Road to Rio #1: The First of Many

As many of you would know, I am a massive football fan. I think that for everyone in that same boat, World Cups provide some of our greatest footballing memories. My first World Cup memory is of Robbie Baggio blazing his penalty way over the bar at USA ’94 (no doubt I saw more of that one, but that is the memory which sticks out). I remember my mate Painey, who was a much bigger football nut than me at the time, waking me up ultra early on a school excursion to catch glimpses of France ’98 in a Canberra caravan park. I watched a whole bunch of Korea Japan ’02, trying to avoid high school study and the woeful Channel 9 coverage in equal measure. Of course Germany ’06 will always hold a special place in my heart, and those of every Socceroo fan my age. The first time we saw our nation on world sports’ grandest stage, and I rode every high and low. Timmy Cahill’s last gasp goals, Zelko’s blunder, and of course that exit at the hands of Italy. I recall going to work the next day devastated, and not being able to watch the rest of the World Cup, because it was utterly ruined for me.

But my favourite World Cup memory or rather memories are those that arise from South Africa 2010. The Socceroos were there again. And once again I rode the highs and lows. The disaster that was the Germany game, Kewell’s sending off, Holman’s strike (seen whilst wearing my Carle #10 jersey) and the ultimate, somewhat unfortunate exit. This time I was able to keep watching. And I watched a vast majority of that World Cup, most of it from the World Cup bed me and my girlfriend had set up in front of the television. There is something about the dog-tired mornings at work, and the fact that you know you will do it all again the next night which lets you know how much you love the game. In three years time I hope to add some more amazing World Cup memories by attending the World Cup in Brazil. Brazil is in many ways the spiritual home of the world game, and the opportunity to be there live, is one I am not keen to give up. I briefly met Les Murray before the last World Cup, and mentioned how I wish I could be in South Africa seeing it live. He wholeheartedly recommended I go to the World Cup in Brazil, because if there is any place to see a World Cup, that is the place. It will take a lot of saving and planning, but hopefully I will make enough sacrifices between now and them to make something that truly is a dream, a reality.

So I thought that it would be a good idea to start chronicling the long journey to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, hence the title of this piece. However, the title also refers to the Asian qualifying draw which took place a week and a half ago. This is the draw for the third round of Asian qualifying, with Australia and the other top nations not appearing in the first two rounds. Hopefully this will be the first of many draws that the Socceroos will be part of during the rather long road to Brazil. With Australia only having qualified for three World Cups (including the last two) there are some general misconceptions surrounding the qualifying process. Foremost among them in my opinion is that now we are qualifying through Asia, we should make it easily every time. This is definitely not the case. There are some extremely high quality teams lying between us and Brazil and if we fall behind early in qualifying then it will be hard to make up the ground. Exacerbating this is a problem which is probably more acute for Australia than any other nation in the qualifiers, balancing club and country. While all of these qualifiers will fall on FIFA dates, issues with overseas clubs could ultimately lead to occasionally weaker Australian squads, and enhanced numbers of A-League players playing a part.

The draw utilised the ‘pot’ system, which is designed to ensure that the best teams are not forced to play one another, and knock each other out in the early rounds. As such it was impossible for Australia to face Japan or South Korea in this round of qualifiers. Despite this there was some quality teams littered through the draw. Iraq, who are always up for a game against the Socceroos and whose style of play matches up really well against us. Also the dangerous North Korea who somehow ended up in the lowest pot, despite the fact they qualified for last year’s showpiece in South Africa. They have a very defensive style of play and are hard to break down and this, coupled with the gruelling culture shock and travel of the away trip to Pyongyang makes them another team I was keen for us to avoid. Taking into account the away leg, Iran is another team that the team would have been hoping to avoid. Another hard slog of a trip with the intimidating atmosphere of the Azadi Stadium stadium, filled to the brim in Tehran awaiting you. Luckily for us we did manage to avoid these three opponents. However the three teams that await us definitely still pose some troubles. I have an admittedly weak knowledge of Asian football but with that in mind, here are my thoughts on the three opponents that Australia had been drawn to face.

Saudi Arabia

FIFA Ranking: 92

World Cup Pedigree: Qualified for finals 1994 (round of 16), 1998 (group stage), 2002 (group stage) and 2006 (group stage).

