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The Boomers Can Beat Team USA (And No, I’m Not Popping Crazy Pills)

August 8th, 2012 SB Tang No comments

At 22:15 tonight, the Boomers take on Team USA in an Olympic quarter-final.

This is an awesome Team USA side. They are well-coached by Coach K, respectful of their international opponents and have substantive experience of FIBA rules and international knock-out play.

But, if the stars align tonight, they can be beaten.

For all their manifold strengths, Team USA have a number of obvious weaknesses:

  1. They only have one true centre — Tyson Chandler, who has an unfortunate tendency to get into foul trouble in FIBA play.
  2. They only have two elite perimeter shooters — Kevin Durant and James Harden. And Harden hasn’t shot that well thus far this tournament, although, to be fair, his court time has been pretty limited. I was surprised that they didn’t include a specialist, pure shooter in their squad ala Michael Redd in 2008. Although Redd’s services turned out not to be required, he was always there in case Coach K needed him to bust open a zone defence.
  3. As is so often the case in sport as in life, one of their greatest strengths is also one of their greatest weaknesses — Kobe Bryant. The Black Mamba took control of the gold medal game in Beijing against Spain with his clutch shooting — remember his four point play with 3:10 left in the fourth quarter and USA leading by just 5, followed up by his index finger to his lips in the direction of the raucous Spanish fans? Classic. However, Bryant’s now four years older and, thus far in this tournament, he has looked more like the early model ball hog Kobe derided in countless Youtube clips than the clutch shooter who won Olympic gold in Beijing and led the Lakers to two NBA championships. In Team USA’s last pool game against Argentina, the BBC’s excellent commentary team of Michael Carlson and John Amaechi highlighted an incident which should unnerve every single sports fan in America. USA were in control of the game. Kobe was having a poor shooting night. Carmelo Anthony, fresh off his record-breaking shooting feats against Nigeria, went into the low post. Kobe appeared to order Anthony to vacate the low post position so that he could occupy it. Kobe went into the low post, tried to take on about three Argentine defenders and had the ball stripped from him. According to Carlson and Amaechi the looks exchanged between Kobe and Anthony were, eerrrm, strong, to be put it politely.
  4. Oddly, despite having only two elite perimeter shooters, they’ve demonstrated a willingness to keep heaving up bricks when they’re not shooting well: see, for example, the Lithuania game.

    Unfortunately, the Boomers aren’t that well-placed to exploit Team USA’s lack of tall timber because:

    • Andrew Bogut’s out injured;
    • Nathan Jawai and Luke Schenscher weren’t picked;
    • Aleks Maric hasn’t been in the best of form — he’s technically still a starter but looks to have lost Brett Brown’s confidence as he’s not playing starter minutes; and
    • Aron Baynes, at only 6′9, doesn’t quite count as tall timber.

      On the up-side, by going with more mobile, more athletic players such as Baynes, who has demonstrated a surprising, and dare I say, NBA-worthy, level of athleticism, Boomers coach Brett Brown has been able to play suffocating, lock-down perimeter D — a strength incidentally shared by Team USA.

      The obvious way to exploit the second, third and fourth weaknesses of Team USA is to employ a zone defence and try to turn it into a half-court game. The two equally obvious problems with this strategy are:

      1. we don’t have enough tall timber to pull it off: see above;
      2. it hurts our offence — our problematic end of the floor thus far this tournament — which looks much better when we’re in transition out in the open court, which is unsurprising given that Brown has gone for a mobile, athletic squad.

        So, should we instead opt for a more open court game in order to extract maximum offensive utility from the speed and athleticism of the likes of Mills, Baynes, Andersen and Ingles?

        Maybe. But then we play to Team USA’s strengths — their squad is also packed with athletic players in the 6’5 to 6′11 height range who love the open court, just that they’re, uuumm, a tad more athletic than ours.

        On balance, it’s worth starting with a zone defence just to see what happens. If Team USA go cold from the perimeter in a sudden-death match, it may prompt Kobe to attempt to seize control with tunnel vision shooting and then who knows what might happen to Team USA’s team harmony and chemistry.

