A New Yet Old Kit: From 2014 to 1974 and Back Again

Today saw the Football Federation of Australia and their major kit partner Nike release the new Socceroo’s kit for the upcoming 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and as someone who loves seeing history respected may I say how happy I am to see this will be what the national team wears when they take the pitch against Chile on June 13th:

Mark Bresciano and Michael Zullo model the new Socceroos kit

What is most pleasant to reflect upon when looking at the new look shirt, shorts and socks is how closely it approximates the same kit worn by the first Australian team to play at the World Cup Finals, my much beloved heroes of West Germany 1974:

1974 Socceroos Team for the World Cup Finals held in West Germany (photo credit Andre Krueger)

If there is one aspect of our game here in Australia that needs consistent and deeper commitment from the FFA outside the actual management of football it is the important task of emphasizing the long and proud history of our sport in this country. It is a task that our administrators need to be challenged with again and again, especially in the broader context of Australians and their relationship with our sporting history.

When one looks at other sports played in Australia there is a continual reliance on referring back to previous heroes, previous wins, previous teams and players. For example in cricket talk about the likes of Mitchell Johnson will immediately bring thoughts among devotees of the sport and engaged journalists with past greats such as Dennis Lillee. In Rugby League the most important domestic contest (i.e. the State of Origin) is redolent with references to old greats like Wally Lewis or Benny Elias, or going back even further the long held resentment against NSW league administrators that drives Queenslanders to deeper passions. Olympic greats like Dawn Fraser or Murray Rose, AFL legends such as Ted Whitton or Ron Barassi, Rugby Union Wallabies like the Ella brothers; all of these sports and their past icons form a tradition that ends up extolling the benefits and national pride of the player and the game.

Football on the other hand has had at best a desultory relationship between its past and its present, its greats of yesteryear and its current champions. Much of this is undoubtedly due to the administrators from previous national bodies doing little in the public arena to encourage the media or Socceroo fans to engage with past players, historical details. Outside the older and more fixated football fans and pundits in Australia the vast bulk of our ability to talk about historical greats is either limited by the paucity of exposure to pre-2005 success or a cultural cringe that celebrates other countries legends ahead of our own.  It is rare to see older generations of football fans in Australia talking in glowing terms of our past, whether it be individual players, teams or even the entire sport itself, and as for the administrators that have at times needed to almost deny the past to survive political or media scrutiny. It’s far easier to talk about a Dino Zoff, a Peter Schmeichel, a Bruce Grobelaar or a Gordon Banks than a Ron Corry or Jim Fraser because so many more football fans in Australia have seen or heard about these legendary foreign goalkeepers than the men who kept goal for the Socceroos in the early 1970s. Even those ex-national team stalwarts like Frank Farina, John Kosmina, Paul Wade and David Zdrilic get more recognition due to their post-playing careers than what they actually achieved on the pitch. David Mitchell, Peter Katholos, Robbie Dunn, Marshall Soper and dozens of other long term Socceroos have been forgotten in ways that overseas footballers from the past, or local historical players in other sports have never been ignored.

So what does this new kit do for those of us who want to see our sport’s past celebrated and discussed with more vigour, promoted with the same kind of respect and appreciation that Australians seem to do so readily with our cricket, league, Olympic, AFL history? Well, just as the baggy green cap has been a constant since at least the early 1900s for all Aussie test cricketers, the green and gold shirt that is going to be worn by Tommy Rogic and Tim Cahill in Brazil is almost exactly what was worn forty years ago by Peter Wilson, Col Curran, Max Tolson and Manfred Schaefer. This is another recent and very welcome indication that the FFA is learning to appreciate where our game has come from, and trying to share it with both old and new fans alike.

 

The World Cup Draw: An Amateur’s Perspective

In the wee small hours of an Australian Saturday morning I sat through all the Eurovision-esque hoopla of the draw for next year’s World Cup Finals. With a parade of dignitaries, old players, Brazilian celebrities, interpretative dancers and that wily old Machiavellian Sepp Blatter it seemed as if the meat and potatoes of the event would never arrive. However, when it did as an Australian part of me wished the FIFA version of ‘The X-Factor: Brazil’ had continued. To use that hackneyed cliche, we have been dropped in a group of death that will take a miracle of North Korea at England 66 proportion to get out of.

Having said that every country that has gone through the process of being allocated a slot in each World Cup Finals group has reason to either celebrate or perhaps contemplate slashing their communal football wrists, and Australia is not alone in wondering how cruel the Gods are. It might be that Brazilians, Spaniards, Argentinians and French have reason to be happy, but almost everyone else will be pondering how chance and fate has conspired against them. So, just to add some more uninformed and amateur comment on the draw here are my thoughts.