Round 2 Form: 8-0 aggregate defeat of Hong Kong

Head to Head Record: Played 3, Australia 1, Saudi Arabia 1, Draw 1

As three time champions, and three time runners up in the Asian Cup the Saudis have a footballing heritage as rich as any in all of Asia. However, they are similar to Iran in that their recent years have not been as successful. These years have coincided with a general trend that has seen East Asia dominate the West. In fact their current FIFA ranking of 92 is the lowest in their history. Despite this, on paper they seem to pose the biggest threat to the Socceroos in this group. After failing to qualify for the 2010 World Cup after qualifying for the previous four, there will be intense pressure on the Saudis to do better this time. This could manifest itself in two ways. The team could respond positively and play above expectation. Or they could falter badly. A poor early result against either Thailand or Oman will ratchet the pressure on this team right up. I think it is hard to read too much into their two-leg drubbing of minnows Hong Kong in round 2 qualifying. Except maybe to highlight the fact that they are able to rack up some goals against inferior opposition. I think that ultimately they will look to get some sort of result against the Socceroos at home, which will put them on track to move through. These will be interesting matchups with the two countries not having clashed since Australia joined the Asian confederation. A look at the small gap in rankings between the Saudis and the other two sides in the group shows that finishing in the top two is by no means a certainty for them.

Thailand

FIFA Ranking: 119

World Cup Pedigree: Never qualified for the finals

Round 2 Form: 3-2 aggregate defeat of Palestine

Head to Head Record: Australia 3, Thailand 0, Draw 0

The Green and Gold Army will be happy with this one. Is there a more ideal away trip than this? The bargain airfares and idyllic surrounds should ensure a good Aussie contingent for the away trip. They will be confronted with an interesting game as well. The Thais only just managed to scrape past Palestine in round 2. With all due respect to Palestine (it is fantastic just to see a nation such as Palestine involved, and doing pretty well in World Cup qualifying), that does not smack of a team ready to strike the fear into any of the other teams in this group. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the Thai coach has come out with some very confident remarks since the draw. He has said they will go into the games against the Socceroos with a measure of confidence, based around the fact we are ageing and slow, whilst they have some genuine pace. Whilst I can’t make any informed statements on the pace of the Thai team, I acknowledge that pace in defence is definitely not the strong point of the Socceroos and it will be very interesting to see the Thais attempt to exploit it. The Aussies will take a confidence from their last meeting which was a 4-0 drubbing of the Thais in the 2007 Asian Cup finals. Ultimately finding consistency will be the key for Thailand if they harbour hopes of advancing to the next round.

Oman

FIFA Ranking: 107

World Cup Pedigree: Never qualified for the finals

Round 2 Form: 2-0 first leg defeat of Myanmar, second leg abandoned.

Head to Head Record: Australia 2, Oman 0, Draw 1

Since moving into Asia, I think there has been a tendency on the part of the Australian football community to underestimate the ability of Gulf nations. But the performances of countries such as Bahrain and Kuwait in previous qualifying campaigns for both Asian and World Cups would, I should hope, have changed that. I was there in person when Kuwait managed to beat an A-League based Socceroos squad 1-0 in Canberra. We have also confronted Oman three times since joining the confederation, for two hard fought, one goal victories by full-strength Socceroos squads and a draw at the 2007 Asian Cup. Basically the lesson is that no team, playing for their country and higher honours, can be underestimated at this level. And these results of the last five years will definitely give Oman a lot of confidence when facing the Aussies. It has to be remembered that the countries we have competed against are already into the swing of qualifying and will rise to the occasion against the Socceroos. It is also worth noting that Oman are only ranked 15 places lower than the Saudi Arabia side. That, coupled with the quality such as their keeper Ali Al-Habsi who plies his trade successfully in the English Premier League, should make the Omanis a team not to be taken lightly. I have a gut feeling that this team represents a part of the footballing world on the rise somewhat, and that this team could well snaffle second place in the group from the Saudis. They will know that that any points gained against the Socceroos will go a long way towards advancing this ambition. And they will fancy themselves to pick some up.

In summary, this is a draw that could have been plenty worse for the Socceroos. With very little knowledge or research to back up these assumptions, I’m going to back the Aussies to finish first, Oman to come in second, Saudi Arabia third and the Thais in fourth. It is inconceivable that the Socceroos could not do enough to do enough to gain the top two finish they require to advance to the next stage. However inconceivable things happen in sport all the time. Not only that, just getting through is not enough. Fans will want to see Osieck’s team continue to play the more attractive style of play which has been seen under the German who has been a real revelation in the job. The heat will be on a number of players from the get-go as well. Harry Kewell, the most unfairly maligned player in all of Australia, will need to be at his brilliant best to silence the haters. For me at least, Lucas Neill has to show that he still has enough in the tank to be a force throughout this qualifying campaign. His lack of pace and tendency for rash challenges (especially in the box), along with the continued rise of the Ogre mean that questions will be asked about his place in the team should his form not be at an extremely high standard. It may come to a point that being captain is not enough to save his place in the side.

That’s a whole bunch of unknowns. What I do know is that I am very excited for this coming World Cup journey. Hopefully involving getting to see a couple of games live and seeing the Socceroos excel, and march to their third straight World Cup finals. I am sure you will enjoy the ride as much as me.

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