Upon hearing the referees’ final whistle, Holger Osieck clenched his fists in joy while his side celebrated their comefrom behind win, while the coaching counterpart in the opposite dugout could only feel the sinking feeling of déjà vu. Yet again, Brazilian legend Zico had been undone by Tim Cahill, as the former Everton striker scored the equaliser to spark the Socceroos revival against Iraq, just as it had been the case in Kaiserslautern six years ago.
Seemingly so much has changed between that match and Zico’s latest match against the Socceroos. Back then; Zico was in charge of Japan, and the scenery has hugely different: that famous victory against Japan had been played under a blazing sun in front of a raucous crowd. On Wednesday, the match had been played in neutral Doha following the ban on Iraq hosting home games, while the crowd was somewhat smaller: forty-six thousand turned out in Germany, just 2136 were in the stands in Qatar. The circumstances were also wildly different, the 2006 clash occurring in the pressure-cooker of the World Cup finals while this week’s match was a qualifier for the 2014 tournament.
Yet it would have felt eerily similar for Zico, with five of the team his Japan side faced playing some role against Iraq. Tim Cahill had been reduced to a bench role in Kaiserslautern, but started against Iraq, while Lucas Neill, Mark Schwarzer and Luke Wilkshire remain virtually automatic selections, with Marco Bresciano’s omission from the starting team notable in how it caused great surprise amongst the Australian media.
As it were in Germany, Cahill scored from a set piece as the game headed into the final ten minutes, and then a veteran striker (Archie Thompson, and not John Aloisi as it had been against Japan) scored the final goal of the match. It was the same old story for Australia as they relied on Cahill yet again to rescue a point, and the victory has only served to mitigate slightly what is a rising dissatisfaction in Australia with the makeup of the national side. “We're not going to sit here on panels and other stations or on radio or people who write in papers and sit here and blow wind up people's backsides and saying that everything is perfect,” said former Socceroo turned pundit Robbie Slater. “It's not. We have an ageing team and that's fact.”
But the truth can be awfully difficult to swallow, and that was very much clear following goal scorer Archie Thompson’s astonishing tirade. "Who keeps telling me I'm old?" demanded Thompson when interviewed on the field post-match. "Who keeps telling me I shouldn't be in the Socceroos?” Ill-timed, but it highlighted the biggest issue facing the Socceroos at present: do they rely on the veterans of that landmark campaign in 2006, or they do place stock in a rising crop of youngsters who remain relatively untested at international level? It is fitting that Zico can summarise the issue: "The Australian team has the same situation as the Iraqis," Zico said. "(They) need renovation because they have players (who are) veterans. The Australian need (and) the Iraqis need a new generation (of players) but it's difficult."
Curiously, Zico might also provide the answer. The clash itself between Australia and Iraq provided a nice piece of symmetry, as both teams faced questions of regeneration in the aftermath of unprecedented success – for Australia, that was of course the World Cup qualification after a thirty-two year drought, while Iraq’s crowning moment came in 2007 when they defied the odds to lift the Asian Cup, beating Australia along the way. Facing the great challenge of easing in youngsters while retaining an element of experience, he has, controversially, omitted Karrar Jassim, Qusay Munir and even captain, Younis Mahmou from his side, choosing instead to put faith in players like Alaa Abdul Zahra, the goal scorer, and Ahmed Yasin, who are a small sample of the new generation.
Similarly, Australia has its own riches in youth, with Tommy Oar, Robbie Kruse and Matthew Spiranovic all playing a role in the victory, while there is great expectation over the prospect of players like Adam Sarota, James Holland, Tomas Rogic and James Davidson amongst others stepping up into the first team. There is wide debate over the calibre of these players, as well as a question over the expectations placed on the national side, which only serve to polarize opinions further as people seek to have their voices heard over the future of Australian football. It is hard to ignore that soccer in the country is at a crossroads. The A-League is experiencing unprecedented publicity in the wake of the Alessandro Del Piero, Emile Heskey and Shinji Ono signings. The FFA has launched a new club, the Western Sydney Wanderers, into the heartland of Australian football, the region with the highest amount of junior memberships in the land. Australia will host its first major football tournament in 2015 with the Asian Cup. There is a new TV deal to be announced in November. Media coverage of the game has never been higher.
But the Socceroos will always determine the profile of Australian football. Their success hinges upon qualification for the World Cup, and the match against Iraq was part of the process towards making it to Brazil. In the space of five minutes, the Socceroos went from the bottom of their qualifying group to second on goal difference, but it was the manner of the revival that stings the greatest. The old guard again resisting the winds of change. In 2006, this generation of players inspired the greatest change in the Australian football landscape with their seismic efforts in Germany. In Qatar, their efforts helped along the way to stimulate the growth of football in Australia. Yet every time that the old guard helps take Australia a step closer towards Brazil is a step towards the end. Brazil 2014 will come too late for many of the current team as they approach their late 30s, but for now, they remain faithful servants to the cause. Osieck has to reconcile their incredible desire to represent their country with the long-term needs of Australian football.
Sometimes facing the truth can be the hardest thing to do.
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