Group A

2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ - Final Draw - FIFA.comBrazil are obviously in the box seat for qualification through to the round of 16, with a team that is playing excellent football and at home in front of the most passionate fans in the world. Therefore the race is one for who will go through in second place. Like many a World Cup there is plenty to lick the lips over as the match ups between the three countries looking for a 2nd place progression are determined. Croatia, whilst currently ranked globally in 16th, had a fairly tough road to Brazil 2014 and to be honest they are not the same in terms of quality as that team which went to France in 1998. The added burden of starting off the group games against Brazil will be a tough one for the Croats, and being a European team playing in the Amazonian heat of Manaus against Cameroon and in the the northern city of Recife against Mexico may be even more troublesome. Having said that Cameroon are one of the lowest ranked teams in Brazil 2014, and Mexico have struggled all through their qualification process. A key match will be that in Natal between Mexico and Cameroon; a win for either team puts immense pressure on the loser and Croatia. If I was the Cameroon coach I would want the win badly as going to Manaus against Croatia with three points in the bag is an excellent launching pad. Having said that I suspect that we will see two teams (most likely Croatia and Mexico) level on points at the end of the group stage, with goal difference the determinant for qualification into the round of 16.

My Prediction for Qualifier from Group As: 1st – Brazil, 2nd – Croatia

Group B

GroupBEvery Australian fan of the Socceroos has a tiny flickering hope that whilst we are in a true ‘Group of Death’ we might, just might, squeak through. Of course the hard cold light of football reality means that these illusions (some would say delusions) are going to be considered as ridiculous by the Spaniards, Dutch and Chileans, and most pundits will take the view we are in Group B and the finals to make up numbers. I would argue that the truth lies somewhere in between impossible dreams and pessimistic resignation. The opening matches for each team will go a long way to determining who has the momentum to qualify, and there is the exceedingly tasty prospect of Spain and the Netherlands recreating the 2010 final in the heat of Salvador as their first game in Group B. Spain are world and European champions and ranked no.1 globally, hence have every right to be favourites to progress in number one spot form the group. The Dutch will be very keen to at least draw this game, and it is eminently possible that this will be the case. Their match with their 2010 nemesis will be a cracker. For the two ‘outsiders’ (and I use that term very loosely in Chile’s case) Chile versus Australia will be crucial to both teams and it would be a significant achievement if Ange Postecoglou can get his squad up for a win. The Chileans have been playing brilliant football recently and as these are effectively a South American finals they will be more at home in the climate and match conditions. Therefore for the Socceroos to emerge in 2nd place at the end of the group stage will be a remarkable achievement. Ultimately this is going to be a race in three, and be prepared for perhaps a surprise with Chile beating off either the Dutch or Spanish for progression into the final 16.

My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group B: 1st Spain, 2nd Chile

Group C

GroupCGroup C is definitely one of the weakest in the 2014 World Cup Draw and whilst there are some teams whose current rankings are quite high it is not probably as fair a reflection on the potential quality of the teams participating. Columbia is probably the stand out team and they will no doubt be helped by the South American context of these finals. I think they will be too good for Greece in their opening game and this will set them up very well for qualification through to the final 16 teams, probably in 1st first. Japan is my other favourite for qualification, although Cote d’Ivoire will be possibly more at home. The key games will be those in the second tranche of group matches, with Columbia and Cote d’Ivoire clashing in Brasilia, and Japan and Greece meeting in Natal. The Japanese have had some problems with their standard of play since qualifying for the 2014 Finals, however they have more experience than either Cote d’Ivoire and Greece in Brazilian conditions plus they have more quality players in European leagues than ever before. Neither the Greeks nor the Ivorians have been as convincing in the lead up to qualification so from what may be considered one of the least strong groups I don’t expect them to progress.

My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group C: 1st Columbia, 2nd Japan

Group D

GroupDAnother so-called ‘Group of Death’, the combination of Uruguay, Costa Rica, England and Italy is going to be one of the closest with England and Costa Rica both looking perhaps a little askance at the draw and wondering why they have got what they have got. Uruguay is another South American team who are strong candidates for progressing through to the final 16, and what will be undoubtedly be key for them will be how well they adapt to and are supported in Brazil. The form of Suarez will also be vital for La Celeste. Even though they had to go through confederation play-offs to get to Brazil 2014 they have earned some good wins  in the process. Costa Rica are a team that at its best can be very attractive and competitive, and again they will have some advantage coming from playing in South America unlike their European competitors. However it is more than likely they will be behind the eight ball after their opening game against Uruguay. The England versus Italy game in the Amazonian city of Manaus will be a trial for both teams. Neither England nor the Azzuri have set the world on fire in recent games or in qualifying, so whoever wins this game will be in an excellent position to qualify for the final 16. I know this will sound like Pommy bashing but the Three Lions have had a less than stellar record at recent World Cup Finals so if I was to pick a European team to come through this group it would be Italy.

My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group D: 1st Uruguay, 2nd Italy

Group E

GroupEOf the top 8 seeded teams for Brazil 2014 Switzerland was seen as one of if not the weakest and in this group they will find the going tough. Ecuador are a bit of an unknown quantity in this group and you would think that with the South American context of these finals they should be at least capable of a draw against the Swiss in the opening game. However for both these teams the big threat has to be France, who after a very tough qualification process made it to Brazil in style and have had some good wins since then. Honduras will be very likely roadkill for Les Bleus in the first game for both teams, setting the scene for what will be two crucial games in the second phase of matches in Group E. This should be a reasonably open competition for second place assuming Switzerland don’t live up to their rankings, with my assumption being the team to get through alongside France possibly coming down to goal difference.

