By Vince Rugari
Doha: It doesn’t take long at a World Cup for crunch time to arrive. It’s all Ted Lasso vibes until a first-up defeat, which leaves no margin for error, ratchets up the tension and darkens the outlook. Rightly or wrongly, Graham Arnold’s Socceroos legacy now almost entirely hinges on what happens next.
Arnold was in Nelspruit, as an assistant coach, when Australia won their last World Cup match against Serbia in 2010. Twelve years and six prime ministers later, the agonising wait continues.
“I haven’t slept for a long time, wanting that so much,” Arnold said. “It’s not for me, it’s for the nation. Two wins in 17 games. There’s nothing more that I want than to put a smile on all Australian faces.
“It’s not about me at all. If it was about me, I probably would have left ages ago.”
Arnold was also there in Leipzig at the 2005 Confederations Cup, the last time Australia faced Tunisia. It was a fork-in-the-road moment for the Socceroos: a 2-0 defeat resulted in Frank Farina’s sacking as coach, setting the stage for the appointment of Guus Hiddink, and all the good times that followed.
If the ‘golden generation’ struggled against them back then – and if the lessons, as Arnold contends, still haven’t been fully absorbed by the Australian game – then it doesn’t bode particularly well for this current crop, who were down on confidence after a 4-1 battering against France and had to be picked back up.
Arnold has tried his best to restore their belief, the thing he was previously building up as their trump card. He called it the “best friendly we could ever have” which pointed out mistakes they can’t afford to make again, and framed Australia’s remaining Group D fixtures as a two-game tournament; two grand finals, back-to-back.
“They were down, they were disappointed, of course. But I grabbed them and told them how proud I was of work ethic and their commitment,” he said.
“All the stats showed that they put in 100 per cent plus. But it’s those little mistakes that turn into big mistakes. I just said to Nathaniel Atkinson, ‘You’re going to remember this for the rest of your life, mate. You’re going to sit there in 20 years’ time when you retire, with a beer in your hand, telling everyone how you played against one of the best players in the world, and you’re going to show them two mistakes, but 10 things you did great.
“You’ve got to look at the positives, and what our kids are going to learn out of it.”
Arnold put on a happy face in his 10-minute doorstop with Australian media on Thursday (local time), but it was clear the pressure is getting to him. That’s natural; this is elite sport. His references to the broader problems within the sport domestically, the hint that he once contemplated quitting, how easily his players were physically bested by France’s hulking superstars, how he doesn’t have time mid-tournament to work on his team’s technical deficiencies, and how this hitherto chastening experience in Qatar will eventually benefit the younger players in his squad – mostly solid points all round – felt like a coach trying to lay groundwork for the possibility of failure.
“We showed them a great video, the energy of the fans back at home [in Melbourne’s Federation Square] when Goody scored. We miss out on that. We don’t see that here. That special moment will stay with those fans forever,” he said,
“Craig Goodwin, the seventh Australian ever to score a goal at a World Cup. Come on, seventh – so let’s be realistic.”
The challenge before them is deceptively simple: turn their strong first half-hour against Les Bleus into a sustained 90-minute effort against Tunisia, the world’s No.30-ranked side. Where Australia’s defensive line was forced backwards by France as they bossed possession, here, they will have much more of the ball, and need to find ways to break down Tunisia while being alert to the dangers they pose on the counter-attack. In qualifying, it was in these circumstances where the Socceroos struggled the most.
Worse still, it will feel like an away game against a team built on fire, brimstone and unbridled aggression. There is a huge Tunisian expat community in Qatar, and after holding pre-tournament fancies Denmark to a scoreless draw – their best single result at the World Cup – they’re in with a shot of getting out of their group for the first time in history.
That match generated the best atmosphere of the tournament so far, and on the pitch, there was a symbiotic relationship between the acts of defensive commitment from the players and the approving roar of the crowd, a circuit Australia must break to be any chance.
“They’re going to have 40,000 fans behind them, and it’s going be a truly amazing experience again for everyone,” Arnold said. “We’ve got to be ready for that war ... fight fire with fire, especially from the start, and then when we’re up, put the fire out.”
A three-day turnaround will test their physical resolve, and so changes are likely – particularly in defence, where twin towers Harry Souttar and Kye Rowles were under siege as Kylian Mbappé and his merry men set fire to the village around them.
PROJECTED STARTING TEAMS:
Australia (4-3-3): Ryan; Degenek, Souttar, Wright, Behich; Mooy, Devlin, Hrustic; Leckie, Maclaren, Goodwin.
Tunisia (4-3-3): Ben Said; Drager, Ifa, Talbi, Maaloul; Skhiri, Laidouni, Slimane; Khazri, Jaziri, Msakni.
Cammy Devlin – Australia’s midfield mongrel, who teammate Milos Degenek has compared in ability and temperament to Jason Culina – looks built for this sort of combustive match; if not used here, there wasn’t much point in bringing him at all. Ajdin Hrustic’s guile and class would also be handy, but after he was left on the bench in game one, there remains a question mark over his ankle.
Arnold said Hrustic was 95 per cent fit. “The other five doesn’t matter,” he said.
Up front, there are fresh legs in Jamie Maclaren, whose killer instinct will be needed in a clash where clear-cut chances could be hard to come by, but this is also the sort of scenario where Jason Cummings – whose sluggish 34-minute cameo against France was labelled “absolutely minging” by ex-Socceroo Zeljko Kalac – could actually do his best work.
Arnold says it’s not about him, but a lot of it is. He’s made clear his desire to stay on with the Socceroos for another World Cup cycle, but it’s hard to imagine Football Australia handing him another contract without some success in Qatar, be it through progression to the round of 16, or just bagging those three elusive points. Nobody can take away his monumental achievement in getting the team here, but this is his chance, his moment to be the guy who ended the drought.
Saudi Arabia’s monumental upset of Argentina and Japan’s boilover against Germany has prompted many fans back home to ask why that can’t be Australia. It’s a big, complicated question. The short answer is: it can be, but an awful lot has to go right.
“Japan had 26 per cent possession. They sat deep the whole time. I think it’s maybe another wake-up call for Australia,” he said.
“Everyone’s calling that we should qualify directly – Japan and Saudi [were] in our [qualifying] group, and they can shock the world like they’ve done. But that’s our intention as well.”