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  • Writer's pictureMatt Olsen

The road to Paris: Vidmar and the Olyroos wary of early challenge

It has been a joyous time to follow the Australian national team set-ups, with the country having just been guided through a myriad of emotions with the Matildas co-hosting the FIFA Women's World Cup. The Socceroos will look to keep their momentum ahead of the Asian Cup in a few months. Meanwhile, in the youth ranks, the Olyroos have the stern and previously rare challenge of qualifying for the Olympics in the European summer of 2024.


Although Australia's standing in Asia has come a long way, the Joeys and Young Socceroos were denied World Cup births in unlucky and unfortunate circumstances. The anomaly here is the Olyroos, having reached and won the bronze medal match at the historic Maurice Revello Tournament in the Southern regions of France.


Asian qualifying sees the Olyroos take on a unique obstacle, with a three-team group that may well be decided on goal difference in the Western Asian metropolis of Dushanbe, Tajikistan, for a spot at the U23 Asian Cup in Qatar, being held in April and May next year.


Front Page Football spoke to Olyroos manager Tony Vidmar to discuss life in camp and what we can expect from the team in Tajikistan.

Tony Vidmar is content leading Australia's next tilt towards the Olympics. (Football Australia)


Vidmar was first asked about how the team has settled in so far. He cited the travel logistics to such a location as of paramount importance, acknowledging his respect for the players in overcoming this challenge.


"From all the players who have come in, everyone is adjusting well through the travel and the conditions; the travel has actually been some of the worst we have had to get through," Vidmar told FPF.


Further to this point, Vidmar discussed the challenge of playing in such adverse Central and Western Asian environments, where long-distance travel can be a constant, and the players are tested but equally ready for what lies ahead.


"Look, they are not easy places to come, that is for sure, and the players realise that these upcoming games are not going to be walkovers, and coming to a place where things are not as well off as what we have in our country, the camaraderie of the players in that respect is very good," Vidmar said.


Australia will face Laos and Tajikistan in Group I. South East Asia's Laos are minnows, whilst Tajikistan is known to overperform at youth levels. Vidmar says improved opposition in Asia is something his side needs to be aware of, and no team should be brushed aside as an easy beat, especially with the rise in talent on the continent.


"I think since we have moved into the AFC since 2006, a lot of countries have improved. These are not given wins, and we have to go out there strong; they have nothing to lose. Maybe [they are] without the quality of our players, but these places are always tough to come [to], and it is maybe good in a way, coming here; the difficulty of everything brings the players together," he said.


Focusing on their second match at the Central Stadium in Dushanbe, the Olyroos can expect to be greeted by the most hostile crowd. Vidmar stated that a near sell-out is all but confirmed.


"From what we have heard on the ground, there will be a decent crowd there; I think it is a 20,000-seat stadium, and we expect it to be close to full."

The Olyroos sing the national anthem at the Maurice Revello Tournament. (Tournoi Maurice Revello)


A previously underrated element of this squad compared to prior generations of hopeful Olympians are the numerous talents vying for minutes with clubs all over Europe. Whilst there certainly is an A-League Men presence, Vidmar spoke to the fight this squad commonly possesses, having been slugging it out for game time on European shores.


"Once you move as an Australian into a European club, nothing is guaranteed; you are starting again at the base of your football development, and you have to prove day in and day out that you are as good as what they are in Europe. It is tough, but this is what we want, the thick skin you have when you go to a difficult country, and you can't play games; you know these players are confident and they will stand up," he said.


The Olyroos aim to succeed where the Joeys and Young Socceroos did not, having both bowed out at the quarter-final phase of their respective Asian Cups. Vidmar remains adamant Australia's U23s can go one step further, as a semi-final appearance at minimum is required in Qatar for Olympic qualification.


"You're going into one-off games, and you need to improve. It's not like club football, where you can have three of four bad performances; you can't afford to do that. You do need luck on your side, and that is where the Maurice Revello Tournament tried to create that sense of competition; you're playing for points and trying to finish top of the group. The more games like this, the players will benefit," he added.


The Maurice Revello Tournament was a competition Australia had never been invited to. Vidmar acknowledged that returning with a bronze medal was a big step in the right direction.


"At the end of it, we felt like it was such a worthwhile tournament, and it was a great learning curve for all of these players whereby they were playing games at a serious international level, and three points were at stake; that was gold. So this is something with the 23s, and the 17s and 20s, where the more worthwhile competition they can get, it will benefit them in the short and long term."
 

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On the eve of a ball being kicked in Dushanbe, Vidmar left some parting words on the success of Australia's national set-ups as a whole, having seen the rise of the Matildas on home soil and the Socceroos still brimming with confidence from their Round of 16 World Cup appearance. But what does he see as the catalyst, and what else can be done for prolonged success across the board?


"I have only been back in the national set-ups for three or four years, mainly with the Socceroos. But in the time I have been in here, especially with the Olyroos, they had no activity, they weren't playing minutes. So I think no matter how good a footballer you are, you can't expect to turn up for Australia and expect to win; these players need to be thrown into the deep end, facing serious challenges at the international level," he said.


"This was probably the success for the Matildas, the amount of international fixtures and competition you are playing over the course of three or four years. So this is ultimately something that needs to be replicated across all the national team set-ups; this is ultimately where you grow the success of football for this country."

Vidmar leaves a sense of savvy consciousness and awareness that in prior years may have evaded a national set-up and one of its more formidable sides. The situation here feels different, and there's evidence of change on the pitch. By way of Australia's performances in France, the Olyroos are capable of bucking the trend. So how well can they deliver, and how big of a legacy can they go on and build? Only time will tell.


The Olyroos face Laos at 1:30 am AEST tomorrow before the big test against Tajikistan in front of a sold-out crowd at the same time on September 13.


Click here to read more FPF coverage of Australia's Men's national teams!

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