My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group E: 1st France, 2nd Ecuador

Group F

GroupFLa Albiceleste are red hot favourites to get through the initial stage of Brazil 2014 and I see no reason why they can’t get a maximum of 9 points from their games in Group F. Again like Group the remaining three sides in this group look to be fighting over the scraps of second place with none of them being stand out candidates. Argentina could well put on a goal-fest against Iran, and whilst Nigeria won’t be a major threat they will possibly more capable of handling the climate of Brazil with more comfort. The Iranians will in my opinion struggle to challenge at least Argentina and probably Nigeria, which means the crucial games will be those involving the only debutante nation at Brazil 2014, Bosnia-Herzegovina. If the Balkan country can escape from  their opening game against Argentina without too serious a mauling then beat Nigeria in Curatiba they maybe in a prime position to progress. For now however I expect Nigeria to accompany Messi’s Argentines to the second stage of Brazil 2014.

My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group F: 1st Argentina, 2nd Nigeria

Group G

GroupGYet another ‘group of death’ which is set up magnificently for some quality matches as well as some one-on-one challenges and unique circumstances. Germany’s Mannschaft are again looking in excellent nick prior to the  2014 finals and one aspect of their team that will stand them in good stead is that the team that played so attractively in South Africa has been both matured and had more youthful talent incorporated into their structures. Joachim Low is a coach who has few equals in international football and I have every confidence that he will steer his squad deep into the finals. The second European team in the group is Portugal and whilst they will attract a lot of support partly due to the immense talent of Ronaldo, and partly through the cultural links between Brazil and its ex colonial ruler, I think this version of the Seleção is not as good as past ones. Their global ranking seems out of tune with recent results, and with a history of having little recent success against Germany they will go into their opening game as underdogs. The Ghanaians and Americans are not necessarily there to make up numbers, however again particularly in the later team’s case the FIFA rankings seem a little generous. The clash between Jogi’s Deutschland and Klinsi’s USA will be fascinating however what is going to be more important will be their game against Ghana. The Black Stars will I think be challenging Portugal for the second place in Group G and I would not be surprised to see them get through like they did in 2010 on goal difference. However this is most likely going to be the only group that provides two European teams for the round of 16.

My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group G: 1st Germany, 2nd Portugal

Group H

GroupHAnother reasonably open group with one stand out team (Belgium), one very good team (Russia) and South Korea and Algeria each having strengths that cannot be denied. Much has been said by far more insightful pundits about the strength and exciting potential of the Red Devils, and they should get off to a great start against Algeria in their first group match. The big match of this group will no doubt be the second for the Belgians and the Russians, being played at Rio’s legendary Maracana, and if the Russians can emerge victorious in their first game against South Korea this will set the group up very sweetly. Having said that I don’t believe that the South Koreans are as weak as their current FIFA ranking assert, and they could trouble the hosts of the 2018 Finals. Algeria are probably the weakest of the African countries at Brazil 2014 and I expect they will finish last in the Group. Bottom line; this should be another all-European qualifying group into the round of 16.

My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group H: 1st Belgium, 2nd Russia

The Socceroos: Ange’s Way Forward?

Like every other person who has watched the Socceroo debacle unfold since the losses against Brazil and France, I have some ideas as to how the team needs to progress and what we as a football country and culture need to see implemented by all the relevant powers-that-be. With Ange Postecoglou appointed as the next national team coach, here are my thoughts on how he may (with the assistance and support of the FFA) move us forward on the international football stage

