The Best and Worst of Football

I am aware that this is generally a film blog. But the last 24 hours has inspired me to have a bit of a ramble about one of my other passions – football. Last night was a bit of a miserable stormy night in Canberra. Tired after a return to full-time work, the bed was definitely calling. Instead, around midnight I forced myself into my Socceroos shirt and my Johnny Warren scarf and took myself down to the local club to watch the Asian Cup quarter final. Despite not having the hype associated with a world cup match, this was going to be one of Australia’s most important games in the last 5 odd years.

I sat alone at the club, but amongst about 30-40 others there for the same purpose, and was treated to quite possible the most tense Socceroos match I have ever watched. For two hours, I sat practicing my best ‘nervous, praying football fan’ face. This was an incredible match, the ‘best of football’ of this piece’s title. Australia had the better of the game. Initially they dominated the opening 15-20 minutes before Iraq came into the game more strongly. However in the first half it was Australia with the better chances, both Harry Kewell and Matt McKay having chances to put the team in front. In the second half Iraq had a golden chance early when one of their players got through one on one with the keeper. Both teams had very good chances in the second half, Brett Holman nearly banging a long range effort home. Into extra time it went, by this stage I was well and truly wishing I was not driving so I could have a stiff drink or three to calm the nerves. There was no shutting up shop and waiting it out for penalties (although there was the occasional suggestion of this from the Iraqi team). Newish Australian coach Holger Osieck was astute with his substitutions. He still had two up his sleeve going into extra time and used them to bring on youthful attackers Nathan Burns and Neil Kilkenny. During extra time, Sasa Ognenovski almost scored what would have been probably the most amazing debut goal ever for the Socceroos. The ball spilled to the 6 foot plenty man known as Ogre, who launched into an amazing acrobatic bicycle kick any forward would be proud of. As the ball was goalbound, Australia’s Mile Jedinak reacted instinctively, attempting to nod the ball in. He only succeeded however in heading the ball over the top. There were plenty of nervous moments during extra time, especially when the referee waved away what probably should have been an Iraqi penalty when Lucas Neil bundled one of their players over when they were through on goal. It appeared penalties beckoned and I was preparing to take my nervous face to a whole new level. But, with 3 minutes left in extra time two of Australia’s best players combined for a stunning winner. Matt McKay (thank God for strong domestic football) broke down the left and played a floating, early cross. It split two defenders perfectly and was clinically finished with a wonderful Harry Kewell header into the bottom right corner. Myself and the rest of Dickson Tradies went suitably wild.

Pretty much all the Australian players were impressive, including a bunch of less-familiar names. I thought Sasa Ognenovski was our best player, rock solid at the back and a continual attacking threat from set-pieces. He is the man to build our defence around going forward. Matt McKay, despite some poor touches was another who was close to Australia’s standout. His running from midfield was inspired and he looked always dangerous. The only issue with McKay is his finishing, which he has struggled with even at A-League level. A major question for Osieck is what to do with McKay. Will he be dropped? Brett Emerton will be coming back in to the side for the semi, and is surely an automatic selection. It appears that unless Osieck is willing to dispense with playing two holding midfielders that the Brisbane man will have to make way. Harry Kewell was the third player who stood out for the Roos last night. Why some people continue to be so negative towards this player astounds me. By a good margin he is the finest Socceroo I have ever seen play, and at times last night he looked a class above, with his control on the ball and most importantly hunger to win for his country. Because he has been injury prone, many have made the suggestion that Kewell lacks heart. These people have not been watching the last 5 odd years of his international career where every time he has played the passion and effort are plain to see. If Harry can sharpen up his finishing Australia are a very very good shot at winning this title. The draw has opened up nicely now for Australia who are to play Uzbekistan in the semi-final. The Uzbeks have been a bit of a revelation in this tournament and are to be respected, but Australia at their best should have too much class. Make no mistake, this is Australia’s best ever chance to win a major international trophy. It’s time to jump on the Asian Cup bandwagon people.

And now to the worst of football which was also on display last night. Lo and behold, yet again it is Kevin Muscat at the centre of it all. Muscat is a man loved by his own team’s fans and despised by all others. Surely after last night’s sickening challenge on the 20 year old Adrian Zahra, even the Victory fans are starting to have their misgivings. You can see the tackle I am referring to here:

From all reports Kevin Muscat is a nice guy off the field. I was certainly surprised at his astute, well-spoken commentary on SBS’s World Cup coverage last year. The issue is that on it, for lack of better terminology, he is an utter scumbag. I went and saw the Victory play recently and he elbowed two players in the head and made a late, wild challenge that could have broken legs. He continues to get away with this behaviour, in that game against the Newcastle Jets he did not even receive a yellow card. The tackle on Zahra is horrible, even for Muscat. He never gets within a metre of the ball. He realises that he is beaten, but instead of pulling out of the challenge he throws his weight onto the knee of the young player. The adage that ‘what happens on the field stays on the field’ is an old, and surely outdated one. If I go to work and am injured due to the incompetent and dangerous behaviour of a work colleague, then surely I should be compensated. Zahra, having just signed a two year contract is fortunate in that he will be financially supported throughout his rehab. But it’s more than that. This is a young man, living his dream having been plucked from relative obscurity and that has been taken away from him for possibly up to a year. Whilst I have not seen a whole lot of Zahra’s play, what I have seen shows that his speed is a great weapon on the park. It appears that surgeons will have to try and piece Zahra’s leg back together again, and if that is the case who knows how much speed he will have lost. Let’s hope it is not the case, but we are talking about a man with 15 years ahead of him in the game. A guy who could make massive money in the great leagues of Europe or even just a very good living in the A-League. Who knows? But at any rate, if last night’s tackle hinders that in any way, it is Kevin Muscat who should pay the dollars. The Melbourne Heart should feel aggrieved as well. Why should they have to pay a player who will not play for a year. The Melbourne Victory continue to put on the field a player who has a proven record of being a danger to the safety of opposition players (and as he has proven on two previous occasions, staff). Maybe they should foot the bill.

I know I am harking on about the financials here, but I think the greater shame is that an exciting young player looks like missing out on getting to do what he loves for an extended period. I know how much the poor level of sport I play enhances my life, and can only imagine how much it does for Adrian Zahra’s. Kevin Muscat will likely get 2-3 weeks suspension which highlights the sheer inadequacy of football disciplinary action. A similar incident in the NRL would earn the guilty party 8-12 weeks, and Muscat should get the same. Or even better shouldn’t be allowed to play again til Zahra is able to.

I was actually quite upset after thinking about this whole issue this morning. The way in which the reckless actions of one individual could have such a major effect on an others. The last 24 hours for me have shown the best and worst of football, and sport in general. A wonderful free-flowing game that was full of skill and desire to win for the national team (this applies equally to the Socceroos, and the Iraq teams). And on the other hand a malicious act that shows the desire to win is not the be all and end all. Muscat has it, but if he can’t control it, then he should not be on the field.

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