A Hollywood ending to World Cup qualifying appears fanciful for depleted Socceroos – The Guardian

Graham Arnold’s side will tread a treacherous path to Qatar unless a new generation can overcome the odds in Sydney and Jeddah
In a world in which the Socceroos’ World Cup qualification campaign was the domain of fiction, one could wishfully fashion a narrative that the scene is set for a cliched Hollywood-style triumph.
Should Australia defeat Japan at Stadium Australia on Thursday and Saudi Arabia in Jeddah next week, automatic qualification for Qatar 2022 will be assured. They will have overcome not only two of the strongest nations in Asia but also the loss of coach Graham Arnold to a second Covid diagnosis and the decimation of their playing ranks through a combination of Covid, injury, vaccination status and impending nuptials.
It would be one of the more memorable accomplishments of an Australian national team in recent decades. Yet examine the mood of the Australian football commentariat and one would struggle to find many backing Arnold’s side to turn this fanciful hypothetical into a reality.
Ever since the Socceroos failed to defeat Oman in early February, magnifying the inexplicable failure to take maximum points against China last November, the conversation has almost entirely made peace with the prospect of needing to win a playoff against a South American nation in a one-off playoff to secure a World Cup place (which, as an aside, is asking for a reality check in the proceeding Asian playoff against the third-placed side from the AFC’s other group). Playoffs are not an inevitability, but they appear to have been accepted as one.
Despite their potential bounty these coming fixtures instead carry an air of melancholy; disappointment and fresh fodder for the latest round of culture wars and doom-laden pontifications surrounding the future of Australian football. This counts even amongst Arnold’s former biggest advocates, for whom memories of a record-setting winning streak are increasingly distant – which is unfortunate given the lessons that run can offer surrounding outcome dependence.
Hints at what may be to come have already been seen in the reaction to 34-year-old Perth Glory striker, and freshly naturalised Australian, Bruno Fornaroli receiving a call-up into the squad. In a vacuum, he’s an explainable addition. The Socceroos forward line is ravaged by absences and the Uruguay-born attacker has the ability to make an impact and, in a one-off setting, provides a better option than available alternatives.
But beyond the vacuum, Fornaroli’s presence has quickly been appropriated as the latest symbol of the lamentable state of his adopted homeland’s ability to produce young talent – especially young goal scorers. Reasons for this mire and the manner in which they are to be fixed have not been too hard to find – forgood reason. Youth development is not a monolith but, instead, a series of highly interconnected factors that mean there is never a single root cause of what ails it or a single silver bullet to fix it. It’s a conversation that will dominate the discourse regardless of the coming results.
Inevitably, though, Arnold is not pontificating on playoffs or debates – certainly not in public. Famous for his self-affirming principle that one should expect to win, Arnold has talked of his players needing to fight in the coming games. There is an argument to be made that fighting spirit, commitment and a desire to win have never really been problems for Australian teams, but this is the coach’s play.
Of course, when Arnold was talking about fighting back and not giving in few would have anticipated that extended to NSW Covid isolation laws. After reports circulated that the Socceroos boss had been seen walking his dog on Sunday despite testing positive for Covid the Thursday prior, Football Australia acknowledged on Monday evening that the coach had breached the NSW Public Health Act and fined him $25,000 which will be forwarded to the Red Cross Flood Relief Fund. Just in case there wasn’t enough drama this week.
Perhaps fortunately for Arnold, his trek will not cost him any additional missed time with his team and assuming he continues to test negative he will be able to return on schedule.
And yet despite all these distractions and circumstances, perhaps there are still nascent reasons for hope. Australia, albeit with a midfield composition now missing two parts with Covid and another through injury, played their two best halves of qualifying in the opening stanzas against Vietnam and Oman. With regular contributors out, the door is also open for the next generation with the likes of Ajdin Hrustić, Nathaniel Atkinson, Marco Tilio, and the criminally under-utilised Denis Genreau to step up and usher in a potential changing of the guard.
Indeed, football thrives on chaos — teams doing what they’re not supposed to do — and there’s something very Hollywood about a new generation stepping up and overcoming the odds. Yet, when one begins to describe games in terms such as these, it shows the scale of the challenge that awaits and the straws that are being clutched at.
A closing chapter will be written for the Socceroos in coming months. For what kind of ending, though, remains unclear.


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