  1. Ange’s agenda must be defined by the long term role he has been appointed to,. Whilst no one would want him to fail to record improved results in the coming months or at next years World Cup Finals in Brazil, the strategy must be to accept potential bad results now for long term gain further down the road. The FFA and Frank Lowy particularly don’t want to see the national team embarrassed, however if Postecoglou can begin a more youth focused approach over the next 12 months, improve the reputation of the team and get the best out of the squad in those crucial games next year then maybe some losses will be accepted more equanimously than those recently incurred during Holger’s regime.
  2. Postecoglou must work closer with the coaches of the junior Australian teams such as the Olyroos and the Joeys. In the last decade or so our youth players have not done as well in international tournaments as we have done in the past, and as we need to see in the future. The most recent examples of this decline were the defeats suffered by the U-19 team against Vietnam (5-1 in the AFC U-19 championship qualifiers), and the failure of the U-20 Young Socceroos to escape the group phase in the U-20 World Cup in Turkey earlier this year. The so-called Golden Generation was built upon a swathe of great young players who did well at junior World Cups and the Olympics (such as the 1992 Barcelona Olyroos), and there needs to be more connection across the entire board regarding the progress of our juniors to senior representation. Technical skills being introduced as part of the national training curriculum by Hans Berger are very important, however how is that being utilised by our national coaches as a means or a goal for squad development and success? Our national coach needs to be both informed of and informing this process; to all intents this never happened with any of the imported coaches like Osieck, Verbeek, Hiddink, Venables etc.
  3. The FFA must be willing to be both harder in its approach to critiquing the national team and its coach, but more flexible in giving Postecoglou the support and directions he needs. One of the failures seen under both Osieck and Verbeek was the scant regard given by either for the supposed goal of rejuvenation of the Socceroos, or the lack of definitive publically expressed directions regarding the the implementation of a football philosophy beyond winning as many games as could be achieved. Frank Lowy set parameters for recent coaches that brought concrete successes but they were hardly ones that will have long term benefits, nor were they a result of a cooperative and informed ethos within the teams, the coaching staff and the administrators joint collective. It’s a very fine line to walk, being both unobtrusive in the day-to-day coaching and management of the Socceroo squad, but being willing to call a spade a bloody shovel if things aren’t being done the way the FFA wants. This is a crucial challenge for Lowy, Gallop and others, and it will be interesting to see if the current or future FFA are up to the task.
  4. Too many of our best young prospects have been seduced by lucrative contracts and the lure of going to a European club into career choices that have led them down a cul-de-sac. Whilst much of the criticism aimed at Holger Osieck’s squad was rightly directed at the coach, a great deal of opprobrium needs to be directed at the players. Part of that critical reaction has to be targeted at younger players who went overseas to clubs that have either not served them well, or have led them into dead-end situations (either of their own or of the club’s making). Right now I believe there has to be a significant question over Tom Rogic’s decision to go to Celtic, although his is not the only example. Whilst Celtic are a substantial team in the SPL, his recent lack of fitness and more importantly inability to get quality game time is a major concern. It would seem to me he may have been better going to a Belgian, Dutch, or maybe if possible a Bundesliga I or II team, as per Robbie Kruse or kiwi Marcus Rojas. I would argue the likes of Matthew Spiranovic and Dario Vidosic lost a great deal of their prospective growth and momentum as key young Socceroos for this campaign because of badly managed overseas excursions early in their career. Even younger players like Eli Babalj and Aaron Mooy have had misadventures in Europe, whilst those that are a little older like Brent McGrath, Ruben Zadkovich, Nathan Burns and Bruce Djite have also learned from their foreign sojourns and come back to the A-League. Whether any or all of these players could have been or maybe will be major Socceroos in the future is debatable, however I firmly believe that longer and more consistent involvement in the old NSL was a hallmark of the development of our so-called ‘golden generation’ and in the last 10 years there has been an inordinate rush for much of our talent to look for foreign clubs as their first or most important early signing. It would do the Socceroos cause some good I believe for the FFA to try and manage the timing and targeting of foreign adventures in a cooperative manner that doesn’t leave players looking back at wasted times or unsuccessful engagements overseas. Ange must be ready to be up front with players looking to make less advantageous career choices, when talking to them regarding their national team selection. If Postecoglou can help inform and guide these career choices then that will be very helpful for the development of the Socceroos. Perhaps with Ange’s deep knowledge of the A-League and junior talent, and the coaches who are involved in the development of younger players he may have more impact as an advocate for more careful foreign club choices.
  5. Concomitant with this aspect of misadventures in timing when committing to overseas clubs is the actual league which those players, whether young or old, are playing. Naturally everyone wants to play in the best European leagues, however identifying which ones these are and how easy they are to crack is always difficult. In my opinion the four giant pillars of UEFA (EPL, La Liga, Bundesliga and Serie A) are the obvious leagues we would want our current and potential Socceroos to play in. Within that structure I believe it would be more beneficial if we had more players in the Spanish and German leagues, insofar as they both have incredibly high standards and reflect two differing football philosophies that I think our players can learn from. For all its money and power the EPL to me seems to offer less, although it has to be said the money and reputation of the league is a powerful lure to those who want to further their careers. The problem I see however is that the great majority of those players we have trying to break into the EPL are languishing in Championship, League One or lower clubs, and may never escape the perennial battle of promotion and relegation. Now in light of this our best players who are heading to Europe may be better served by spending more time in those leagues they can get regular quality game time in, and at this time it looks as if the Belgian, Dutch and Swiss leagues are where they should be aiming. Mat Ryan, Jason Davidson, Adam Sarota and Tommy Oar have already shown the way and it looks as if Oliver Bozanic and Dario Vidosic are following up on this. I wouldn’t discount the efforts of the players in the Bundesliga II either, specifically Rukavytsya and Leckie, and there is hope that these guys will form a significant part of our next generation Socceroos. If the next national coach and the FFA can work to facilitate these kinds of pathways in Europe then that will be of greater benefit than what we see right now, with a raft of players in nondescript Middle Eastern leagues or in China.
  6. The non-European leagues need to also be looked at from a national team perspective and where possible have Postecoglou and the FFA again try and work with the players to help them avoid the dross and find the quality they need to develop. The Middle Eastern leagues have been the graveyard of quite a few Socceroos (arguably with the exception of Mark Bresciano) and unless that player is looking for a superannuated career end and has nothing further to add to the national team the coach and administration should be doing all in their powers to discourage any current or potential Socceroo from going there. China is also a problem, in that the CSL has the sniff of too much cash, too many old stars and some major corruption issues to deal with. Comparing the CSL with it’s more senior Asian counterparts in South Korea and Japan is like chalk and cheese. The K-League has potential but it’s the J-League where any Australians should be focusing if they can’t crack Europe and aren’t back home. Standards are higher than the other Asian leagues plus some European competitions. Josh Kennedy has certainly not gone backwards since he started playing for Nagoya Grampus. Away from Asia I would love to see some players head to South America to play in Argentina, Brazil or Chile, as I am a firm believer we need more of the Latin flair in our national style of play. However the cultural barriers as well as the sheer murderous competition for players in those leagues must be taken into account. Finally the MLS could be another promising league to work in and with, and whilst Tim Cahill is the only major success story right now from an Australian perspective I can see in the future the Americans making more of their competition. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to look there for opportunities down the road.
  7. Ange Postecoglou must find a way to either coordinate and/or polish off the technical attributes of younger players coming through the new national curriculum and have them performing regularly well in the national team, within the general frameworks set up by the FFA, or take a top-down approach to the improvement of our players. Having some knowledge of his work with most recently the Victory and the Roar  I think we can assume he will be taking the former approach. Robbie Kruse would be perhaps his star pupil with some other notable achievements from players like Matt McKay, Connor Pain and Mitch Nichols. Postecoglou has shown a propensity for working up a squad that meets his tactical vision whilst inculcating and refining certain skill sets or qualities, which fits more into a longer term vision built around a deeper foundation than simply assembling what are supposedly the best players and going from there. It will be interesting to see how his preferred style of play melds with the tactical principles being taught through junior structures under Hans Berger’s technical guidelines.
  8. Our new coach must also be willing to take on overseas and domestic clubs as well as the FFA itself to protect and enforce his vision for the national team. As an Australian he will encounter nominally more resistance from particularly European league clubs if and when he wants to use one of their Aussie signings, than someone like a Guus Hiddink would. He may also be held in a slightly less respected position by the FFA, partly because there is an aura still around the foreign ‘gun’ coach as well as Ange’s history both as a junior Socceroos coach and his past media commitments. He will need to be strong in voice and forthright in communicating what he wants and how he is going to get there to the key parties directing his squad’s evolution.
  9. Thankfully Postecoglou should be something Pim Verbeek never was and Holger Osieck less so, and that is fully cogniscant of the capabilities of the A-League players. As demonstrated by Ricki Herbert and the All Whites at the last World Cup Finals there is plenty of competitive quality in the ranks of the local league, and there were plenty of good signs in quite a few of the players given a go by Holger in recent years from the A-League. Duke, Juric, Milligan, Zullo, Brillante, de Silva, Mooy, Pain, McKay, Galekovic, Spiranovic and Antonis are just some of the A-League players who might be given more consistent runs with or will continue to be part of  the national team. If Postecoglu can take the bits and pieces team that played under Holger at the two East Asian Football Federation tournaments and use those players to add depth and competition for other more established or foreign league based players he will be accomplishing something very valuable.
  10. Postecoglou must be given free reign to develop his own support staff team. The problems with Holger’s coaching must not be purely his burden alone; Aurelio Vidmar and the conditioning team must also be looked at and if found wanting on past achievements or potential with Ange then the new coach must pick who he wants in there.
  11. In what is a huge plus for his future role as Socceroo coach Postecoglou has a very prominent and well respected voice in the media in Australia, and he has a lot of goodwill in the back from both his preceding clubs in the A-League fans, and I would suggest a lot of his colleagues in the game. His style of play and his results are but part of his public image which is very important to the Socceroos future, if not crucial like issues of the transition of players and on field success are.

