The Socceroos came dangerously close to a feel-good story in 2021. World Cup qualifying had resumed after a lengthy Covid-enforced layoff and the team were rollicking through Asia’s second phase. Hockey scorelines had become the norm, Harry Souttar was having a pre-ACL field day and other newcomers offered glimpses of a greener and more golden future.
Even against more modest opposition such as Taiwan and Nepal, the emphatic results felt pleasing. Winning is irresistible, even when it is anticipated. So when Australia completed that second round undefeated and began the third with a Fifa-record 11th consecutive World Cup qualifying victory, we did – as Graham Arnold would say – expect to win.
Amid the encouragement there were well-founded cautions. That the Socceroos have long laboured to pull well-organised defences out of shape. That they lack the tactical sophistication to score through the middle and rely too heavily on set pieces. These were points surely made within the Japan and Saudi Arabia camps throughout this period – that one of their main rivals in qualifying Group B were about to encounter some potholes.
And so it came to pass. After wins over China, Vietnam and Oman, Australia lost to Japan in Saitama. After that match, on 12 October, they recorded a single win – against last-placed Vietnam – from the subsequent six games. In their four fixtures against first-placed Saudi Arabia and second-placed Japan they lost three and drew one. They scored once – from a free-kick.
Over the course of those testing six months, almost all of that initial zest unravelled with the results. The periodic anxiety around youth development in this country once again crescendoed. Any appetite for goodwill towards Arnold eroded to such an extent that Football Australia was forced to issue a statement confirming he will not be sacked before the playoffs.
Which is where we are now, at this critical juncture in a curious qualifying campaign and with a World Cup on the line. Lose to the United Arab Emirates in Doha on Tuesday (Wednesday morning AEST) and there will be no second and decisive playoff against Peru. It will be the end of the road. To Qatar 2022. For Arnold’s tenure. For Australia’s run of four successive World Cups.
The UAE are not unbeatable, by any stretch. But they are also very capable of undoing the Socceroos, as they did in the quarter-finals of the 2019 Asian Cup – a tournament of middling performances which again feel pertinent. In that match, an Australian defensive error allowed Ali Mabkhout to dribble free and score the winner.
Mabkhout has 14 goals in this qualifying cycle – the most across all the confederations – and, alongside returning talisman Omar Abdulrahman, has the capacity to make life very difficult. The Socceroos, of course, have attacking strengths of their own, though who Arnold picks is anyone’s guess given his experimentation during last week’s friendly against Jordan.
This sudden-death playoff, though, is more than selection debates. It is more than Arnold’s fate, and the millions of Fifa dollars that FA stands to lose. It is far more profound than all of that. It is, according to the navel-gazing corner, life or death for Australian football. Others say a failure to qualify would be a good thing, a shock which forces long-needed structural change to build for a better future. Throw those two camps into a room together for 90 minutes and you will have empirical evidence for existential dread (extra-time and penalties might skew the results).
For the players and their coach, tucked away in a training bubble in Doha, this concerns the very fabric of the national team, the intangible pride that is the sum of its parts.
“It would mean everything,” Arnold 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. I’ve been involved in Australian football around the Socceroos for nearly 40 years. I debuted in 1983-84 and I’ve been here pretty much since then, even if it’s with the A-League. My passion has always been Australian football, and I’d love nothing more.”
It is something a former Socceroos great understands well. Tim Cahill, a “global Qatar legacy ambassador”, paid a visit to camp on Sunday and delivered a speech during a team lunch. To be fair Cahill is, after all, Australia’s all-time leading goalscorer and one of only two to have been a part of four World Cup squads. The other, Mark Milligan, was pointed in his thoughts.
“I hope people understand the magnitude of not qualifying for a World Cup,” the former captain and now Network 10 pundit said over the weekend. “It’s so, so important. I keep hearing talk around the place that if we don’t make it, we’re probably in a good place – we’ll survive. We need to be of the attitude that we have to make it, and I know that’s where the players will be.”