After Murder in Montevideo, only urgent action can save Australian soccer. Crikey’s sturdy centre-back Hugo Kelly wonders whether the answer really is Jeff.
If you’re serious, Jeff, your first move should be to bust open the soccer hierarchy with typical subtlety, then do what you do best – buy some big events.
Then you should install a high profile, globally respected coach to turn the Socceroos from a high-paid rabble into a well-drilled team, united of vision and infused with tactical nous.
Start with Alex Ferguson. He’s out of job with Man United at the end of the season.
Fergie would love to get out of the miserable hellhole that is Manchester. Tell him the beaches are great, the exchange rate’s a beauty, and you can get a decent steak without risking brain meltdown.
Soccer Australia’s broke, but if you can’t get BHP-Billiton to sponsor the world’s most famous football manager in pounds sterling, I’ll play centre-forward for Arsenal.
Then, Jeff, you should team up with your cronies like Ron Walker and Graeme Samuel and get a strong bid together to host the 2010 World Cup in Melbourne. For Chrissake, it’s probably the only way we’ll ever get to play in the event, and after Sydney 2000 an Australian bid for anything’s a shoe-in.
Unfortunately, not even our Jeff could have prevented the debacle of Australia’s eighth consecutive World Cup campaign ending with its eighth straight failure to qualify.
It’s amazing how ex-pollies and would-be pollies have stuck their snouts in the soccer trough over the years. Last World Cup campaign it was Labor hack and soccer tragic David Hill who signed up his hero, Terry Venables, to oversee the bizarre Iran campaign.
Lately, our old Liberal mates Jeff and Nick Greiner have been trying to run the game. These two have distinguished themselves at the corporate level by getting involved in the tech wreck, guiding a slew of dot-com companies to oblivion. Their contribution to soccer so far hasn’t been much healthier.
Apart from political meddling, Australia’s persistent failure to make its mark at international level is characterised by naivete51 and institutional failure. Here are some of the culprits:
* A national controlling body unable to organise a stern and testing lead-up for a national team desperate to fine-tune its game with practice matches against tough opposition;
* A hopeless local structure bleeding money through incompetence and worse. At club level, the game remains the fiefdom of colorful ethnic overlords like ex-Marconi and ex-Soccer Australia president Tony Labbozetta;
* An inexperienced national coaching staff whose blundering tactical approach and inability to handle the team’s star egos contributed to the loss.
As to the matches against Uruguay, what we saw was a sad travesty.
Imagine, for a moment, if Little Lleyton Hewitt threw a wobbly before the start of Friday’s Davis Cup final against France. “I’m not playing singles this time, Fitzy. I’m already the ATP No 1. This weekend I want to concentrate on doubles.”
“And while you’re digesting that one, Wally, I might just go on strike for more money.”
Ridiculous? Of course. Australia’s tennis heavies would take Lleyton behind Rod Laver Arena and whack some sense into him with a Wilson oversize racquet. Conform with team rules, son, or your out. They’ve done it before. Anyone remember a fella called Phillippousis…?
But over at Soccer Australia, it’s open slather incompetence and ego-overdrive. That’s why coach Frank Farina had to put up with player petulance and administrative dithering as he planned for the World Cup playoffs.
The soccer players’ union started the ball rolling, putting its hand out for more money while holding out the threat of industrial action on the eve of Australian soccer’s most important week.
Then, Australian sport’s own Harry Potter, the wizard of the wing, Harry Kewell, spat the dummy before the first match in Melbourne, warning coach Frank Farina that he wanted to play up front and that was that.
Harry wants to score goals for Australia. And fair enough, we want to see him scoring too. But not at the expense of team balance.
Farina bowed to Kewell’s demands…and we saw Team Harry hopelessly and painfully bogged down in front of goal by a clinical Uruguayan defence for most of both matches.
Team balance, by the way, is not in the Kewell vocab. Cradle-snatched by Leeds as a promising 16 year old from Sydney, Harry now lives in his own rarified world. He did a David Beckham and married a “celebrity” – a UK soapy starlet. He earns $100,000 a week at Leeds – but charged Channel Nine for his interview with Ray Martin. As you would.
And while his teammates travelled business class from Melbourne to Montevideo – he flew up front in first class.
While his teammates were bonding at their Montevideo hotel, working up some team spirit over the card table, Harry was up in his room, playing Nintendo and complaining about being bored.
Get the picture? 23 year-old Harry is a precocious talent and a spoiled brat. And as soon as coach Farina bowed to his petulant demands, the team was in trouble.
Harry’s made it perfectly clear he doesn’t want to participate in Australia’s lead-up World Cup games. He just wants to play in the main event. Australian soccer’s incapacity to deal with the Harry Factor is one reason why, while our tennis fraternity is competing in Davis Cup tennis finals, you’ll find “Australian soccer” in the thesaurus under: “laughing stock”.
Kewell the Jewel is an outstanding left sided forward for his club team, Leeds United. But he doesn’t play as a striker. That is left to Mark Viduka, who’s formed a fearsome partnership with stars like Alan Smith and, more recently, Robbie Keane.