Let’s be blunt; the next few years could be pretty bloody and not too enjoyable for those who want to see lots of Socceroos wins. The stocks in quality junior players demanding inclusion in the national team are lower than they should be. We have still immense problems with the transitional phase of our squad and we also have stylistic and tactical challenges that may take years to resolve. Our competitors in Asia and further afield aren’t happy to just watch and wait; they too are working on new squads, coaches, systems that in the specific case of Japan demonstrates the growing gulf. Every national team and football administration goes through these patches, and as the Hungarians, Scots and other past champion teams understand it’s easier to lose national football momentum and status than it is to gain it. We are on the cusp of something rather unique now, when the domestic game in Australia is roaring ahead and the Socceroos are the ones in need of help. However I believe unlike his predecessors and perhaps his rivals Ange Postecoglou can take our game and our national team into a new era, where we no longer ride the cycle of just qualifying for the World Cup Finals, but instead look to excel across the board, in as many arenas as we can compete in. Like thousands of other football fans in Australia I wish him good luck.

The End of The Osieck Era

Well, for the #HolgerOut crew it’s mission accomplished. Which now leaves the far more hard questions that need to be answered open for review, discussion, evaluation.

However, before that complex and multi-faced dilemma is confronted I think it is only fair to look at the past regime under Holger and try and make some sense of where we were, what happened to get us to this point, and the context of Oiesck’s dismissal. I must state as a starting point that I genuinely liked him and unlike many of his critics actually met him and talked about the team and players. I am also happy to put my bias towards any coach who actually gets us to the World Cup finals on the table, considering many who arguably were more charismatic, more responsive to the media or the fans, had better squads etc didn’t. On the other hand I agree 100% with his dismissal at this moment.

So, starting with the obvious question, why was Holger picked and what was the mission he was handed. I honestly believe that the most crucial aspect of his selection as coach was not necessarily his credentials with teams like the West Germans in 1990, Canada or Urawa Red Diamonds. It is a matter of record he had some success with these teams, although that with the 1990 World Cup champions was as an assistant coach to Franz Beckenbauer. Therein lies the crucial factor in his selection, insofar as the close relationship around the time of his appointment between FFA head Frank Lowy and the German legend (and FIFA executive committee member) Beckenbauer.

