Since 2006, Australia have never made it to the knockout phase of the FIFA World Cup, going three editions of the world football flagship competition without making it out of the group stage.
But with a firm system in place, led by coach Graham Arnold, who has previously been an assistant in two stints, first between 2000 and 2006 and the second between 2008 and 2010, the “Socceroos” believe that they have a bright and successful future.
Sure, they were no match to a powerhouse like Argentina in the Round of 16, yet they still posed some major issues to the South American side, with an excellent game that could have been tied at the end, were it not for Emiliano Martinez’s outstanding save against Garang Kuol in the 96th minute.
Yet only reaching Qatar 2022 was a huge chore for Arnold, who took the reins of the team in 2018, after Bert van Marwijk left, on the back of another disappointing elimination in the group phase.
With Covid-19 rules still very strict in Australia, progressing to the final tournament was a difficult challenge, probably the toughest one in Arnold’s coaching career, which started over four decades ago, in 1989.
Opponents were not interested in serving a two-week mandatory quarantine period upon arriving in Australia, therefore Arnold and the “Socceroos” were left reeling, having to play in different parts of Asia to progress to the tournament.
It took to do-or-die play-off games, against the United Arab Emirates and Peru to reach Qatar 2022, but eventually, everything worked out, with the Australian resilience and grit providing the fuel for an excellent finish of the Qualification Phase for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
For nearly one year, Arnold was away from his friends and family, but a slew of bad results, that confined Australia to the two play-offs, nearly cost him his position. He bounced back in superb style and wrote history at Qatar 2022, progressing from a group where they faced the reigning champions, France, an African powerhouse in Tunisia and the semi-finalists from the UEFA EURO 2022, Denmark.
All because the platinum generation of Australian football believed in their coach, believed in themselves and did everything they could, playing an unattractive, but efficient brand of football to win against both Tunisia and Denmark by the same score line, 1-0, after a painful 1-4 loss against France in the opener at Qatar 2022.
“I think the universe is paying us back for all the hard work we’ve done. The universe is looking down on us and repaying the support and sacrifices that the players and staff made through all that,” said Arnold.
“And I’m trying to look at the positives, but I do believe this has been crucial, that Covid helped unite this team together and create the family culture of mateship. Because these boys were in lockdown in hotels, they couldn’t go off the floor they were on and had to be with each other in the social room playing pool or table tennis. That really united the players as a family,” added the Australia coach.
In fact, Australia played five Qualifiers games in Doha, settling in well in the city where they featured at the World Cup. With wins against Tunisia and Denmark, it made it seven out of eight wins in Qatar before Argentina eliminated Australia in the do-or-die Round of 16 game.
However, the “Socceroos” must be happy with their performance. Arnold, who had already served as a coach in a caretaker role between 2006 and 2007, was truly a polarising figure for many in Australia, but duly encompassed the values that this team has.
He worked around the clock under difficult circumstances to create a new team and uncovered some gems with relentless scouting, like Scottish-born defender Harry Souttar, who has become the heart and soul of the team, especially on the defensive end.
While Australia’s golden generation with Tim Cahill, Mark Viduka or Harry Kewell is now long gone, the platinum generation, as it was dubbed by many in Australia, now captures the minds of everybody, especially after an excellent performance against Argentina.
In Melbourne, the win against Denmark filled the streets of Melbourne at 4.00 AM in the morning, with an outstanding display of solidarity and love for football, a sport that is down on the pecking order of popularity, after rugby, cricket, and Australian football.
But with good results – Australia’s wins against Tunisia and Denmark were the first back-to-back wins in history at the FIFA World Cup – football can become even more popular in the country.
“Maybe we’re talking about a new golden generation now because we’ve been listening and hearing about the golden generation of 2006 that got four points and now we’ve got six, so maybe we’re talking about a new generation,” said Arnold.