We Made It! But Now What?

After making hard work of the qualification campaign, the Socceroos are going to Brazil for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Finals. That’s fantastic news for all us Aussie football fans, but until things became dicey we were expecting to qualify with a bit more ease than we did. That’s not to take away from the achievement that is qualifying for the third consecutive time, but I think many fans are at a point now where they believe qualification is just expected.

Whether qualifying is expected or not, I think we can all agree that anything short of qualifying is considered an abject failure. That goal was big for the Socceroos, but it was even bigger for the career of Holger Osieck, who would have been sacked virtually on the spot had we not qualified.

It also turns out that with Jordan going on to beat Oman later that night, a draw would have been enough to qualify anyway, but hindsight is 20/20 and we needed to beat Iraq. Fortunately, we did.

So we are now about a year away from the World Cup Finals themselves and a lot can change between now and then. As one of the first nations to qualify, we don’t know who else will be joining us in Brazil and we are months off from finding out who is in our group. Obviously we could luck into a comfortable group draw or we could be unlucky and draw the dreaded “Group Of Death”, where my luck of the draw, several highly ranked or big name teams are put into the same group, with only two able to qualify for the Round of 16.

That said we do know we will get a top seed, at least one other very good team and then the fourth team is a real wildcard. So what are realistic expectations for the Socceroos in Brazil?

Personally, I have low expectations. I am certainly not ruling out the possibility of coming second in our group, especially if we can avoid a smashing at the hands of the top seed we draw (Germany 4-0 ring any bells), however I think this is a transitional period for the Socceroos.

We are at a weird place right now where a large portion of our team are on their last legs, past their primes and Brazil will be their farewell to the international stage, whereas the rest of the team are young and yet to reach their prime.

Of the 11 who started these last three qualification matches, I would say only Mark Milligan and maybe Brett Holman are in their natural primes, in terms of age. A case could be made that Luke Wilkshire, in his early 30s, is still in his prime, however from what I have seen of him I think he is already slipping and probably will be making his last World Cup appearance in Brazil.

Schwarzer, Neill and Bresciano are way past their primes and others like Cahill, Ognenovski and McKay are certainly on the decline. I doubt we will see any of them still around for the 2018 qualification campaign.

What is really unfortunate is that 2010 was the perfect time for much of the old guard to have their best World Cup showing, but we were unfortunately stuck with Pim Verbeek as manager at the time and wasted an opportunity that comes but once every four years.

2014 was always going to be that transitional period where the previous generation are on their last legs, but the new guard aren’t totally ready yet either. Tommy Oar and Robbie Kruse are stars of the future and Tomas Rogic is possibly our most talented prospect, with fantastic efforts off the bench in the last two matches, but clearly Osieck isn’t quite ready to hand them the keys to the midfield just yet.

This means the upcoming club football season will be a massive factor in both who will be in the Socceroos starting 11 next year and just what our ceiling is. Rogic has moved to Celtic and a big season from him could see him take either Bresciano or Holman’s spot in the side. I personally can’t see Bresciano still being up to the job in a year’s time. He is already too slow and too poor defensively to play against decent opponents, as evidenced by the towelling he received at the hands of Japan. Another year in the mediocre Qatari league and I think we will be in serious trouble if Holger is still expecting him to be that midfield general he was so for many years.

Holman also has many question marks on him as despite the fact that he should be in his prime, his career is in a state of flux. He is at a decent club in Aston Villa but he needs to be getting regularly playing time or go to a club where he can play more. For years I was a Holman hater but he was probably our best player at the 2010 Finals and I started to like him. However, after a good performance against Japan, I thought he was poor in our last two matches. It’s a big season in the career of Brett Holman, for himself and for the Socceroos.

Robbie Kruse and Tommy Oar are both locked in to their spots in the team and with Kruse moving to Bayer Leverkusen, he could have a breakout season on a large scale. If Rogic, Oar and Kruse all have big seasons, that is a great sign for our chances and even better for our future.

However other areas of the field are a concern. We are playing Tim Cahill out of position as a target man striker because we don’t have a heap of options. Josh Kennedy is obviously one and scored the winning goal, but whether Osieck thinks he can start in Brazil, I’m not sure. Archie Thompson can provide speed and energy off the bench, but I don’t think he is good enough to start.

What I’m hoping for is a breakout season for young strikers like Bernie Ibini who has just moved to China to play for Shanghai East and Kerem Bulut who is now playing in Turkey for Akhisar Belediyespor. If either of them can take a step this year, we might have another solid option up front.

Defence is another concern. Lucas Neill doesn’t have a club and whilst he played well for Australia, didn’t even seem to be that good at an A-League level when playing for Sydney FC. I have no idea where he is going to be this season, but he needs to find a job somewhere. Ognenovski is a rock and I trust to be fine, but Wilkshire’s performances were concerning to myself and others and Matt McKay isn’t really a left back.

We might end up playing Ivorian Adama Traore of Melbourne Victory once he is declared eligible for the Socceroos and Michael Zullo is also an option at left back. At right back I think Wilkshire will continue to start, but he needs to step up from his recent performances.

Then there is Schwarzer. Despite having a mediocre season at Fulham, he continues to be a pillar of strength when he plays for the Socceroos. I must admit that before the Japan game I was concerned about him and wondered whether we should be moving on already, but he proved that wrong. I am happy for Mark to start in Brazil and then retire and hand the job over the Mitch Langarak or Matt Ryan. But for right now he needs to find a club. I am sure a decent enough team will snap Schwarzer up but until then, it’s a concern.

Overall the future is bright. I think 2018 is Russia is when we will be at our next peak, with the primes of the Kruse, Oar, Rogic and Co. era. I don’t expect us to get out of the group stage in Brazil, but would just like us to be competitive and not play negative as we did in South Africa because of tactical mismanagement. The nature of our performances is more important to me than trying to play for draws or freaking a 1-0 robbery win. If the team can be competitive and do the country proud, then that’s a successful campaign to me.

In 2018 I see us having an Australian manager (perhaps Popovic, Postecoglou or Vidmar) and a team that will scare a lot of opponents. The A-League is coming off a breakout season and moving forward and we have a great young generation of players coming through. Australian football is in it for the long haul and has to be thinking about the long term plans and right now we are headed in the right direction.

Brazil will be a nice farewell to the stalwarts of the old guard and a great showcase of the new guard. Just don’t put undue pressure on the event with unrealistic expectations. We just accomplished our expectations by getting there at all.

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