I believe it is valid to think that Osieck’s appointment, which was guided by personal conversations between Beckenbauer and Lowy was probably influenced by the then FFA bid on behalf of Australai for the right to host the 2018 or 2022 World Cups. I am not saying that it was the sole reason, as Osieck did have some important indicators that related to his potential value for the Socceroos. However as in any situation when the candidates are equal and you have a very powerful referee who may influence your other activities, it is going to be natural to place their candidate ahead of the pack. If I was being very cynical I might bandy around phrases like nepotism, however that is unfair or inaccurate without any concrete evidence. I do believe it’s fair to say there is a slight smell about the original choice however, and I note today that Craig Foster has raised at least the insubstantial nature of the process :

Irrespective of any views on his effectiveness, or otherwise, Osieck was appointed reportedly because Frank Lowy called Franz Beckenbauer for advice, which is hardly a rigorous process. (source)

Now when Osieck was appointed there had already been a reaction against the previous national coaching structures, due in no small part to the failures of the two men who took over the Socceroos after the 2006 World Cup Finals and Guus Hiddinck’s successful reign. Graham Arnold was deemed a failure because of his period as interim coach during the 2007 Asian Football Confederation Cup, and Pim Verbeek had shown an almost monomaniacal desire to offend everyone in the local game. Verbeek had been unwilling to bend to any official or unofficial desire for the national team to be drawn upon either A-League players or transition through a new generation of players. His results during the qualification process through to the 2006 World Cup Finals was efficient and arguably the best ever seen in Australian football history. However at no time did he endear himself to the majority of Australian football fans, journalists and local players thanks to his attitudes, and when the calamity of the 4-0 rout against Germany in South Africa happened he was a dead man walking. Having achieved his key task and got the Socceroos to South Africa there was no more requirement for his duties.

As a point of reference here is the statement from FFA supremo Frank Lowy upon Holger’s appointment:

“They must have demonstrated the capacity to rebuild teams and to work with young footballers and develop them into internationally competitive players, be prepared to work with the national technical director and his department to enhance the elite player pathway program, have proven experience at international level and success in Asia and commit to be based in Australia and work with Australian staff to develop our own leaders of the future. 

Holger clearly meets these criteria and comes highly recommended as he has worked at all levels of the game and will combine his coaching expertise and experience with an ability to contribute to the future development of young players and in particular will act as mentor to Australian coaches as we develop our own national coaches for the future,” (source)

When Osieck was appointed he made it clear he was not going to be as dismissive of the local game and the domestic capabilities of the A-League. He agreed to actually live here, and from the get-go he made plenty of the right moves and sounds to the relevant people at the start of his work in the post. Issuing statements  like the following”I’ve seen a great deal of good, exciting games in the league and some good individual performances … I’m enjoying it’ and this quote showed Osieck’s more welcome attitude to the domestic game:

“That is why I opted to live in Australia. I’m not a distant coach, coaching a team via computer or laptop, I choose to live in Australia to be close to people, to get an idea about the excellent potential for development and I’m definitely interested. Wherever I go I try to promote the domestic league.” (source)

Over the three year regime of Holger Osieck he made plenty of effort to engage with the A-League and there can be little criticism of his willingness to integrate the leading A-League players into his squads. I recall from my conversation with him that he was well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of Aaron Mooy’s capabilities, and the selection of plenty of A-League players such as Mitchell Duke, Tomi Juric, Jade North, Mark Milligan, Mat Ryan, Michael Thwaite, Archie Thompson among others shows he had a far greater depth of understanding of the best attributes of the local game than his immediate predecessor. Osieck was often seen at A-League games and in hindsight he will be seen to have been the coach to have laid the basis for many a future Socceroo’s international career. For prime facie evidence I would cite the two squads that played in the East Asian Football Federation’s Cup tournaments, the first being the 2012 qualifying tournament in Hong Kong, the second the finals in 2013 and in South Korea. Here is an incomplete list of young players (those under the age of 24) who made their debuts under Osieck in the national team in those two tournaments:

  • Eli Babalj
  • Connor Pain
  • Tomi Juric
  • Mitchell Duke
  • Josh Brillante
  • Aaron Mooy
  • Aziz Behich
  • Trent Sainsbury
  • Craig Goodwin
  • Mark Birghitti
  • Mat Ryan

Now of course giving such young players as those cited above a start in their Socceroo careers is not necessarily going to mean anything unless they get meaningful exposure to frequent game time, and these young players have not as yet made a significant contribution to the national team’s progress in arguably more substantive games. However there has been a couple of younger players (most notably Robbie Kruse, Tommy Oar and arguably Tom Rogic) who have been given opportunities and  mostly stepped up. So to some degree Osieck has met Lowy’s expectations as per his announcement back in 2010.

The problem is that for all these debuts for younger players and all these pathways established for a development of a new team since 2010, the bulk of the heavy lifting when it came time for meaningful World Cup qualifiers, or in several major internationals, was left to the responsibility of senior Socceroos who were part of at least the 2010 squad if not the 2006 outfit. Tim Cahill, Lucas Neill, Mark Bresciano, Mark Schwarzer, Brett Holman, Josh Kennedy, Luke Wilkshire, Mark Milligan, Dario Vidosic, David Carney and Nikita Rukavytsya are still being seen in the green and gold as late as the last qualifier against Iraq in Sydney, or the friendlies which lead to Osieck’s demise against Braizl and France. So in a context where results were seen as the driving force youth was mostly sacrificed for the sake expediency.