        Here are the very narrow set of hypothetical conditions under which the Boomers could win:

        1. We start with a zone defence.
        2. Team USA start bricking from the perimeter. Admittedly, this would be a once-in-a-millennium event for Kevin Durant but, hey, it’s possible.
        3. Kobe tries to take over with obsessive-compulsive levels of shooting but keeps throwing up bricks.
        4. Mills, Andersen, Ingles and Dellavedova shoot the ball like the English sky drops rain — heavily, relentlessly and accurately. Early into the third quarter in the Boomers’ fourth pool game against Great Britain, we were down about 15 points and had been stone cold from the perimeter all tournament. I seem to recall the Boomers’ team three point percentage in the first couple of games being in the teens! But, suddenly, the whole team, led by Mills and Delly, caught fire from beyond the arc, the Boomers steamrolled Team GB and I finally understood what Starbuck was talking about when she answered Commander Adama’s question, “what do you hear Starbuck?” — “Nothing but the rain sir”.

        That’s a lot of ifs. Realistically, the probability of all those ifs happening in one game is no more than 5 per cent. But, in sport at the highest level, that’s still a decent chance. Better than nothing at any rate.

        Good luck to the Boomers!

        D-Day

        December 2nd, 2010 SB Tang No comments

        Minutes until FIFA announces the hosts for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

        If such decisions were based on reason and merit, there would be two clear winners – England for 2018 and Australia for 2022.

        I’m hardly one to be biased towards England, particularly in the middle of a home Ashes series, but there can be no doubting the merit of their bid.

        England offers:

        • The world’s best football stadiums: atmospheric, purpose-built, all-seater and ready-to-go-right-now (yes, I’m staring at you Russia).
        • Perfect geographical location: in between the US and western Europe.
        • Excellent international transport links: Heathrow’s the world’s third busiest international airport.
        • Solid domestic transport links: the Tube does a solid job for a city of 7.75 million people (well, when its employees aren’t striking at any rate) and, although not as good as metros in say Germany or Japan, it is better than anything in Australia or North America. The rail links aren’t world-beating but they get the job done and ditto for the motorways.
        • An internationalist outlook represented by, amongst other things, a cosmopolitan population, the most popular domestic football league in the universe and a service-based, internationally-focused economy embodied in the City of London which, for all its flaws (which are substantial) has been the engine of Britain’s economic growth over the past two decades.
        • A local population which is, broadly, immigrant friendly — ride a London bus or check out the welcome given to foreign players like Torres, Kanchelskis and Juninho.
        • Some of the most passionate and knowledgeable football fans in the world who, when the mood takes them, are capable of turning a football ground into a citadel — one of the many reasons why, despite often being far from the best domestic football league in the world, the English Premier League is by far and away the most popular domestic football league in the universe.
        • Commercial TV revenues: England’s located in the perfect time zone for the major European and American markets and the World Cup will have access to the same producers, editors and marketers who have made the English Premier League the commercial envy of the rest of Europe.

        Spain hosted a World Cup as recently as 1982 and Portugal hosted the Euros in 2004.

        Netherlands/Belgium is a bit small and they hosted Euro 2000.

        Russia, with its vast untapped commercial potential and FIFA’s zeal for expanding the World Cup into virgin territory, would have to be England’s main rival. But, based on merit, this shouldn’t even be a serious contest:

        • Infrastructure and White Elephant stadiums: this is a nation whose national stadium (Luzhniki) still has a plastic pitch, where the club hosting the biggest club derby in Russian football (CSKA Moscow vs Spartak Moscow) has to play the game in a tiny stadium in a suburb outside Moscow just so they can play on a real pitch (it’d be like Arsenal having to move the North London derby to Kenilworth Road) and where, according to ESPN, the unofficial average attendance for a domestic top flight match in 2010 was 12,322 — less than the 18,006 unofficial average attendance boasted by even the worst supported team in last season’s English top flight, Wigan Athletic. The net result of this would be billions wasted on shiny FIFA-compliant stadiums which will then spend the next 20 years icing-up and falling into disrepair — a bit like the Soviet nuclear submarine fleet. Money which could surely be better spent elsewhere in a nation where 50,000 people still die annually from alcohol poisoning.
        • Russia is vast. It covers nine time zones and the better part of the Eurasian continent. All non-Moscow airports (and frankly, even the Moscow airports) would require a serious upgrade. The Moscow Metro is awesome though. Rail links between the major cities are solid but could be too slow for most of the teams and spectators to use during the World Cup given the distances that they’ll be required to cover.
        • Racism. Unfortunately, Russia has some issues with black people. Ask the Nigerian-Russian footballer Peter Odemwingie.

