World Cup qualification for Socceroos would be 'papering over cracks'

The Socceroos, pictured here in action against Jordan.
The Socceroos in action against Jordan. (Source: AP Photo/Hussein Sayed)

If the coaches of United Arab Emirates and Peru – the two teams Australia has to beat this week to qualify for the World Cup finals - were watching the first half of the Socceroos' victory over Jordan last week, they would have been less than impressed.

Against a team ranked 50 places below Australia (and lower than the likes of Haiti and Syria), our national team failed to have a shot on target before the Jordanians deservedly took the lead in the 23rd minute.

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Bailey Johnson’s set-piece header just before half-time allowed the Aussies to go into the sheds level, and although he second half was an improvement – Awer Mabil’s close-range strike giving the Aussies a slender 2-1 win - the overall performance was average at best.

It’s fair to say that the challenges in Doha this week will be much tougher, firstly against a UAE side who beat World Cup-bound South Korea as recently as March.

Should they get past that hurdle, the Socceroos must then take on Peru a week later (also in Doha), with the South Americans listed at 22 in FIFA’s world rankings - above the likes of Japan, Poland and, significantly, Australia.

It’s a tall task for our nation’s footballers, as they bid to qualify for their fifth successive World Cup finals, to be held in the Gulf nation of Qatar later this year.

However, after a lacklustre qualifying campaign and only two wins in their last eight games, the question we perhaps should be asking is – are they good enough?

In the build-up to Australian football’s biggest week of the season to date, Yahoo Sport Australia caught up with ex-Socceroo Craig Foster to get his view on the state of the national team.

“All is not clearly ideal irrespective of whether Australia qualifies or otherwise,” Foster said.

He went on to explain how he believes that World Cup qualification would, in effect, be 'papering over the cracks' in the Aussie game at present, suggesting a fundamental review irrespective of the outcome in Doha this week.

“I’d go as far as to call it a crisis in the Australian game, and crises can be extremely helpful to encourage exploration of trends and areas of weakness,” he said.

It’s quite a damning assessment of where the Socceroos are at, especially given that it’s only seven years ago that Australia were Asian champions.

Socceroos players, pictured here celebrating after winning the Asian Cup in 2015.
Have the Socceroos gone backwards since winning the Asian Cup in 2015? (Image: REUTERS/Steve Christo)

Australia no longer producing top players

Yet it’s also fair to say that special night in Sydney in 2015 was the pinnacle of Australia’s rise from obscurity to prominence in the world game.

The national team have failed to build on that success, and in many ways have gone backwards in terms of results.

“With respect to the players, given that this is the second successive World Cup where we have needed the playoffs to qualify, it is clear that production has fallen significantly,” Foster said.

This appears to be the crux of Foster's argument - that Australia is no longer producing the players capable of competing at the highest level.

Although the coach of the national side bears the ultimate responsibility for results, the players currently at Graham Arnold’s disposal are a far cry for the “golden generation" of the mid 2000’s.

With the likes of Viduka, Kewell, Lucas Neill and Tim Cahill wearing the green and gold back then, it’s no wonder that Australia ended its long wait for World Cup qualification in 2006.

The squad Australia took to that World Cup finals in Germany, where they reached the second round before falling to a controversial penalty against Italy, had 10 players competing in the top three European leagues - the English Premier League, Italy's Serie A and Spain's La Liga.

Fast forward to the current squad, and only one of the 29 players selected is playing in the top tier of European football - goalkeeper Matty Ryan, who represents Real Sociedad in Spain.

Why is this important? The best players tend to play in the best competitions, and Australia not having significant representation in them is an indication that the quality of player isn't being produced locally to warrant inclusion.

In addition, without gaining the experience of playing against the world's best in the leading European competitions, it's harder for Australia's current Socceroos to step up in the big games.

In some respects it's an unrealistic expectation, and more needs to be done to work out why Australia is no longer producing the quality of players it needs to compete at the highest level.

As far as Foster is concerned, missing out on World Cup qualification may be the jolt we need.

“Of course qualification is important, however failure to qualify for Qatar would provide the necessary impetus to fully review player and coach development, pathways, investment and thinking," he said.

While Australian football supporters across the country will be hoping for success in Doha over the coming week, we may be asking too much of the players we are counting on to achieve it.

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