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  • Writer's pictureAntonis Pagonis

Australian football needs a sustainable system, not a saviour

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results, and Football Australia does not understand this concept.

Australian football is falling drastically down a hole. The answer is not a quick fix "Messiah" solution that will eventually leave the program high and dry. Instead, it needs a deep dive into the system, or lack thereof, which has led the game to the position it finds itself in today.

After two losses to Japan and Saudi Arabia, the Socceroos were condemned to the disappointing yet predictable fate of having to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar through the treacherous route of the playoffs.

As expected, the fallout of such a disappointing result was emotional. The consensus was that Graham Arnold's position had become untenable. But the state of Australian football means it is not that simple.

In every crisis, an opportunity presents itself. It should not take being on the brink of missing a World Cup to begin a conversation about why Australia is stalling, especially when compared to other nations in Asia. But if that is what it takes, let the discussion begin.

A visibly dejected Ajdin Hrustic after the crucial loss to Japan in World Cup Qualifying (Socceroos)

Is Graham Arnold doing a good job? Not really. Should he have gotten a second chance at the Socceroos job in the first place? Debatable. Will a sudden change in the technical area free Australia of crippling, generational issues that have led the Socceroos to nose dive in the Asian football standings? An unequivocal no.

Two mooted successors include tactical genius Marcelo Bielsa, recently unemployed, and Melbourne Victory manager Tony Popovic.

It would be unfair to put the hopes and dreams on an incomer who will have 90-180 minutes to prove their worth and write their legacy. But both Bielsa and Popovic share a characteristic that Australian football must move away from; an overwhelming control of the operations of their clubs.

Both coaches are accomplished in domestic football, and their systems work. But their eventual exits usually coincide with their former clubs enduring an existential crisis and a period of rediscovery.

Before the Socceroos commit to another manager for the long-term future, Football Australia must formulate a clear idea of what Australia stands for as a footballing nation.

Marcelo Bielsa is a proven tactical mastermind, but requires overwhelming control of operations (Leeds United)

Bielsa may seem like a pipe dream, but Popovic is a realistic option. He could do an excellent job if given the time, resources, and support. Popovic would likely be successful if he were given the reins. However, you only need to look at the domestic competition for warning signs of a coach coming in and moulding a structure to his liking.

The Western Sydney Wanderers and Perth Glory serve as cautionary tales of clubs who, despite their success with Popovic, are still suffering in the aftermath of his exit.

Of course, this drop off is not Popovic's fault; his achievements at both clubs point to the credentials that qualify him for the top job.

What has plagued both the Wanderers and the Glory is that their identity only went as far as "the club currently being coached by Tony Popovic." It's a persona that fell apart quickly after he left.

Since Popovic's exit, both clubs have changed coaches and brought an extensive list of high-quality players on board but have not been able to escape mediocrity. Why? Because there has been nothing concrete about the operations of those clubs since Popovic left.

When you look at the Socceroos, you get a similar example. The national team's identity was Ange Postecoglou's identity. Ask yourself, what has it been since his exit?

Mark Rudan is the latest coach to be entrusted with bringing success to the Wanderers. (Western Sydney Wanderers)

A common argument is that Australia does not have the "cattle" anymore, but that is an obsolete point when considering the feats of lowly nations in Europe, such as Iceland and North Macedonia.

The argument becomes even weaker when you consider that you do not need an extensive list of quality "cattle" to pick up points against China and Oman, where wins could have flipped the script on a disappointing qualification campaign instead of frustrating draws.

It boils down to identity. How does Australia, as a football nation, want to be viewed in the eyes of the world? Right now, their most passionate supporters would not be able to give you a straight answer about what the country stands for.

This fact became crystal clear at home against Japan, a nation that understands its strengths, develops them through youth football and plays to them on the world stage.

A determined Japanese side came into Accor Stadium with the confidence that they could keep the ball and move it fast. They backed their technical ability to get the job done.

However, Graham Arnold's Socceroos were clearly instructed to try and take advantage of Japan's supposed lack of physicality, a plan that failed dismally.

For most of the game, Australia's players bombed the ball long to Mitchell Duke, hoping he could beat Japan's defence in the air. That rarely happened, and it never happened when Jamie McLaren and Bruno Fornaroli got subbed into the match. The game plan bafflingly remained the same, despite the absence of height.

When has Australia played like this before? Is this football what Australians want their national team to be playing in the biggest game of its qualification campaign? Is there such a gap in quality between Australia and Japan that the nation's finest footballers should not feel comfortable or encouraged to take the game on?

Identity is not the only problem; the issues start at a lower level. Australian football has many more problems than a lack of identity in its national team. You only have to look at how they threw a Hail Mary by calling up Uruguayan-born 34-year old Bruno Fornaroli for a debut. Australia is unwilling to back young, local strikers in its domestic competition.

It is going to take years to fix player development. The introduction of a second division, with under-appreciated players and coaches receiving opportunities on a national stage, is an excellent start if executed correctly. But there is no reason a change cannot come earlier.

If Australia can decide what it stands for on the pitch, fans will not be hoping and praying for a saviour. Instead, they will be looking for the right candidate to come and plug into an already established system.

Fans must be clear on Australia's values, the football they want to play, the players they will select, and what character they want the coach to reflect. There also needs to be an endgame and clear expectations that are transparent for the world to see and that must be publicly reviewed regularly, regardless of success or failure.

Football Australia has to sleep in the bed it has made by backing Graham Arnold through until the end of the 2022 World Cup qualification campaign. The decisions it makes after that will be crucial for the future of the World Game in Australia.

For more articles on the Socceroos like this one, click here.


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