        As an Australian who’s spent the last two years living in England and Russia, I could only come up with one reason why the Russian bid is better than the English bid — the Moscow Metro. That is all. Don’t get me wrong. I love Russia and I love living in Moscow. But there is no way that Russia would be a better host for the World Cup than England.

        Australia for 2022. It’s simple really:

        • Like England, we already have most of the infrastructure in place and an excellent track record for hosting international sporting events: see, eg, Olympics, Commonwealth Games and cricket and rugby World Cups. Admittedly, our metros are non-existent but air travel between the major cities is excellent.
        • Sports-mad and knowledgeable fans who would truly appreciate the event — take a walk around the heart of Melbourne.
        • A competent international football team (*ahem* … Qatar).
        • A bridgehead into the vital Asia-Pacific growth markets. C’mon FIFA. We know you want to take over the world and the world surely includes its two most populous nations and burgeoning superpowers right?
        • A multi-cultural, immigrant-friendly and tourist-friendly population.

        Team USA would do a brilliant job and commercially, it’d be a boon for FIFA. But they hosted it as recently as 1994 and there’s no real prospect of the US ever truly becoming a football nation — American football, basketball and baseball are just too well-entrenched for that to ever happen. It’s time for FIFA to share the love with a nation and a region whose hearts and minds they truly do have a prospect of winning.

        However, there’s no doubt that our time zone will be a problem for the FIFA bean-counters. No-one in the US or Europe wants to be watching matches in the middle of the night.

        Qatar. A nation of 840,926 people full of migrant workers. All stadiums in one soulless major city. Temperatures in excess of 50 degrees. A national team which relies on speed-naturalizing journeyman South Americans to maintain its exalted world ranking of 113. And a lot of money. Sorry, I meant oil. Correction: oil money.

        What next? G20 Summits in the Sultan of Brunei’s backyard for the right price?

        I’m OK with USA but giving it to Qatar would make the Dreyfus trial look like a paragon of justice.

        It should be England 2018 and Australia 2022.

        But since money (especially of the TV revenue kind) is what makes the football world go round, I reckon it’ll be Russia 2018 and USA 2022.

        Or, looking at it another way, for 2022, it’s come down to Zidane vs Wolverine vs Henry Kissinger. It’s a tough one. But hey — adamantium claws are adamantium claws man.

        C’mon God. Prove to me that you exist. I dare you.

        Categories: Australia, Oceania, World Cup Tags:

        Luke Wilkshire Interview, Khimki, Russia, 23 November 2010

        November 25th, 2010 SB Tang No comments

        I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to catch up with Luke Wilkshire of Dynamo Moscow and the Socceroos on Tuesday near Dynamo’s training base in Khimki on the outskirts of Moscow. Luke was kind enough to wait for me as Google Maps uncharacteristically led me in the wrong direction on my trek out there and, upon my arrival, I proceeded to make an arse of myself as I struggled to operate the hi-tech dictaphone I borrowed from my law firm. Many thanks to Luke and his agent, Darren Jackson of Inspire Sports Management, for agreeing to the interview and for being so generous with their time and to my current employers, Linklaters, for allowing me to use their dictaphone and to take the afternoon off to go meet Luke.

        The full transcript of the interview is set out below:

        SB Tang (“SBT”): World Cup 2010. First, congratulations on a great performance. We finished level on points with Ghana in a group also containing Germany and Serbia. Just going back to that opening match against Germany. How did the players feel about the way that we were tactically set up — was there any frustration after the result?

        Luke Wilkshire (“LW”): No, of course, there was frustration and disappointment — we lost 4-0 in the opening game. We thought that we can do a lot better than that and we can. Had we played at our full potential, I’m sure we would have gotten a better result. But, you know, it is what it is. That’s football. It doesn’t always go to plan. And it was a bad night for the Socceroos that night.

        SBT: But to us at home, it actually seemed that the lads played pretty well, but the tactics …

        LW: I think I’d say that a lot of people back home can sit on their sofas and see things and make their own judgments and opinions on things. The players were comfortable knowing that we played the system that we played. We knew our jobs, but we didn’t stick to it. The early goal rattled us a little bit. I think that did shake us because we had started the game reasonably well — we had a couple of good chances. But, I mean, I wouldn’t talk tactically. Pim did a great job with us. Everyone knew our roles. We qualified for the World Cup with an amazing record so I don’t think that [ie tactics] is any kind of excuse at all.