Kewell also likes to think of himself as a set-piece star. But he doesn’t take the free kicks at Leeds, and he shouldn’t for Australia. Some might compare him to Beckham, but when Harry took a free kick from 25 metres out yesterday he showed why Josip Skoko should do the duties at national level.
Harry’s effort was a dipping curler, but never looked like threatening Fabian Carini’s goal. Skoko, remember, was responsible for Australia’s win over France in the Confederations Cup earlier this year with a searing 35 metre free kick that hit the post and left Clayton Zane with an easy tap-in. But big shot Harry never gave Skoko a look in yesterday.
And just as he badgered Farina into playing him in the centre as a tandem strike force with Mark Viduka, this didn’t work either.
It was painfully obvious at the MCG. It was unbearably true at Stadium Centenario. Yet Farina waited until half time in the first match to make the change, with Kewell going to the left flank and Agostino joining Viduka up front. And even then, Kewell tried to talk him out of it during the break.
Imagine Kewell trying to dispute a team selection with granite-jawed Leeds manager David O’Leary. It simply wouldn’t happen. Any dissent, and Kewell would be kicking the dew off the grass in the reserves.
Australia’s swashbuckling MCG second half, with Kewell providing sharp and deadly service from the left for a potent Viduka/Agostino strike force, proved that Harry better serves the team as an attacking left flanker.
On Monday, Farina prevaricated and procrastinated when it was clear the team needed to revert to its successful MCG second half structure to inject spark, and some scoring chances into the mix.
He waited and waited. One goal down, then two. And finally, with less than 20 minutes left, on came Agostino then Aloisi, for Muscat and Murphy, allowing Kewell to switch wide to the left.
But instead of trying to mount a rearguard rescue, these two should have been on the park much earlier, when the game was there to be won. Better still, Agostino should have been in the starting line-up.
Agostino is a sharp reaction striker, far more potent latching onto those tangled half chances inside the heat of the penalty box than Harry – especially when Harry himself is curling those unstoppable crosses from the sideline invitingly across goal. Anyone who saw Agostino’s superb headed goal for 1860 Munich against Leeds in last year’s Champions League fixture at Elland Road would understand that. Respected BBC commentator Alan Green was moved to describe that looping header from the edge of the box as “a goal of rare quality – a stunner.”
Anyone with eyes could see Agostino’s injection into the side at half time at the MCG invigorated the Socceroos, and scared the Uruguayans.
Wasn’t coach Farina watching the France match? The French flew to Melbourne, and promptly took the heat out of the game and the hometown crowd by playing keepings-off. They secured 70% of possession in the first ten minutes, leaving Australia ball-chasing and star-gazing.
On Monday, Australia’s tactic was to knock the ball forward somewhere in the vague direction of our strikers, as soon as our defenders took possession. No wonder lumbering centre back Sean Murphy was looking tired and slow even before half time.
And when slow, tired, immobile defenders meet quicksilver strikers Silva, Rocova, Morales, etc, the result is messy.
The naivete51 of the approach was breathtaking. It was well into the second half before the Australians strung a confident series of passes together and started looking like a coordinated well-drilled football team.
Straight after the game, the once a year soccer commentators, like Dwayne Russell, started singling out Viduka for criticism and Kewell for praise. They have it arse-about.
As the man with the most outstanding haircut in world soccer, Johnny Warren, said: “It was just an amazing decision not to play Kewell wider on the left with someone supporting Viduka through the middle. The simple fact is that with our two main strikers not playing in their normal positions, Viduka played a lone hand up front. He needed Agostino supporting him through the middle.”
And respected former Socceroo coach Rale Rasic: “When Kewell comes onto the left flank he’s so devastating. Why he doesn’t play there the full 90 minutes is beyond belief.”
And Rasic on Viduka: “If Viduka hasn’t got quality supply, he can’t score.” That goes for virtually any high-class striker.
Sure, Viduka looked flat and immobile. But he had to contend with two opponents, both taggers, and one, Paolo Montero, a feared and competent defender whose day job is designated stopper for Juventus. What defenders in the Italian Serie A don’t know about nullifying strikers isn’t worth knowing.
Caught between the meanest, most effective defence in South America, and a midfield unable to supply him the ball, Viduka was cannon fodder. Blaming him for the Socceroos not scoring is like criticising the ANZAC trench rats for failing at Gallipoli.
The blame starts and ends in the officers’ quarters. And on Monday – and for many years – there has been no-one home.
Kewell, Viduka, Skoko, Moore and more have shown we can punch above our weight on the playing field – but our shambolic administration is an international lightweight, a weak national body unable to stamp Australia’s place in the world.
That’s why we let dunderheads like New Zealand laughing stock Charlie Dempsey represent us through Oceania at an international administrative level.
No wonder Oceania or Fantasia as it will now be called by Crikey – is the only federation that cannot get a single team qualified directly into the main draw, reflecting Australia’s lack of administrative clout.
