The last week has been a microcosm of Australian football as a whole. Unified by the theme of false hope, it matched a well-trodden narrative typically synonymous with Greek tragedies in modern literature.
It begins with hope – in the case of the Socceroos, a packed house at AAMI Park to see the national team brush away Vietnam with ease in what many hoped would prove to be a seminal moment for the country in making the next step towards qualifying for a fifth consecutive FIFA World Cup.
From there, all that the country needed was for Saudi Arabia to get a result against Japan in Saitama and for the Socceroos to defeat Oman. All things going to plan, Australia would host Japan in March with the prize being automatic qualification to football’s most prestigious tournament.
Yet like all Greek tragedies, the story came to a sour resolution. Saudi Arabia did not get a result against Japan and Australia did not manage to beat Oman. The Socceroos now sit three points behind Japan as their chances of qualification seem to dim after each passing match.
Without wanting to delve too far into the realms of Greek literature, now seems like the perfect time for the Socceroos’ moment of anagnorisis.
It feels like we – as media and as fans – are undergoing a subconscious anagnorisis. There seems to be universal agreement on many of the issues facing the Socceroos. However, the most poignant aspect of anagnorisis is that it is the hero himself who grows acutely cognisant of his situation and, most importantly, attempts to enact some sort of reform.
It is time that Football Australia has its moment of anagnorisis. Ideally, this should come before Australia (potentially) fails to qualify for the World Cup in what would represent arguably the worst moment for Australian football since 2001 and would undoubtedly spark a rigorous process to determine ‘how did we get here?’
One of the first steps of this poignant moment for the FA should be acknowledging that the Socceroos have a problem with their mentality. Incomplete performances and second half fadeouts are becoming increasingly ubiquitous and that is troubling.
If you were to just take the Oman game in isolation, this would still be obvious. Graham Arnold’s men started the match in a composed fashion, maintaining fluidity in possession while also posing a threat going forward.
The second half was a different story altogether. Soon after Abdullah Fawaz’s strike miraculously nestled into the top corner of Mat Ryan’s goal, the Omanis began their dark arts – a refined skill in which they are the masters. From feigning injury to time wasting at goal kicks, Oman sought to frustrate Australia and they succeeded. The Socceroos grew more wasteful and impatient as they began to force crosses into the penalty area.
The tension was palpable. Aaron Mooy thought he saved the day when his strike put the Aussies ahead in the 79 minute but the Socceroos cracked again and it did not take them long. A mere 10 minutes had passed after Mooy’s goal before Fawaz caressed his penalty kick into the corner of the goal, sending Ryan the wrong way.
Put simply, Australia had the game by the scruff of the neck and were in pole position to win before they crumbled.
As aforementioned, this is not a rarity. The game against Saudi Arabia was largely one-sided for the majority as Australia carved out opportunity after opportunity while failing to break down the Green Falcons. Late in the second half, Harry Souttar went down with an ACL injury and it was the same collapse that we have come to expect from the Socceroos when the going gets stuff as they ended the game arguably thinking they were fortunate to even get a point.
Even in the side’s 4-0 victory against Vietnam, they looked vulnerable in a short period after half-time and were left feeling lucky because a better team could easily have punished them for their lapse in concentration.
This has become too much of a ritual to continue to ignore it.
The strangest part of the Socceroos mentality crisis is that Australia is typically synonymous with sharp mental fortitude supplemented by strong camaraderie. In a footballing sense, this togetherness has often acted as a glue to bind the group and, at times, compensate for inferior ability in a technical and tactical sense.
It’s not easy to specifically point out where Australia’s lacking mentality stems from, but it doesn’t hurt to guess.
For starters, many of the clubs in Australia’s top division of football do not have adequate facilities conducive to a professional sporting environment from a young age.
Additionally, players are now getting less and less opportunities to play in youth national teams which forms a vital basis for forming important bonds and developing camaraderie among the group for the years ahead.
Members of Australia’s 2006 FIFA World Cup squad often remark that the Australian Institute of Sport provided them with both an elite training environment as well as a chance to interact with fellow footballers and grow these relationships. With the AIS’ footballing program now defunct, it does not seem like the players are spending enough time with each other.
It’s easy to see the material effect that such problems can have on players’ mentality during football matches. When players have strong bonds off the pitch, they can rally together on the pitch and dig deep when the going gets tough. This certainly is not happening at the moment and it’s difficult to imagine how it gets any better in the future without urgent attention.
On the pitch, we all know that Australian players are not getting enough minutes in Europe, but it’s also important to recognise the context of the minutes that Aussies are playing.
Many Socceroos ply their trade in European leagues outside of the top six leagues. Of these players, only a handful play in teams that can consider themselves fighting for a title or promotion or even fighting against relegation. Those playing in the A-League are often under little to no pressure to perform, knowing that they are unlikely to be dropped and that the pressure gauge is often at a minimum.
The consequence of this is that not enough Australians are placed in high pressure environments on a constant basis. Unfortunately, this explanation alongside the growing diminishment of strong bonds formed within the group, amalgamates into the product and the lacking mentality that we often see on the pitch for the Socceroos.
Being placed in do-or-die Asian World Cup qualifying games should not seem so foreign to a group of players. The players should not seem lost at sea when the going gets tough during a fixture where the opposition is guaranteed to fight for everything.
Clearly, the issue of the Socceroos currently weak mentality is multi-faceted and cannot merely be solved with the click of one’s fingers. However, the least that the FA can do is demonstrate that they are aware of the problems at hand and therefore, attempt to instigate reform in this area.
At the very least, this could galvanise the playing group and call on them to prove that they are not a group of serial underachievers. The players need a firm wake up call before they embark on the arduous journey of attempting to win consecutive games against Japan and Saudi Arabia.
This is a massive opportunity and it really should be Football Australia’s anagnorisis.