        SBT: In the second phase of Asian qualification we didn’t concede a goal in a live match so …

        LW: Yeah, you know, we learnt a lot under Pim. How to perform, not just in one-off games, but over the course of many games and that’s what it’s about. Going away to difficult places in Asia and to be able to get a result like we did. It took a lot of tactics. Very smart play. And, I think, Pim guided us very well through that.

        SBT: Second game against Ghana. Going a goal up early, then went down to 10 men later in the first half courtesy of some strange referring. But full credit to you guys, you bossed the game with 10 men and the score at 1-1, particularly in the second half, and you played a big, big part in that. You swung in a great cross for Scott Chipperfield who headed over seconds after coming on as a sub. And you had that shot saved when you were one-on-one with the keeper. I have to ask — do you still think about that shot?

        LW: Nah, only when someone mentions it — obviously I try not to!

        SBT: Yeah, sorry!

        LW: That’s alright, there goes my confidence for the weekend’s game. I’ll boot it up next month!

        SBT: But I think The Australian, The Age and The World Game said that you were the man of the match so …

        LW: Yeah, we played well — the response from the players was brilliant as you’d expect from our team and as we expect from each other. It was disappointing, the result, obviously. We didn’t have a great deal of luck throughout the whole World Cup in regard to decisions. Sometimes, you need a little of luck, especially at the top level, you need a break every now and then. And we didn’t get it. Again, that’s football, you gotta get on with it.

        SBT: I was in London at the time and I think the word used by all the London papers after that match was “brave”.

        LW: Yeah, you’re playing for your country and it’s about making Australia proud. You want to make Australia proud — you’re there to represent your country. And I think all the Australian people I know, the people in the stadium were very proud and felt good about it — as did we, and that’s the main thing for us.

        SBT: Well, you definitely did [do us proud], because the third game against Serbia, I was in a pub with a bunch of Australians at Wimbledon. We’d just stopped watching that marathon Mahut-Eisner match and we went out to a pub to watch you guys. We were going mental after you swung in a great cross from the right for Timmy Cahill to head home then Brett Holman put us 2-0 up with a screamer from 30 yards. At that stage, did you guys believe?

        LW: Yeah, of course, we went into the game believing. There’s no point going on the pitch if you don’t believe that you can get a good result — of course we did. We knew it was going to be tough. We knew we were up against it but of course we believed. There’s just no point playing the game if you don’t believe.

        SBT: It was a brilliant cross for that first goal by Timmy Cahill by … yourself …

        LW: Yeah … I regularly make him look good!

        SBT: Yeah, surely by this stage, that’s a rehearsed training ground move for us isn’t it — the cross to Timmy Cahill?

        LW: Yeah, you gotta play to your strengths don’t ya — Timmy can’t kick a ball so put it on his head! Haha, you know, jokes aside, he’s great in the air. That’s our strength. Same with Joshua Kennedy when he’s there playing up front. You want to be getting crosses in because that’s gonna cause problems and there’s where we’re going to get goals.

        SBT: I seem to remember that Timmy was being marked by Vidic in that match who’s meant to be one of the best aerial defenders in the world …

        LW: Ah well, he can’t quite jump like Timmy!

        SBT: Following the World Cup, Holger Osieck’s taken over from Pim Verbeek as Socceroos manager. Are you enjoying his slightly different, perhaps more attacking style of play?

        LW: Ah, you know, look it’s still early stages since the new boss has come in. The players are starting to understand and get to grips with what he’s after. We’ve had some decent results in the beginning, aside from that Egypt game which was reasonably poor but that’s something for us to learn from. I must say that it was sad to see Pim go. I think everybody really enjoyed their time playing under him. But it’s a new era, it’s a new time and we hope for positive times under the new boss.

        SBT: You mentioned the Egypt game. Firstly, nice block — you can’t do much about rebounds! But as it was just a friendly, was Osieck’s focus maybe more on the performance rather than the result in the lead-up to a big tournament in the Asian Cup?

        LW: It’s a habit of winning. You want to be in the habit of winning. You always wanna win. Of course, performance is also important. But it was a good game for us to have — they’re a very good team. Difficult circumstances with players coming in 24 hours, 48 hours before a game. It’s always difficult, but like I say, it’s a disappointing result and it’s one that we put behind us now and we try to learn from it. I’m sure we’ll be evaluating it when we meet up before the Asian Cup. And then we move on because we got a big month of football coming up in January.

