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  • Writer's pictureMatt Olsen

The AFC Asian Cup: Socceroos under the microscope on the road to glory

The AFC Asian Cup group stage had everything: upsets and triumphs, defeats and despair, comebacks and redemption. Within all the chaos, however, lies the ongoing narrative of whether or not the Socceroos' next generation will claim the country's second continental title in Asia.

The Socceroos line up ahead of their 1-1 draw with Uzbekistan in Al-Wakrah last Tuesday. (Image: Optus Sport)


Understanding how the Socceroos and their performances are being regarded within their fandom and the broader football community is a question many will ponder as the heat rises and their competition improves in the coming weeks; many will hope on the road to the tournament's showpiece event in Lusail on February 10.


Internally, the views within the camp and the squad point to continuing their perceived pragmatic approach as the way forward.


In some ways, the argument made by many fans surrounding performances can be disproven. After all, the Socceroos, for many years now, have been a team, under its many guises, that does not thrive against lesser opponents, which must have been acknowledged as the initial stages of Group B played out.

Commenting on the style of play has been more of a generic platitude from the individuals in the squad who have faced the media, but they have defended themselves and the performances thus far. Meanwhile, fans are laying out the pitchforks almost like Australia's doom in the tournament is a near-forgone conclusion.

This feeling was addressed by Harry Souttar when he fronted the press on Friday afternoon.


"With the quality in Asia, I think there is a lot of disrespect from parts of the world and also from certain people. No one gives Asian football the credit it deserves; you only need to look at the group stage and where certain teams have finished," the defender said.


However, he continued on the main crux of the argument from fans. Though not explicitly stating so, Souttar seemed to point to Australian and other foreign fans having unrealistic expectations.


"We need to look at how hard these games have been, for us especially, facing teams sitting in a low block, making things difficult. You know, it is not as simple as going out and beating these teams three or four nil, like people think should happen," he added.


With these comments, comparing the current discourse and approach as one collective from fans and players alike, it is worth looking at how the Socceroos picture compares to other contenders and their broader public view heading into the tournament's latter stages.


When delving further into Australia's threats to Asian glory, and the factors that could hold them back, the Socceroos may yet be on an acceptable path to success with their approach. But also, the disappointment towards their style of play and results is a problem not unique to Australia, and far from it.

Indonesia's Belgian based defender Sandy Walsh battles for possession against Japan. (Image: Pixel Sports)


First, let's start with the upcoming opponent, Indonesia, who rose from the lowest-ranked nation at the time of the draw to clinch their first-ever knockout appearance.


The Indonesian public will not expect their team to make the quarters. Still, when looking at the views at home from fans and, more specifically, Southeast Asian football critics, Indonesia is perceived fascinatingly.


Their approach to nationalising players, be it Thai-born English-based player Elkan Baggot or former Swansea City cult hero Jordi Amat, who has remarkably found himself at the Asian Cup playing for Team Garuda at 31, has been considered controversial.

Moreover, with Indonesia and its place in the public eye, there is a stigma that the team has also maintained a reputation for underwhelming at major tournaments.


Indonesia has never won the Southeast Asian AFF Cup since its founding in 1996 despite many favourable semi-finals and finals in years gone by. Thus, it must have been exceptionally satisfying when they clinched their inaugural Asian Cup knockout place at the hands of fellow AFF Cup competitors and regional rivals Vietnam.


The challenge against Australia is immense, and the expectations are being kept humble, as noted by their South Korean manager Shin Tae-Yong, who, as an aside, had brief playing and coaching stints in Queensland, a fact which surfaced at his pre-match press conference.


"We don't come prepared for the specific situation and specifically the Australian players. We know we can focus on our own assets, and we must see how far this can take a team like ours," the Indonesia boss said.

 

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Elsewhere, to touch on Australia's direct rivals on their side of the draw, Saudi Arabia is a side local pundits have been bold in saying was unchallenged in the group stage and is still far from their best under Roberto Mancini. They take on South Korea, whose bundle of goals conceded against Jordan and Malaysia, and finishing second in Group E to Bahrain has been slaughtered by its home audience.


Japan likewise has yet to look anywhere like the side they have been revered to be in previous tournaments, notably the World Cup, leading to a near-global level of criticism. However, a clash with Bahrain and how the draw has shaped out still seems favourable.


Iran's squad selection has not received a lot of approval. While the move away from foreign coaches to a more native choice in Amir Ghalenoei has done wonders for the team's harmony, many expect them to be flushed out in the quarter-finals. A clash with a tricky Syrian outfit will not do much to sway the balance of things regarding perception.


Elsewhere, a disappointing UAE has had the luck of the draw fall their way by facing Tajikistan. Uzbekistan will be favoured against Thailand in a match most will look forward to, as both sides have not faced criticism for their excelling performances.


Hosts Qatar have not put sides away convincingly but have not had their line share of detractors ahead of facing Palestine. The Palestinians may have played their final already against Hong Kong to secure qualification to the knockouts. Nonetheless, it was a significant win.


Iraq's match with Jordan will come as the Jordanians were slated for underestimating a Bahraini team that rightly punished them. So, coming up against the tournament's form side, not many see Hussein Ammouta's side progressing.


So, what is the point of having a broader look at the narratives surrounding the tournament from an Australian perspective? By now, it seems well understood almost universally that criticism has been the nature of the beast so far and should be, if anything, embraced by those looking to take their shot at overcoming Asia's elite sides.

Eyes should be peeled to how the upcoming 90 and possibly 120 minutes play out from an Australian lens. Should the Socceroos make their journey successful, it will become clear that they would only be proving fans and critics wrong at every step, as the Asian Cup is a tournament where many can effortlessly falter, as proven thus far across the continent.


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