It also needs to be said that many of the younger players who should be driving the national team’s progress in the last year have not been able to rise as high or as quickly as everyone as hoped, putting Osieck in the invidious situation as to having to look for answers from some of those old hands who he should have been able to ease out in other circumstances. Two games are very informative as examples of this dilemma,; the 2-2 draw against Oman was saved through the efforts of Tim Cahill and Brett Holman, whilst the final qualifier against Iraq in Sydney came down to a goal scored by Josh Kennedy from a Mark Bresciano cross. It may be that younger players may have not got us into the invidious situation of having the older guys need to ‘rescue’ the Socceroos in the first place in these games, but no one can deny that the results were earned by men who had dozens of games under their belts.

So there was the the Catch-22 situation that Osieck was faced with; he was asked to develop pathways and begin the transition of the team which he did to some effect, however with the importance of results in the World Cup qualifiers and expectations of wins against most opponents in other games driving most of the FFA’s agenda and much of the public perception of the Socceroos, he could never continually satisfy every stakeholder. The praise that he and the squad received for a generally excellent AFC Cup in 2011 where the Socceroos made their first final of a major confederation tournament, or the win over Germany in Germany (admittedly with Die Mannschaft fielding a sub-strength team), or for that matter the performances against  Japan in the World Cup qualifiers, the demolition of Saudi Arabia…all these results meant nothing when the cumulative effect of a myriad of factors led to the Brazil and France debacles of the last month.

It has to be said that probably the most striking flaw in Osieck’s management of the squad was that he never seemed to be able to right answers to positional problems that perhaps needed more revolutionary thinking from another coach who could have taken the youth route more consistently. The back four for the Socceroos has been without doubt our recent downfall, and much of the problems lie with the age of Lucas Neill and the absence of a quality dedicated left back. It would be remiss of me to not refer to the continual use of Matt McKay and David Carney in this position, where neither were truly at home. McKay has been probably the most ubiquitous left back however he made his mark in the 2011 AFC Cup through his work in the midfield, not at the back. David Carney is simply incapable of sustained fitness and quality play in a position he is not really suited to. Which leaves the only other options being the likes of Rhys Williams (who has had some serious injury issues), Michael Zullo (who has left FC Utrecht on loan to go back to Adelaide Reds), Jason Davidson (who plays with Eredivisie side Heracles and who has had a less than spectacular start to his Socceroos career), Shane Lowry (who for some reason never made it into Osieck’s starting team) and Aziz Behich (who had some useful game time in the EAFF Cup tourneys).

Then there is the Socceroo captain, Lucas Neill, who in the past few seasons has struggled for regular game time in reasonable quality leagues and teams, and at 36 has definitely slowed. No one can say he hasn’t served his country well, however there is also a pressing argument for his time in the team to be brought to close at the age of 36 for a younger centre back who won’t impede the shape of the defence through lack of space. In this spot I believe Matthew Spiranovic’s development is crucial, as he should be a natural successor to Neill. However, as per other candidates for other positions in the Holger era Spira has not always been able to press his case strongly enough with quality game time in quality leagues.

I could examine every position and every existing or potential candidate for those positions and come up with a myriad of solutions, comments, queries or questions and still not get anything right. Therefore it has to be said that Holger’s situation was far harder than armchair critics like me. Throw in the problematic directives either explicitly or implicitly issued by the FFA under Frank Lowy, and is it any wonder Osieck never could find a settled squad that performed at its peak in the vast majority of circumstances? With injuries or performance levels down in some vital candidates Holger seemed to run into selection cul de sacs again and again, and whilst he was able to cobble together a World Cup qualification the next phase in the Socceroo’s development was badly hamstrung.

Perhaps the most potent or emblematic Socceroo who has risen and fallen through the Holger period is Brett Holman. The former Eredivisie and EPL midfielder was without doubt the find of the Socceroo’s 2010 campaign in South Africa. In the period 2010-11 there were arguably no other players in the squad who has the industry of effort, the skill sets and the ability to turn a game (except perhaps Cahill or Kewell), and Holman should have been one of if not the senior ‘next generation’ players to carry on the legacy of the earlier 2006 squad. However since his move to the EPL and Aston Villa the wheels have well and truly fallen off Holman’s career, and he has returned to a similar position of ridicule that saw him pilloried in social media as ‘Lolman’. The brilliant strike he scored with against Oman in the 2-2 draw in Sydney earlier this year was if anything an imitation of what he should be now, and having seen and met him before that game I can say with some justification that Brett is simply bereft of any confidence in his capabilities or skill. To compound this misreable situation with his move to the UAE domestic league, one can’t sense his career as a Socceroo is probably at an end. Unfit, down on motivation and confidence, displaying only fleeting glimpses of his once very good skills, Holman has been one of the leitmotifs of Osieck’s time in charge of the Socceroos.

