What went wrong? That's the question being asked by Australian soccer fans after a dismal, embarrasing display early this morning Australian time against Germany in the World Cup. It may be premature to write Australia off already, but frankly it would require a minor miracle for us to now match our 2006 performance by advancing to the second round. So, what went wrong?
To begin with, Germany played brilliantly and thoroughly outclassed us, making us look like an average second division team playing against a crack premier league side. Every time they had possession they looked as though they might score, their mistakes were few and every player put in an above-average peformance, as befits playing on such an occasion. The only part of their game I remain distinctly unimpressed by is their theatrics, which seem so...well, un-Teutonic! It's hard to see many teams being able to beat Germany if they continue to play like that, perhaps only the crazy-brilliant Brazil could unnerve them.
Secondly, that was undoubtedly the worst, most uninspiring perfomance I can ever remember from an Australian team - and I have followed them for 37 years now, ever since the 1974 World Cup campaign. An impromptu meeting with childhood hero Johnny Warren in an Adelaide bookstore a couple of years before his untimely death was a highlight in the life of someone who as a kid spent most Saturday afternoons on the soccer pitch in an era when soccer was the distinctly unfashionable game of English and southern European migrants. Our team, an unlikely mix of Anglos from the suburbs and Italian and Spanish kids from the inner-city, progressed up a division every year for six years until there was nowhere higher for us to go. That doesn't mean I'm qualified to be a pundit, it's just background, and what I say here stands or falls on its merits. And I say unequivocably that the pre-match talk of Australia drawing or even upsetting a complacent Germany has now been revealed for the hubris it was.
So, what went wrong? In my mind, it all started to go pear-shaped long before we even stepped onto the pitch this morning. We have selected a team of players past their prime with too many individuals apparently chosen on the strength of their past achievements rather than on current form. But that is not the players' fault; the blame for that would normally be laid at the feet of the coach/manager. But before we do so let's consider Pim Verbeek's position. The brief given him by the Football Federation of Australia was to follow up Gus Hiddink's achievement in 2006 by getting us to South Africa in 2010. There is little doubt that if we did not make the World Cup in 2010 the future of soccer in this country would be in jeopardy. Well, Verbeek has done it, and made personal sacrifices along the way by deciding to be resident in Australia whilst his family remained in Holland, and for that he deserves our gratitude as well as his hefty pay packet.
The safest, most assured way for Verbeek to get us to South Africa this year was to rely on the players who had performed so well under Hiddink, even though most of them were going to be in their 30s before 2010 came around. Verbeek's brief was clear, and it did not include transitioning the Australian national team to a new generation of players. Thus he has had to make the safest selection he can with slow, cumbersome ageing backs and injury-prone forwards. The only other option was to choose national league neophytes unblooded at the international level. What would you have done in his place?
But in the cold, hard light of this morning, we can say with hind-sight that Verbeek made some mistakes in this match. Cahill was wasted in his lone striker role, which may account for the frustration which saw him yellow-carded in the second half, and which has possibly put paid to his tournament, although that result would be unjust. But why wasn't Kewell brought on? We can only assume he is not really match-fit. And why wasn't Kennedy played? His height may have been one of the few things in our armoury that would have troubled the Germans in the penalty box. It would have been worth the risk, but we know now he would not have received much ball in any case. Forwards can only shine when the mid-field engine room is doing its job, which it wasn't on this occasion. But playing more than one striker up front might have brought an early opportunistic goal which could have affected the momentum of both teams. Or is that wishful thinking?
In truth, one suspects there is nothing Verbeek could have done to stop the German juggernaut on this occasion. One thing he must do in the future games, though, is compel Neill and his backs to play the off-side rule to our favour. And I certainly don't think Moore should be played again in the tournament; he has been a stalwart for Australia in the past but he is now out of his league. And let's hope (against hope?) that Kewell and Bresciano are fit for the next match.
It's not over yet, and Australia has two opportunities to redeem itself when it faces Ghana and Serbia. Beyond that, the next manager faces the task of re-building the national team with younger players. In the meantime there is consolation to be found in remembering that it's only a game after all, and in rejoicing that in the game where, following William Webb Ellis, you pick the ball up, Australia's Rugby team beat arch rival England 27-17 on Friday!