        SBT: You mentioned the Asian Cup coming up in January — what’s the target for the boys?

        LW: Look, we’re ranked number 1 in Asia and for a reason, you know, so expectations are going to be there again with the team. Rightly so but, ultimately, it’s down to us to go and make sure we perform to our level and if we do that then I think we can have a very successful tournament.

        SBT: We’ve been grouped with India, Bahrain and Korea — so I’m presuming that Holger Osieck’s already given Carl Valeri a poster of Ji-Sung Park with a giant target sign painted over his head?

        LW: Aaah, I don’t know about that!

        SBT: Looking even further ahead to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. By then, most of the Golden Generation who formed the core of the 2006 and 2010 World Cup squads will be in their mid-30s. Timmy Cahill will be 34. Harry Kewell will be 35. You, on the other hand, will be a relatively sprightly 32. Looking at the XI who started against Japan in 2006, you may be the only one left — does that worry you at all?

        LW: No, not really, of course, you know, that’s football — players retire and move on. Hopefully, between now and then, there’s going to be a lot of football played. There’s hopefully going to be a few more of the young up-and-coming players to really come and put a foothold in and try and challenge for spots in the team because it’s important. We’ve got a few at the moment, that have the talent, that are promising but there’s a big difference between a bit of talent and promising to being able to hold down a spot in the national team and to be able to perform at the top level.

        SBT: You mentioned promising young players — the name on everyone’s lips right now is Tommy Oar. Have you had the chance to train and play much alongside him?

        LW: Yeah, I’ve seen a bit of Tommy. He’s been in camp a few times. He’s definitely one — he’s definitely got a lot of talent and potential there. It’s up to him to take that talent and potential and to be able to develop into a real top player who can perform not only at international level but at club level first of all, to hold down a spot at his club, Utrecht, to be playing before you can expect him to step up into the national team and start performing on the world stage.

        SBT: You mentioned those younger guys coming through, will you be looking to take on more of a leadership role with them both on and off the pitch as one of the senior guys?

        LW: Nothing really changes for me — I’ve been around a long time now. It feels longer than it actually is! The team’s always good together and everyone helps everyone along, especially us older players with some of the young boys. It’s up to them as well, they’ve gotta be wanting to learn and to see and to take on things from the older boys.

        SBT: Growing up in Wollongong, did you ever think that you’d be sitting in Moscow discussing representing Australia in a third successive World Cup?

        LW: Nah, definitely not. I didn’t expect half the things that have happened in my life — you dream about it, but you don’t necessarily believe that they’re going to come true. But fortunately enough for me, it came true, and through a lot of hard work and determination and sacrifice, I can now say that I’ve been and done quite a bit of it. Hopefully, the journey’s still got a few more years left in it!

        SBT: You mentioned hard work and sacrifice. When you first went to Europe, you went to Boro and then you moved to Bristol City in search of first-team action. They were then in the third-tier of English football. That’s maybe not the most obvious place to discover an international class footballer. So how did Guus discover you for the 2006 World Cup? Did he send out Johan Neeskens to watch you at Bristol City?  

        LW: Nah, I mean obviously when he took over the national team I’d been around the national team already, not playing so much but I’d been in a lot of camps under Frank Farina and Graham Arnold. And then when Guus took over, in the first games, he wanted everybody, he wanted about 30 players — anyone who’d been involved in the national team he wanted to see for himself. He made his opinions based on what he saw with his own eyes in training camps and things, and that’s where I got my opportunity because he thought that I adapted and that I fitted well into the team structure.

        SBT: And you really built on that, after the 2006 World Cup you moved to FC Twente in the Dutch Eredivisie. You had a brilliant 2 year stint with them — you helped them qualify for the Champions League for the first time in their history. How did that come about — moving to a club like Twente?

        LW: Yeah, that was through Guus as well. He had a contact, a coach who was at Twente at the time, Fred Rutten — that made a good opening for me. It was ideal for me at the time. I had a great two years there. I still have many good friends there. It’s a great club. I really enjoyed my football there, there’s no doubt about it.

        SBT: You must’ve been stoked for them when they won the Dutch title?

