The PFA 2022 World Cup survey: Socceroos are "united" on the path forward
Following Australia's most successful men's FIFA World Cup, the Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) anonymously surveyed Graham Arnold's 26-man squad. Front Page Football reviewed the results and the story they tell for the side that fell agonisingly short against the eventual champions in the Round of 16. They are now looking ahead to the Asian Cup.
The 26-man Socceroos squad identified unity as one of the biggest strengths of their 2022 World Cup run. (Twitter: @Socceroos)
As the dust settles on the unprecedented success the Socceroos had at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the results from the PFA's anonymous survey, undertaken by all 26 members of Graham Arnold's squad, reveal what made the history-making Australia side tick.
The Socceroos may have entered the tournament in the middle of the average age category compared to other countries, with Australia's 27.2 resting comfortably between Iran's 28.9 and Ghana's 24.7. But Arnold's men were second-last in the average international cap category looking at national team experience.
With Australia's average of 20.7 caps per player only beaten by Ghana's youthful 18.6, this tournament would always be a litmus test of the Socceroos' next generation. Add to that the difficulty of drawing reigning world champions France, Euro Semi-Finalists Denmark from a year earlier, and a tricky Tunisian outfit.
Coming into the tournament, the Socceroos were aware of their opposition and the quality they'd be coming up against, and Graham Arnold's tactics reflected that. One of the significant points in the report released by the PFA is the team's ability to prepare for an extended period before taking on those teams, creating the perfect storm for a memorable tournament.
"Given these findings surface Arnold’s tactical work, the environment, and team cohesion as competitive advantages, it does make sense that extended assemblies would enable those factors. This trend flags the importance of providing staff and players with as much time as possible in preparatory camps in advance of the Asian Cup in January 2024," the PFA's Technical Summary concluded on the tournament.
The Socceroos' week-long preparation for the France game helped bond an already tight-knit squad even further. The signs of a connected team fighting for each other were evident in the word cloud created when each player was asked to select three words defining the team's playing style during the tournament.
A word cloud produced by the answers of the Socceroos' 26-man World Cup squad. The bigger the word appears, the more frequently it was used as an answer. (PFA 2022 World Cup Report)
When asked about the campaign's strengths, multiple Socceroos identified Aspire Academy, where Australia's camp was stationed alongside Qatar and Ghana, as a "world-class" facility providing the team with top quality "food" and "recovery".
"We were provided with everything we needed," one player stated.
Many players identified the staff and the stability of this World Cup campaign as a strength lacking in the previous campaign after Ange Postecoglou's resignation. The players highlighted the physio and strength and conditioning teams as crucial at the tournament, alongside Graham Arnold and his coaching staff.
One player directly addressed the stability of retaining the same coach throughout the World Cup cycle as a point of difference.
"Going into a World Cup with the manager we had worked with for four years. Having a strong togetherness, belief, trust and understanding of individuals and environment," the player said when asked about the camp's strengths.
These factors led to what one Socceroo described as a "relaxed environment" that radiated "calmness". Meanwhile, others described it as a place where "unity" and "team culture" were fostered. With players feeling this way, there is little surprise they played at their peak condition against the superpowers of world football, taking the game to both eventual finalists.
Moving towards the 2024 Asian Cup, 47% of the World Cup squad highlighted more matches in Australia as an important focus area for Football Australia. Graham Arnold's side was not allowed this luxury too often in recent years because of travel restrictions during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the friendlies against Ecuador in March provided an ideal return to normality.
From reading the PFA's report, it is clear the players valued their time together and saw it as necessary moving forward, with 59% of the players questioned believing more friendlies had to be organised in the lead-up to the Asian Cup, while 35% believe that allowing for more training time together may prove a point of difference once again.
One player stressed that finding a balance would be crucial heading into the Asian Cup, stating that he would like to see the World Cup logistics replicated as much as possible.
"Just a good balance of playing preferably big Asian Cup contenders in the build-up and playing European and South American opponents in the earlier friendlies. Trying to adopt similar camp logistics to what we had for the World Cup," the player said.
Another Socceroo shared that he would like the team to prepare as it intends to play in the Asian Cup. The players were clear throughout their survey that stability is crucial to their performance, and they expect team-first decisions to continue to be made moving forward for the betterment of the team over its individuals.
"Stability around the group with the current environment. Scheduling of the opposition we face, decisions directed to the growth of the team playing strong opposition and not based on financial income," another player stated on the focus areas ahead of the 2024 Asian Cup.
The Socceroos World Cup squad made it clear they value stability and consistency in the preparation for Asian Cup 2024. They believe more steps can be taken to improve the team's preparation. (Twitter: @Socceroos)
Finally, the players were quizzed about the next generation of young footballers coming through, and the squad was overwhelming in highlighting the critical steps that must be taken in Australia to aid the development of tomorrow's stars.
A whopping 88% of the 26 Socceroos surveyed highlighted that reducing the cost to play for children and increasing marketing around the sport to attract new participants should be highly prioritised. Australian forward Mohamed Toure also recently told Front Page Football about eliminating financial obstacles. Toure is likely on Graham Arnold's radar, and he organised the recent African All-Stars game because too many children in African communities cannot play club football. Their parents cannot afford the fees, which is especially relevant for large families.
A large majority of the squad, 81%, also identified developing a clear and agreed upon development plan, consistent nationwide for the next generation of footballers, along with an increase in facilities for kids to play, as fundamental issues to address to develop the next generation of Socceroos and Matildas.
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Despite humanitarian concerns around the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which, as the report states, the Socceroos were among the first teams to publicly condemn, the tournament was a rousing success for Australian football.
At a surface level, the results were Australia's best. But when elaborated upon and contextualised using the data the players provided to their trade union, it is clear the results were no fluke. Instead, they are the product of a tight unit playing for each other in conditions that encourage a plucky squad to come together and overachieve their expectations.
The success of the World Cup campaign is a positive first step highlighting the potential Australian football has, should it be allowed to flourish. The players are content but also united on the steps moving forward.
Despite a tumultuous World Cup qualifying campaign on and off the pitch, Football Australia must be applauded for creating those conditions for Graham Arnold and his squad. But they must continue to take positive steps forward, both in the short and long term, to continue capitalising on the gains made and simultaneously grow the world game in Australia.
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