Former Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh once said that “being Australian is about looking after your mates, taking care of the less fortunate, supporting the underdog and enhancing the spirit that makes all Australians unique”.
Rooting for the weaker side in a head to head battle is not a novel concept nor does it just exist in Australia. However, there is something marvellously intangible about the Australian psyche that draws us towards the underdog.
Whether it be Steven Bradbury’s gold medal, Australia II winning the Americas Cup in 1983 or Andrew Redmayne defying all odds to qualify the Socceroos for the World Cup with his Wiggle-like theatrics on the goal-line in a breathtaking penalty shootout against Peru. The only thing that penetrates the Australian spirit more than sport is the idea of an underdog.
It’s why Steve Waugh explained it as being irreparably linked with Australian identity. It’s also why you are met with a callous glare from your mates when you state the obvious and take the side of the favourite, whether it be a schoolyard face-off or a World Cup final. We are all intrinsically encouraged to adopt this mindset.
In the sporting arena, those who lead Australia out to battle often have a point to prove, or a chip on their shoulder. They often thrive when brandished as the underdog, using every excuse to challenge everyone’s expectations and create headlines. Australians love to prove people wrong.
The Socceroos head into the 2022 FIFA World Cup as major underdogs having been dealt a tough group containing reigning World Cup Champions France, European Championships Semi-Finalists Denmark as well as rising African nation Tunisia.
After punishing minnow Asian nations en route to a record undefeated streak, the Socceroos struggled through the third round of World Cup qualifying as they lost twice against Japan and failed to score a goal in two separate encounters against Saudi Arabia. For all intents and purposes, Graham Arnold’s men went into their do or die playoff against Peru as major outsiders as they toiled with injury, lack of form and the widely held belief that they were not performing to expectations.
The Socceroos coach recently explained that his players had told him that “Australia doesn’t want us to qualify”, as many had already written the team off.
For a country that normally thrives in these situations, it was perplexing to witness some of the pessimistic perceptions of the team that were held by the Australian footballing public. It was like the team’s two successive losses against Japan and Saudi Arabia had zapped the life out of its fans who had put so much time and energy into supporting the team across several countries during a COVID-ravaged qualification process which saw the Socceroos play 16 out of 20 games overseas.
As Graham Arnold’s side spurned chance after chance during regulation and extra-time against La Blanquirroja, it felt like the team’s destiny was out of its hands. It was surely only a matter of time before the South Americans would consign Australia to missing out on its first World Cup since qualifying for the first time in 32 years in 2006.
But it wasn’t.
Despite Martin Boyle blasting his first penalty into the outstretched arms of Pedro Gallese, a mixture of luck, madness, preparation and technique saw the aforementioned Redmayne rescue Australia from the depths of despair to send the team to Qatar for the World Cup. The newspaper headlines wrote themselves. Redmayne and the man who decided to substitute him onto the pitch to replace captain Maty Ryan for the penalty shootout instantly became heroes. It was such a captivating moment which said so much about the Australian spirit.
Now as the Socceroos prepare to partake in their fifth consecutive World Cup, they will again relish the underdog label as they seek to “shock the world” as Arnold said during the Olympics.
Like their qualifying campaign, the cards are stacked against the Aussies once again. Key defensive pillars Kye Rowles and Harry Souttar have only played limited minutes for their club sides since recovering from long term injuries while star playmaker Ajdin Hrustić is nursing an ankle injury that continues to restrict his playing time at Hellas Verona.
While World Champions France are facing their own concerns with big name midfield pairing Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté being ruled out for the tournament, they are capable of calling upon prodigious Real Madrid duo Aurélien Tchouaméni and Eduardo Camavinga as reinforcements.
Australia does not have this luxury. Nor does Australia have the luxury of fielding a midfield that matches Denmark’s dynamic trio of Thomas Delaney, Christian Eriksen and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg.
If Souttar and Rowles are not fully fit, there is no perfect solution to replace them in defence. In that situation, Arnold would most likely count on rugged presence Bailey Wright who defended staunchly against Peru to hold onto a clean sheet over 120 minutes. Despite earning his way into Sunderland’s starting XI over the past month, Wright has largely struggled for minutes in England’s second tier as he has started just four of 18 possible matches.
Other backups Miloš Degenek and Thomas Deng each carry their own worries heading into the tournament as both head to Qatar during their club off-seasons. This is particularly concerning for Degenek whose season with MLS side Columbus Crew finished over two months ago. Deng has not played in almost a month since lifting the J2 crown with Albirex Niigata.
With this in mind, Australia’s fate in Qatar is significantly reliant on the fitness of Souttar and Rowles who, while never having played together, have each demonstrated their defensive qualities across the qualification campaign.
In attack, Australia does not have a defined No.9 who has scored goals consistently at a national level. It is telling that nobody seems to have a true indication of who will be the team’s starting centre-forward against France.
Mitch Duke starting against UAE and Peru seems to suggest that he is Arnold’s preferred option, but he scored just eight goals in 36 appearances for Fagiano Okayama in J2 last season. Critics also point to Duke’s first touch and clumsiness as reason to start a more technically proficient reference point at the tip of attack. However, Duke represents Arnold’s Socceroos better than any other player in terms of his defensive work-rate, physicality and aerial threat.
Jamie Maclaren heads into Qatar with his tail up as he has scored eight goals in six A-League games for Melbourne City this season but detractors still point to his average scoring record for the Socceroos as evidence of him struggling at an international level. Edinburgh-born Jason Cummings impressed in recent friendlies against New Zealand and has illustrated his superb all-round game for Central Coast over the course of the past 12 months but is unlikely to start given his lack of experience in international football.
Newcastle-bound prodigy Garang Kuol promises to be a difference-maker off the bench at the World Cup but Arnold must be weary about placing too much pressure on the 18-year-old starlet.
The team is far from settled and concerns linger around the Socceroos’ capacity to score goals in open play against teams who are compact in defence. However, this was the case against Peru yet Arnold’s side managed to defy all odds to outplay La Blanquirroja, create several guilt-edge opportunities across 120 minutes and eventually emerge victors after the penalty shootout.
While the Socceroos boss has been somewhat maligned for his use of catch-phrases like the ‘Aussie DNA’ and the need to have ’11 boxing kangaroos’ on the pitch, maybe there is a switch that flicks for this group of Australians when the going gets tough. Maybe there is something inherent within the Australian sporting psyche that allows national teams to perform to a level greater than the sum of their parts on occasions like this.
Arnold insists that playing in Qatar gives his side an advantage as they used Doha as their home away from home during the pandemic. This means that the side should theoretically be more acclimatised to the sweltering Gulf conditions as well as the air conditioned stadiums that will be used at the World Cup. Perhaps this may grant Australia a mental advantage against their opponents who, aside from Tunisia, have scant experience playing in the Middle East.
Despite this, most Australians head into the World Cup holding low expectations for Arnold’s side. The bookmakers believe that they will be consigned to fourth place in their difficult group. Even the most one-eyed fans of the national team would find it difficult to imagine a situation where they take points from France or Denmark.
All signs point to the Socceroos needing a miracle to make an imprint on the competition in Qatar. But like many Australian teams of the past, that might just work in their favour.
And as the late great Johnny Warren once remarked – maybe this group of Socceroos might just live to say “I told you so”.