As for Jeff, the very least he could do is take on FIFA. It’s clear the world governing body doesn’t give a damn about Australia. Europe which has secured 12 of the 32 spots at Korea-Japan 2002 – is happy to treat Australia as a cheap nursery for soccer talent. It’s time they were Jeffed.
AUSTRALIA vs URUGUAY 26 November 2001
Crikey’s Player Ratings: AUSTRALIA:
Schwartzer – 7: The big keeper was blameless for all three goals. Earns a bonus point for flattening that flamboyant super-sub Morales behind the referee’s back in the dying minutes.
Muscat – 6: The Micky Martin of the soccer pitch. Too slow, too clumsy, but did hack right into the Uruguayan strikers with some savagery. Gave annoying right winger Regueiro a solid crack on the scone in the second half during an entertaining duel. Replaced far too late by Agostino in the 72nd minute.
Agostino – 6: Only came on with 18 minutes left but still had time to terrorise the Uruguayan defence. His dipping header was tipped over the bar by Carini in the 80th minute.
Moore – 7: The real deal. Imposing figure in defence, dangerous with the head in set-piece attacks. World class.
Murphy – 4: Not up to world cup standard. The centre back was exposed as too slow, although he did make one miraculous goal line save in the 25th minute that would have buried us. Why Farina waited until the 81st minute to replace him with Aloisi beggars belief.
Vidmar – 4: Great warhorse who wasn’t sharp enough in the midfield.
Lazarides – 4: Lazzas best days are behind him. Was obsessed with defence and failed to take the game up to the home team with customary surges down the wing until well into the second half.
Okon – 2: This bloke can’t get a game in England. Injury has slowed him down, and that’s exactly what we needed against Uruguay; a slow midfielder – right? Totally ineffective.
Skoko – 6.5: The Uruguayans picked him as the vital link man – and hit him with everything. Hacked to pieces, but still fought on strongly trying to string some passing together. At 25 his best is still to come.
Emerton – 3: Australian Soccer’s Next Big Thing? Pu-lease! Better stay in Holland to learn the fundamentals, Brett, like holding up the ball in attack. Still, he’s only 22.
Kewell – 6: Convinced Farina to play him in the wrong position, and cost Australia the tie. Still showed his class with a super header in the 17th minute and a sharp snapshot in the second half. Made an immediate impact when switched to his correct position, all far too late. We now read through his agent Bernie Mandic that he wants to be Socceroo skipper. Terrific. Why don’t we make the Scud Davis Cup captain while we’re at it?
Viduka – 5: The big bloke is a genuine star. The only player to score four goals against Liverpool in a match since WWII. Poor service from the midfield and the wing and no attempt by Kewell to show chemistry and bring him into the picture denied him any scoring chances. His one half chance in front of goal bounced awkwardly and cruelly away from him.
Coach Frank Farina – 4: Tactical blunders, an inability to handle temperamental players, compounded by practical coaching inexperience at this level. Would make an ideal assistant coach to be groomed for the senior job in the future.
Carini – 8: The young keeper was solid, stopping Australia’s two on-target shots, Kewell and Agostini’s headers, with fabulous saves.
Tais and Lembo – 9: Combined with Montero to totally shut out Viduka and Kewell. Tough but fair. Montero – 10: Showed why he is one of the Italian league’s hardest defenders. Marshalled the back four with efficient menace.
Garcia and Rodriguez – 8: Every South American team has a Garcia and a Rodriguez, and they always play well.
Recoba – 9: Always dangerous, set up Morales’ two goals with a sublime free kick (which, incidentally, need not have been conceded by our clumsy defence) and a jinking run and pass to seal the matter in the last minute.
Guigou – 7: Hairdresser by profession. We think he was the bloke with long hair. Excellent perm. Hang on. Or was he the one with a crew-cut?
Regueiro – 8: Pacy flanker who engaged lumbering Kevin Muscat in a fascinating battle. Copped plenty, but was took quick and smart for our Kev. (Replaced by De Los Santos in the 64th minute. De Los Santos entertained the team after the match at his traditional Uruguayan restaurant, Los Locos).
Silva – 9: This fella played with a broken collarbone. Scored the opening goal with slick footwork that exposed the naive openness of Australia’s defence. Would hate to see him fully fit.
Magallanes – 5: Worked OK up front. Replaced in the 65th minute by local man-mountain Richard Morales, who lifted the crowd, and the team when they were under assault by the Socceroos, then scored the two winners. You have to give him 10 for that.
Coach Victor Pua – 10: The large, animated guy in the black suit. Highly entertaining performance. Was not sweating due to the heat – he knew if the team lost, his balls would be cut off and dangled round his nose.
Referee, Little-known Saudi official Osama Bin Laden – 10: Tough but fair. Took the heat out of the locals with some early free kicks to Australia, then handed out six yellow cards to a series of Uruguayan snipers and despots. Played a blinder.
Hugo Kelly can be reached on [email protected]