        LW: Yeah, I was delighted for them. Like I said, I’ve got really good friends there who I still keep in touch with and see regularly. So I was really happy for them. I’ve often been asked if I wanna go back there, they’d like to bring me back. You know, maybe one day I’ll go and say hello to them again!

        SBT: Yeah, they’re doing very well for themselves. They’re in the Champions League again this season. Just going back to Wollongong, did you and Scott Chipperfield know each other growing up in Wollongong?

        LW: Nah, not until meeting up in the Socceroos.

        SBT: Arsene Wenger has said that technical ability can only be acquired before a player hits their mid-teens. How and where did you and Scott Chipperfield, two of our most successful players, acquire your technical ability — are there secret underground futsal pitches in Wollongong?

        LW: Ah, nah, I guess, the little bit of technique that I do have I got from my backyard with my brother. Haha, that shows how I little I got — nah, you know, I did a lot of work in the backyard with my brother!

        SBT: I heard you being interviewed a few weeks ago by Russia Today about our chances of hosting the 2022 World Cup. How do you rate our chances given that we’ll be up against USA?

        LW: Yeah, I think we’ve got as good a chance as anyone. We’ve got everything that anyone could want to host the World Cup. Our nation — the facilities, the people, the climate, everything’s there with the structure. I think it’d be fantastic for Australian football, for the Australian people to be able to host it. I think it’d be fantastic for the world of football for everyone to be able to come Down Under and experience a World Cup in Australia. Fingers crossed we get a good decision.

        SBT: Yeah, shame about the time zone though.

        LW: Yeah, compared to Europe the time zone’s not great, but to Asia it’s good. You can look at it in many different ways. I’m sure the FFA’s done everything they possibly can. Mr Lowy’s put his heart and soul into it and I really, really pray that we get a good decision.  

        SBT: Yeah, I think the preliminary reports came back and we got graded really highly so touch wood.

        LW: Yeah, like I say, it’d be a massive thing.

        SBT: Final question — any plans to head home to the A-league in the distant, distant future, maybe even to a new Wollongong-based A-league team?

        LW: Ah, who knows, at the moment, I’m here at Dynamo. I’ve still got a contract here at Dynamo for a few more years and I’m not really looking beyond that. I’m very happy here. And what comes after that, time will tell.

        SBT: Thanks very much for your time.

        LW: No worries. 

        Yes, Virginia, Australia Is a Football Country

        March 21st, 2010 SB Tang No comments

        A leading Australian social commentator and veteran foreign correspondent once observed that, having travelled the world, the only two constants are football and Coca-Cola. How ironic then, that even as Australia gears up for its second consecutive World Cup with a battle-hardened squad of players who earn their living in some of the best leagues in Europe and mounts a serious bid for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, in the eyes of the rest of the world, Australia is still seen to be as much of a heathen nation as America or New Zealand — an anomalous, Anglo-Celtic nation devoted to an obscure oval ball football code.

        Like all myths, this one is based on impressionistic perceptions rather than reality. Several factors have contributed towards the making of this myth.

        Firstly, the reputation of Australian association football (“football”) is, to an extent, an unintended victim of the well-deserved and outstanding success enjoyed, both on and off the field, by Australian Rugby Union from 1984 to 2003. Two World Cups, a Grand Slam of the Home Nations, regular Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations victories and a last-minute series win over the British and Irish Lions represent an astonishing return for a code which is only played in private schools in two of Australia’s six states, has no functioning national league of any description, zero live free-to-air television coverage (with the exception of international test matches in two out of six states) and three to four figure attendances for club matches.

        According to almost every conceivable criterion — national player participation rate, national geographical spread, television coverage and revenue, and domestic club match crowd attendances — rugby union trails not one but three rival football codes: football, Australian Rules football (“AFL”) and rugby league. Indeed, the success enjoyed by Australian Rugby Union from 1984 to 2003 is more a testimony to the excellence of its administrators, than any reflection of the game’s actual popularity across the country. Consider the following statistics from the Australian government’s 2008 Exercise, Recreation and Sport Survey:

        • the national participation rate for rugby league is 220,000;
        • the national participation rate for rugby union is 149,000;
        • the national participation rate for AFL is 488,000;
        • the national participation rate for outdoor football is 856,000; and
        • the national participation rate for indoor football is 384,000.

