The most common misconception about the Socceroos heroic class of 2022
As the fallout from Australia's unprecedented second victory at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar rolled on, a particular theme was continued by the media elite in this country. The squad are not good enough because of their names on paper.
This cry out for knowledge of an unfamiliar squad came in many forms from the uninitiated voices controlling the narrative.
National print media proclaimed that Australia doesn't have Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, or Lucas Neill. Channel 9's Clint Stanaway proudly stated on the Today Show that goal scorer Mathew Leckie is "just an A-League player." Leckie has, of course, returned home after plying his trade in the German Bundesliga for an entire decade and most of his adult life.
Mathew Leckie's career redemption was complete in Al-Wakrah. (Associated Press)
There's a counter-narrative to this cultural cringe, from Craig Goodwin's time at Sparta Rotterdam to Mat Ryan's loan spell at Arsenal.
Just how experienced in major European and overseas leagues are Australia's famous 2022 side, and how do they compare with those that came before them?
The only fair starting point is with that of the 'Golden Generation'. In 2006 the backline had all been concurrently playing in England's two highest divisions, with Tony Popovic and Craig Moore the only players aged 30+.
Compared to 2022, the Socceroos have one solitary defender playing in England with Harry Souttar at Stoke City. Meanwhile, Fran Karacic is the other in an elite European system at Serie B side Brescia.
26-year-old Tim Cahill, a famed playmaker of the day for Premier League side Everton, bolstered the 2006 midfield. Mark Bresciano was with Parma, also aged 26, alongside the veteran presence of Scott Chipperfield, who was entering his 30s and playing with Swiss giants Basel.
2022 has that X-factor provided by Aaron Mooy, Jackson Irvine, Riley McGree, and Ajdin Hrustic, all having had spells as mainstays at European or English clubs. Mooy's 2017-18 Premier League form for Huddersfield is arguably more impactful than any Golden Generation member besides a dominant Cahill.
The forward line had Viduka and Kewell playing in the Premier League, no obvious comparison to Mitchell Duke or Jamie Maclaren in the Qatar squad.
With the inclusion of a prime Aaron Mooy, why did the generation of 2018 fail on this front? Simply put, it was due to the career progression of then-A-League or middle-tier European-based players. Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk also made questionably aged selections.
A persistent Bert Van Marwijk was confident in a very limited lineup at Russia 2018. (Reuters)
Andrew Nabbout and in-form A-League midfielder Dimitri Petratos were selected, with Nabbout starting against Denmark and France as the main attacking threat.
Meanwhile, Petratos did not play any minutes and would find himself uninspired as the years passed. He plays in India this year with no national team ambitions for the rest of his professional career.
Whilst undeniably in-form at the time, and a fresh Japan move on the way for Nabbout, it's clear that the career of McGree has a significantly higher ceiling. Goals, starting appearances for Middlesborough in the English Championship, and age are on his side.
Defensive reinforcement had only developed since the emergence of Harry Souttar, who declared for Australia in preparation for the Qatar World Cup. Otherwise, one can not say much more about the Russia 2018 squad.
The class of 2014 was, all in all, relatively young and provided a launch pad for the 2015 Asian Cup victory. Their story was commendable, considering the tournament's harsh draw in Group B.
It is here where an FSV Frankfurt-based Leckie would make his name aged 23. His wing partners were a mid-20s Swiss-based Ollie Bozanic and Melbourne Victory's James Troisi, who fired the winner in the 2015 Final some six months proceeding the tournament.
Asian Cup hero James Troisi would later score at the Confederations Cup in 2017. (Socceroos)
Compared with today, Craig Goodwin has found himself back at home in the A-League, entering his 30s. But he had, like Bozanic, tried and failed to leave a significant presence in Europe, only with more years as a professional.
Leckie is in a similar scenario. The depth of course, is carried by Awer Mabil, who has been in Denmark most of his career and has now landed in Spain. Of course, there's also a prospect in Garang Kuol, who will move to the Premier League in 2023.
The 2014 generation is the picture at perhaps its most grim, with Matthew Spiranovic and Jason Davidson both gaining plenty of minutes. Davidson, to his credit, was freshly faced in the European game in the Eredivisie with Heracles. But elsewhere, the affair was powered by our national competition.
2022 is quite a stark contrast, especially looking forward to the careers of those yet to bed a place in the squad. The rise and rise of Kye Rowles emerging in Scotland and possibly beyond would be a real highlight in this sense.
After 2006, the Golden Generation had one last affair to leave its mark. The South Africa World Cup of 2010. This tournament is the most vital comparison, as it paints a blueprint of how the unfolding narrative powers the strength of those that come after.
The 2026 Socceroos, for example, may yet be bolstered by the rise of Cameron Devlin or Joel King, who have landed in Europe. So in 2010, who was that figure? The answer is probably the likes of Mile Jedinak or Mark Milligan, who both went on to captain the Socceroos. But they were in their mid-20s, shadowed by an impressive Brett Holman, and weren't there to gel with a dwindled Golden Generation.
A comparison between the outgoing presence of Australia's best with the outgoing presence of its most undervalued veterans may yet provide a touch of helpful ignorance in this case.
The seeds had been sown for football and the national competition to be perceived as weaker. Something that was perhaps bolstered by the controversial reign of the late Pim Verbeek.
However, we cannot ignore that things are different now. If anything, the opposite effect is knocking on the door of becoming a reality.
It may come to fruition with a rejuvenated national league on the horizon or a decent campaign at the 2024 Asian Cup.
So, to ring home why this perception is of paramount importance, we look to most Australians who perceive a weaker generation whilst the future is being utilised. We see the lynchpin in a fighting Championship or Bundesliga side of years prior.
Australian football fans can see that the picture was promising after all. Having made the Round of 16, the light is sparking, and the pathway is set for years to come.
It's a generation that, whilst written off, has taken a proud nation to heights unseen to rejuvenate the game's growth ultimately.
But now they've shown all Australians they were wrong before the team even kicked a ball in Qatar.
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