On November 15, 2017, Mile Jedinak sweetly struck a free kick then calmly converted two penalties to book the Socceroos a place in the men’s World Cup finals for a fourth-straight time.
It was the culmination of a gruelling qualification campaign: 22 games in 22 countries over 884 days.
On that night, he took a true captain’s performance from Jedinak – Australia’s captain fantastic, richly-adorned with his bushranger-like beard – and three set pieces to secure another historic win.
Six days later, Ange Postecoglou walked away from the Socceroos’ head coaching position, having led them at the 2014 World Cup, a historic Asian Cup triumph the following year, and guided them back to the Russian World Cup.
“All this, however, has taken a toll on me both personally and professionally. I have invested all I can …” he said. His words evidence the immense pressure and oppressive weight of coaching Australia.
Four and a half years later, the Socceroos faced a similar scenario. Another set of do-or-die knockout matches for a place in the World Cup, this time to be held in Qatar in November.
On Wednesday morning at 4am AEST, Australia faces the UAE in Doha.
The winner faces Peru next Tuesday (also 4am AEST) for a place in the World Cup. 180 minutes, then, is all that stands between the Socceroos and a fifth consecutive World Cup finals appearance.
So much has changed since that 2017 win over Honduras on a November night in Sydney. But, equally, much is the same as it was.
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Just like last time around, the Socceroos have trodden a long and tiresome road to qualification. Covid-19 threw an almighty spanner in the works, scrubbing home matches from the calendar for 567 days. Coach Graham Arnold himself contracted the virus twice, forcing him to coach the squad by video-calls for two key matches. There was forced quarantine for players returning down under – often on multiple occasions. Some took to remaining overseas for months on end to be able to play their part on the road to Qatar. The sacrifices and the tolls on players and staff alike have been incalculable.
But still the Socceroos appeared to be marching towards qualification. In October last year, a 3-1 win over Oman made it 11-straight wins in qualifying, a world record for a single campaign. While those results were good on paper, the score lines only papered over the cracks. An inability to break down disciplined and deep-lying defences. Frailty in defensive transition. A lack of tactical flexibility or any semblance of a ‘plan b’. Players out of position in cobbled-together squads. Delving even deeper, a lack of genuine world-class talent? Perhaps.
Those cracks would soon turn into cracks.
Days after victory over Oman, the Socceroos traveled to Japan to face the Samurai Blue – a team the Australians had never beaten on their soil. Japan had atypically struggled early in their qualification campaign while the Socceroos were top of the group and racking up the wins.
Arnold has always been unambiguous about his expectations of victory whenever his teams take to the court. Before the Japan clash, he trotted out his same refrain.
“The Japanese no doubt have all the pressure on them because they have only won one game out of three,” he declared. “Every time we step out on the field we expect to win the game … and we will do that again on Tuesday.”
The hosts won 2-1 in a grim performance by the Australians summed up by an 86th-minute own goal. The world-record run was done. After that, the Socceroos would win just one of their seven remaining qualifiers – even after ending a 763-day exile from home soil and playing with the benefit of roaring Australian crowds.
The Socceroos had beaten the likes of China, Chinese Taipei, Jordan, Kuwait, Nepal and Vietnam in those 11-straight wins, scoring 35 times and conceding just three along the way.
Those six teams had a combined two World Cup appearances in total. When the Australians came up against sterner tests in Saudi Arabia and Japan, two nations with 11 combined prior World Cup appearances, the Socceroos stumbled.
In four matches, the record was damning: one draw, three losses. Just one goal scored – a sensational free kick from Ajdin Hrustic in Saitama. The Socceroos never recovered from the confidence hit of that Japan defeat. The wins against those relatively weaker opponents, ugly if usual, began to slip away into draws – 1-1 against China, 2-2 against Oman.
The march towards Qatar 2022 turned into a trudge. The cracks became chasms. 11 straight wins turned into one win from seven matches. The Socceroos had missed out on automatic qualification before the group stage was even complete.
And so we arrive at today. The same fraught scenario as last time around. Do-or-die playoffs. A manager under immense pressure and a team struggling to form and struggling to implement a clear style of play.
But there are key differences to 2017. Two knockout games, not four. Last time it was a home-and-away, two-leg battle. Against Syria then Honduras five years ago, the Socceroos drew the first leg then won the decisive second leg in Sydney. This time they are deprived of that luxury. There are no second chances. It will be Doha, not Sydney, that witnesses the Socceroos battle UAE then – hopefully – Peru.
For Arnold, however, these matches are already something of a second chance. The dismal end to the group stages of qualifying – both in terms of performance and results – left the coach on the brink of being focused. Football Australia CEO James Johnson took the remarkable step of publicly backing Arnold, 24 hours after defeat to Saudi Arabia brought the group stage to an uninspiring conclusion.
There were widespread calls from Australian greats to replace the head coach ahead of these playoffs. In the end, rightly or wrongly, Arnold was not reprieved of his duties.
Much like Postecoglou before him, Arnold has constantly tinkered with his line-ups, never settling on a starting XI that could effectively carry out his often-questionable tactics. Some decisions are out of his hands – Tom Rogic withdrew from the squad for undisclosed personal reasons, while man mountain Harry Souttar has not yet finished rehabilitating from a devastating ACL injury last year. Others – like whether to start Aaron Mooy who has hardly featured for club and country this year – are firmly up to him. And after four years of developing a squad capable of competing in football’s greatest show, Arnold’s choices now could prove defining, for better or worse.
Australian football has often been afflicted with a near-blinding obsession with results over style. 11 straight qualifying wins, a world record, epitomized that. It papered over the cracks. When the results slipped away, the truth was laid bare, and Arnold’s squad management and his tactics were found wanting.
But the long and gruelling journey to qualification – all those kilometers travelled, all the blows delivered by Covid-19, the gripping wins and the humiliating defeats – now comes down to results.
To win ugly is to win. And winning both matches means earning a place among football’s 32 best men’s national teams – and around $15m in prize money from FIFA simply for qualifying. Put aside for a moment the upshot of qualifying in inspiring the next generation, or developing the profile of the game here – for cash-strapped Football Australia, that cash injection is still an important factor. No wonder results are so important.
For Australian football as a whole, it is an opportunity to earn a place in a fifth-straight World Cup, a remarkable achievement for a country which has invested little into the game and watched on as Asian rivals took giant strides forward.
For Arnold personally, “It would mean everything,” he told AAP.
“I don’t want anything more in life at this moment than to qualify for the World Cup for the players and for the nation.”
All that’s left is to win.