So, with a job description that had arguably paradoxical tensions (i.e. World Cup qualification versus youth transition), positional problems and issues with players not being either fit enough or good enough to sustain regularly good performances, a well-intentioned but haphazard youth policy, an early period of success followed by mediocre to horrendously bad results, the senior next Generation players like Holman not really coming on, and finally a personally autocratic style of communicating with the media which certainly put many people off, is it any wonder that Osieck was up for the sacking he got last Saturday morning? Caught between the cross hairs of a football culture in Australia that has developed dramatically increased awareness of what the fans want and don’t want, where the mere act of World Cup qualification is no longer seen as enough, and where the A-League is becoming a senior partner in the public face of football in Australia, Osieck was literally left up shit creek without a paddle by the time the whistle blew in Paris. The tide of football history in Australia turned in the post-2006 era most notably under Holger Osieck and for a man who should have been able to find a new course his ultimate failure was he actually navigated an incomprehensible or effective path for the Socceroo’s future. Obviously any coach lives and dies by the amount of wins they accumulate and perhaps just as importantly how they get those wins. Osieck’s wins and especially his losses seemed to never really indicate that he could take us further.

The verdict on his tenure as coach will be without doubt cruel and arguably unfair, however his regime reflects a missed opportunity for the Socceroos. Our game has gone a long way forward since the dim, dark days of the 80s and 90s, but it now demands more and Holger Osieck could not meet this challenge. Here’s hoping the next man to be our national team’s mentor can rise to the challenge.

100 Moments, 100 Memories: The Wanderers in 2012/13 (Part Five)

Today it’s those highlights I’ve ranked from 60 to 51…

60. The close relationship between the Wanderers A-League club, the RBB, the Wanderers Power Chair Football Team and the Wanderers Cripple Army

Demonstrating again the close links between the A-League club and its supporters and the wider community, the red and black figures prominently not just on and off the field but also in access and support assistance for disabled sport.

59. The Wanderers defeat the Jets at Campbelltown

In the first Wanderers home game played away from Wanderland, they took on and defeated in convincing fashion the Newcastle Jets 2-1. Part of the A-League’s community round, played at Campbelltown International Sports Ground saw 10,589 spectators come to see the Wanderers complete their fifth win on the trot and exact revenge for a 1-2 loss against Newcastle earlier in the season.

58. Tony Popovic selects Jerome Polenz as preferred right back for 2012/13

When ex-Bundesliga player Jerome Polenz joined the Wanderers he was nominally competing for a midfielder’s position. However in what turned out to be one of the best decisions regarding positioning any player in the A-League in 2012/13 Popa put Jerome in the right back no.6 position, whereupon the German had a monster season.

57. Wanderers defeat Roar Round Ten, 1-0

Whilst the crowd at Wonderland was not big there was plenty of reason to celebrate the 1-0 defeat of the 2011/12 champions Brisbane Roar. If ever a team was owned by the Wanderers in 2012/13 it was the Roar, and this was the second of a clean sweep of victories against what had been the benchmark team for the A-League

56. Wanderers defeat Roar Round Seventeen, 1-2

Away from home in Brisbane for the second time in the season, the Wanderers played one of their worst first halves of football against the Roar in this game. However in the second half  goals from Bridge and Hersi (the latter the result of brilliant combination work from Dino Kresinger, Shinji Ono and Youssouf Hersi) pulled the win back from last season’s champions.

55. Adam D’Apuzzo renews his career as a solid left back for the Wanderers

A former player for the Newcastle Jets, D’Apuzzo had effectively retired after his football career came to an end after a spell with NSWPL club Apia Leichhardt. However in yet another inspired coaching decision Tony Popovic brought D’Apuzzo back to the A-League as the first choice left back for the Wanderers, where he formed part of one of the most stingy defences in the competition.

54. Aaron Mooy becomes the first Wanderers’ player selected as a Socceroo

Whilst the Wanderers had numerous players who had previous national experience Aaron Mooy was the first to be chosen to represent Australia whilst playing for the club. As part of Holger Osieck’s 2012 squad that participated in the qualifying tournament for the East Asian Football Federation Cup in Hong Kong, he played 2 games and scored 2 goals. His free kick against Chinese Taipai that earned him his second goal was taken with incredible aplomb, accuracy and technique.

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53. The music and the rhythm that drives the RBB…La Banda

Just as the RBB is the heart and soul of the Western Sydney Wanderers’ support, La Banda give them and anyone else within earshot the beat and the music to drive the most passionate fans in the A-League

52. Jerrad Tyson and his continual efforts as the face of the Wanderers’ community work

If ever one player in the Wanderers squad was most prominent as the man who would play with the kids, go to the hospitals, participate in charity events, get involved with Power Chair football or even man the phone lines at WSW HQ it was reserve goalkeeper Jerrad Tyson. Unfortunately not chosen for a regular season game he played a vital role in keeping the club connected to its fans and the wider public. Jerrad was often seen in the company of unofficial mascot Wynston the Wanderer.

51. The arrival of Shinji Ono at Kingsford-Smith Airport

With the acquisition of Japanese marquee player Shinji Ono interest in and excitement for the Wanderers rose immensely, and in a celebrated moment for the club he was greeted upon his arrival by several fans of the club as well as chairman Lyall Gorman. Ono’s arrival crystalized the growing enthusiasm for the new club.