SOCCEROOS – A SUB PRIME INVESTMENT?
Well at least the Socceroos' keeper does not have “hands of clod”. But there is nothing else to take from their opening game of the World Cup against Germany. For the Australians, it was calamitous: A 4-0 defeat. A red card for their best player, Tim Cahill, while their main man of old, Harry Kewell, did not even make it onto the pitch for the pre-match warm-up.
While Australia looked tactically incoherent, Germany were worryingly classy – the efficiency is a given – world football's most tried-and-tested clichÃ© – but they even had oodles of youthful flair. Out-played, out-thought and even out-battled, the Socceroos were pretty ordinary, as their compatriots would put it, and made the Germans look especially good. It was the most one-sided game of the tournament so far.
Perhaps it might have been different if Cahill or Richard Garcia had scored in the opening minutes – possibly, Garcia, the Hull City striker, was surprised to find himself in the starting line-up. Perhaps the score-line would not have been so lop-sided had the Mexican referee not shown the same appetite for meting out punishment as an Australian traffic warden. But just as terrible goalkeeping lapses, along with missed penalties, have become elemental in the World Cup experience for every England fan, harsh or erroneous refereeing decisions are becoming part and parcel of watching Australia. They were notoriously unlucky on that front in 2006 during their second round clash against Italy, when Fabio Grosso was awarded the dodgiest of penalties in stoppage time while the score was still 0-0. But by the time Cahill was ejected, the game was lost already, and it is hard to see this Australian team coming anywhere near the 2006 team, which generated a wave of excitement across the country.
The suspicion ahead of the tournament was that the Socceroos were past it, and they looked like ageing astronauts asked to go on one last moon shot. Why, Kewell could not even make it to the launch-pad. As Michael Cockerill of the Sydney Morning Herald put it: “The Socceroos, or at least those players we have come to identify as our national team, have passed their use-by date. On the evidence of this excruciating football lesson handed out by Germany, there's no doubt they have.” After the success of 2006, the Australian sporting press has come to expect better. Cockerill, who is probably Australia's most influential soccer writer, called it a “complete, utter disaster.”
Even before the opening game, Australian football had taken a big hit. Deprived of the backing of the Asian football federation, it had to withdraw its bid for hosting the 2018 and will concentrate instead on 2022. A lacklustre World Cup campaign in South Africa will do nothing to help what was always looking like an implausible cause. Australian fans will be hoping that the tactics of Frank Lowy, the shopping centre magnate who runs Aussie football, will be superior to those of Pim Verbeek, the team's Dutch coach.
According to the expert panel on SBS http://www.sbs.com.au/ – the Australian channel which has the rights to the tournament – one “positive” to take out of the game was that the Socceroos remain in the tournament. But it is hard to conjure up a more fragile straw, or to clutch it more feebly. My pre-tournament bet was that the Socceroos would score just two goals in South Africa. That may end up looking generous.
No doubt there will be a lot of corporate advertisers in Australia this morning feeling they have made a sub-prime investment. After all, Tim Cahill has become the poster-boy of Aussie football, and is the star of many of the World Cup-related marketing campaigns. Qantas http://www.qantas.com.au/travel/airlines/about-qantas/global/en , the national carrier, has a painted one of its aircraft with a special Socceroos livery. Alas, it may well be bringing the team home much earlier than hoped, but not earlier than expected. There's a realistic streak in the Australian sporting public, and they know that the Socceroos are a team that can occasionally contain the best in the world, but rarely beat them.