society dominating an entire corner of the globe, the FFA have afforded leniency to seep in to perspectives while competing with Asian adversaries as geographically diverse as Uzbekistan and Indonesia, and North Korea to Saudi Arabia. In many respects, their entire programme is counterintuitive in the paradoxical respect of their domestic division – the A-League – being intended to discourage European emigration, and their regular international outlook against impoverished and ideological Arabian, Korean, Ural, Persian and Oriental associations. They cannot afford to operate with conflicting purposes, and certainly not at this advanced stage of their global involvement. In many forms, their ineptitude is on par with pre-Greg Dyke and Dan Ashworth FA proceedings, and while the English establishment is by no means resolved today, its concerns have eased. The capacity for self-scrutiny must exist, and be progressive in its presence.
What has given the FFA establishment further credence for consolidation is the senior side’s relatively peerless transition to Asian competition, at both domestic and international level. Returning victories in the AFC Champions League and Asian Cup in 2014, with the Western Sydney Wanderers, and 2015 respectively, their alignment with accepted Iranian, Japanese, South Korean, Saudi Arabian and Chinese dominance followed efficient practices given the preceding final defeats of Adelaide United in 2008 and a relatively inexperienced Australian outfit in 2011, to Japan’s Gamba Osaka and the Japanese national team itself. WSW’s attendance at their native Parramatta Stadium for the first leg of the annual double-headed final, however, paled by 44,000 to that of Saudi opponents Al-Hilal, and was the lowest recorded attendance in Asian Cup history since Adelaide’s paltry 17,000-strong support at the Hindmarsh Stadium in 2008 – only since beaten by the notorious fan base of the United Arab Emirates’ Al-Ahli in 2015, as some 9,480 turned out for a 0-0 stalemate.
It was, then, no social revolution that sparked the revival of national fortunes. Yet the overhaul that did emerge in the mid-‘00s found its momentum to dissipate rapidly after the final of their constitutional reforms, much in the same respect of almost all political revolutions throughout the ages, and have regressed to an extent to the inadequacies that preceded them in the face of a stern social resilience and status quo. And so, upon entrance to a tournament that pits them against the potentially vulnerable, or possibly imperious, French, Peruvians and Danes, expectations have few justifiable reasons for an optimist tinge. As we may well cover each or any of the remaining Group C outfits in the run-up to the tournament, we will at this juncture refrain from commenting on their abilities and dangers, but for the Socceroos, personal armaments appear either lacking in ammunition or totally misfiring. An over-reliance on their largely Championship-fostered midfield, the lack of a truly consistent striking foil for Cahill and a creaking defence do little to ease van Marwijk’s thinking with five months of planning elapsing rapidly. Despite these concerns with an existing generation, what remains as an ever more foreboding element is the disparity between the various Joeys (youth group) sides and their global opponents.
Littered with missteps and a few glimpses of promise, under-20 action for Australian quarters in the past decade has only served to compound national cynicism. Aside from successive third, runner-up and fourth-placed finishes in the Asian under-19 championship between 2008 and 2012, their failures have been widespread, with consecutive group stage exits hence at the same tournament, and only two draws collected from three of a possible six appearances at the FIFA under-20 World Cup since 2006, encapsulating the misery of a nation once eminent at this stage; only stagnating where others performed vast improvements after hosting the event in 1993 with a fourth-placed result, with quarter-final and round of 16 appearances soon reduced to regular group stage incredulity. These are the groups that lay the foundation for national achievements, and their well-documented struggles have only portrayed the FFA as disconsolate and unwavering in their ambivalence. If expecting any relevant talents to progress to senior level and replenish the ranks soon to be diminished by passing age or waning ability – Cahill, possibly Mile Jedinak and Mark Milligan, and perhaps less relevantly Adam Federici and Matt McKay, all of reasonable retirement maturity, while the wider current squad has an average age of 27.8 years – their perception must be radically altered.
Borne out of narcissism, FFA policy has operated on the sentiment of wishing to themselves take credit for the export of native talent, rather than lose gifted generations at a much earlier age before they reach requisite levels of fame. This trait, though unenviable in any other environment, has blinded and bound the establishment entirely by its own measures, and thus afflicted all national hope. This is, in many respects, the deepest travesty of events; that the FFA is so reliant on long-disproven rhetoric for the sole reason that it aligns with regional favour. Interred within their culture is also a fear of the adoption of overseas practices, and foreign-derived players, only losing ground on the progression long since enacted across the vast majority of eminent FIFA nations resultantly. An ethnic imposition, perhaps, and certainly one that will prevent achievement in Russia, but not impervious and unaccountable. As has been made repeatedly evident, the existing establishment cannot act, and for any opportunity for national progression, it is upon the Aussie support to take action.
What serves as perhaps the most despondent and damning indictment throughout all of this, however, is the very fact that it required Postecoglou – a man of strong convictions – to self-assess his proficiency within the role, and take it upon his own head to resign. Either demonstrating the extremity of the FFA’s incompetence and apathy, or the encapsulation of their loyalty to any establishment-pandering regime, in neither respect could it be interpreted as favourable for those in charge, but it was exactly what they required. No mere statement was to wake them from their slumber, and we can but hope the slap around the face provided by Postecoglou’s Greek-derived brawn can reinvigorate life into a nigh-on archaic institution. I sincerely doubt this, however. As will any rational Australian fan. While the Socceroos fall to embarrassment in Russia, we must distinguish between those representing the FFA and those who mark its reality. Judge upon these lines, and rationality may soon prevail. May.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!