It's not the cattle, it's the farm
The “Aussie DNA” dominated the discourse leading into Australia’s cut-throat clash with Peru. But it was another cliché that the result once again debunked. Australia’s qualification for the 2022 Qatar World Cup should put the lazy generalisation that the Socceroos do not have the "cattle" to rest for the foreseeable future.
The Socceroos celebrate World Cup qualification against Peru. (Socceroos Twitter)
Does qualification to a fifth consecutive World Cup mean Australia is perfect? Far from. The question remains, what constitutes an absence of said “cattle”?
Is it yesteryear’s superstars retiring and younger players facing growing pains trying to fill their sizeable boots? Is it missing out on major international tournaments?
Is it when most national team players ply their trade in their country’s domestic competition? And they are comfortable with their career trajectories without being pushed out of their comfort zone?
I guess the reigning European champions and traditional global powerhouses, Italy, do not have the cattle either. They were famously eliminated in World Cup qualification matches by underdogs Sweden and minnows North Macedonia in the last two cycles.
It’s not so black and white. This uncertainty is why it is vital that before we start throwing sweeping accusations around, we carefully examine what has led us to have that thought in the first place.
The metric the average Australian uses to compare today’s Socceroos with is the Golden Generation that Guus Hiddink led to an inaugural World Cup in 2006. It is important to remember that this period was Australia’s footballing peak. It was a run-of-the-mill team with some talent for an outsider but something special for Australians. Holding a team to the standard of its most successful, historical version is a one-way street that usually leads to disappointment.
Instead of lamenting the present and comparing it to the past, the only way forward is to utilise the assets currently available.
Despite being good of late, the 2022 versions of Brazil and Argentina do not compare to the star-studded machines that Pele and Maradona led. Once again, despite experiencing periods without success in recent decades, the discussion rarely got as existential as when Australia faced bumps on the road. Frustration was rampant because both sets of fans knew the quality within their current squads.
Australia competes in the Asian Confederation; thus, critics must make the first comparison there. Despite solid third-round qualifying starts, Australia has required the intercontinental playoff avenue to reach the last two World Cups.
They suffered two losses and managed two draws in the last five games of the qualification campaign. It meant that Graham Arnold's side succumbed to the arduous task of two sudden death games against the United Arab Emirates and Peru in 2022.
Australia did qualify for the World Cup by the slightest of margins, but it took a lot more than was required to get there. Drawing against sides like Oman, China, and even Saudi Arabia, which the Socceroos had the measure of on the day, meant Australia was doomed to take the long road to Qatar.
Despite Australia having the upper hand in all three of the games mentioned above, it let points slip that proved costly. Do they have the cattle to make some noise at a World Cup? Probably not, but they have enough to ensure qualification directly by winning the games in their confederation that are there for the taking.
Even if Australian football has stagnated compared to some up-and-coming Asian powerhouses such as Japan, the quality of players is still there. The problem is that it is not always given the chance it warrants.
The Socceroos downing 22nd ranked Peru showed that the quality is there to challenge most opponents. That is despite underused players such as Riley McGree, Denis Genreau, Marco Tilio, and Connor Metcalfe.
All four are on a similar upwards trajectory that Australia must reward as a footballing nation. McGree has signed for Middlesbrough and will be fighting for Premier League promotion. At the same time, Genreau's Toulouse side achieved promotion to the French top flight. Tilio always looks menacing when on the pitch. No one would be surprised if he followed former Melbourne City teammate Connor Metcalfe, who signed for St Pauli in Germany, with a move overseas.
As a nation, Australia can lament that when it reaches big occasions, they no longer have a star to step up and create headlines. But that fact will not change until it gives its ascending talent, like the ones mentioned above, regular, crucial minutes.
Take a look at Kye Rowles, who before June 2022 had not represented the Socceroos. He was under pressure against the UAE and Peru, starting in his country's most important games in four years, and excelled. Rowles, his new club, Hearts, and the Socceroos will benefit from this experience in the long term.
To develop football in this country, the national team should reward those players. Experience is fantastic and a crucial part of every successful team, but for a functional and sustainable set-up to exist, the experience should help mentor and drive the next generation.
Without this continuity, a void is created with talented players remaining just that; a concept, an idea. A supportive and purposeful system would help more of Australia's players capitalise on their talent and become the stars their fans desperately desire.
With the World Cup expanding and Asia gaining more positions, likely, the Socceroos will not be facing such a do-or-die situation to qualify again. However, its fans, clubs, and governing bodies must not just sit back, get complacent, and accept qualification. Instead, it should always be looking to take the next step forward.
As the game grows in Australia, so should expectations. The country now has a Men's World Cup to compete in, a Women's World Cup to host, and a potential National Second Division to implement. Australia must look inwardly and take full advantage of the world game's momentum over the next year. It is a generational opportunity to reform the game for the better for years to come.
Like this article? Check out Antonis' piece on Australian football needing a sustainable system by clicking here.