        This period of sustained success, coupled with the poor performances of the Australian national football team (the “Socceroos“) in World Cup qualification up until 2006, has, understandably, created a lingering impression that Australia is a rugby union nation when, in truth, rugby union is not even the leading oval ball football code in Australia. Hailing from the largest of the four non-rugby states, I’ve always been bemused to be informed, on my travels, by people from all around the world (perhaps with the notable exception of south-east Asia where Australian footballers such as Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell and Lucas Neill have risen to prominence in recent times), that Australia is a “rugby nation”.

        Secondly, over approximately the same period, the performance of the Socceroos in World Cup qualification could only be described as dire. After qualifying for the 1974 World Cup as rank outsiders (and not scoring a single goal or winning a single game during the tournament), the Socceroos failed to qualify for a single World Cup until 2006. Although this remarkable string of failures was undoubtedly partly of our own making (see the section below on the dysfunctional national governance structure), it was also caused, in no small part, by the disinterest of FIFA which, perhaps understandably, focused its attention on the raw, untapped talent of Africa, the economic growth markets of East Asia and the last great frontier of North America. Accordingly, Australia, a relative economic backwater with its measly population of 20 million was left isolated in every sense of the word — left to rot in the only FIFA confederation (Oceania) without a full World Cup berth. Instead, the winner of Oceania was put into a sudden death two-leg play-off with a team from another FIFA confederation for a full World Cup berth.

        The problems with this system were manifold. Oceania essentially consisted of Australia plus a collection of rugby-mad Pacific micronations (such as Samoa and the Cook Islands) and rugby-mad New Zealand. This led to tragicomical results in Oceania qualification such as the Socceroos’ 31-0 victory over American Samoa on 11 April 2001, which meant that big European clubs were understandably reluctant to allow our best players to fly 24 hours (one-way) for Oceania qualifiers, for example, Messrs Kewell and Viduka, then at the peak of their powers for a Leeds United side rampant both at home and in Europe were notable absentees from the aforementioned fixture. This, in turn, meant that our first choice XI played precisely two live competitive matches once every four years in the form of a two-legged sudden death play-off against an opponent from another confederation whose battle-hardened first-choice XI had just been through a lengthy and competitive qualification process.

        The criterion used by FIFA to select that opponent seemed to vary between almost every World Cup — FIFA’s sadistic indifference in this regard perhaps reached its zenith in the 80s and 90s when, in successive World Cup qualification play-offs, the Socceroos faced (and narrowly lost to) Souness and Dalglish’s Scotland (1985, the third-placed team from European Qualifying Group 7, managed by some young fellow named Alex Ferguson) and Maradona’s Argentina (1993, the second-placed team from South American Qualifying Group A). Needless to say, such obstacles never seemed to find their way into the qualification path of the United States of America.

        Even when the Socceroos were gifted a relatively easy opponent, such as Iran (the second-placed team from Asian Qualifying Group A) in 1997, the Football Gods seemed to conspire against the Socceroos in scarcely believable fashion. After a 17-year old Harry Kewell gave Australia a precious away goal in the first leg 1-1 draw in front of a hostile crowd of 128,000 in Tehran, the Socceroos were cruising in the home leg at 2-0 up after 48 minutes having wasted a hatful of chances. Then, disaster struck as notorious serial pest Peter Hore invaded the pitch and cut down one of the goal nets. The subsequent five minute delay allowed Iran to regroup and changed the entire momentum of the match. The Australian players themselves seemed spooked by the unexpected interruption just as they were approaching their Everest in front of an expectant home crowd of 85,000 in the nation’s greatest sporting cathedral. After the restart, Iran scored in the 71st minute to make it 2-1; panic set in and, almost inevitably, like a nightmarish quadrennial self-fulfilling prophecy, the Socceroos fell again at the final hurdle as Iran quickly scored once more to make it 2-2 and deservedly went through on the away goals rule.

        Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that the institutionalised incompetence of Australia’s football administrators over the same period was as significant a cause as bad luck of Australia’s abysmal World Cup qualification results. Although the full extent of this incompetence cannot be catalogued in a single article, a few of the more notorious examples will suffice to give the reader an appreciation of its breadth and depth:

        1. The absence of a cohesive, fully-professional and profitable national league — the self-defeatingly-titled-National Soccer League (“NSL“) featured semi-professionals plying their trade alongside full-time professionals and suffered from small crowds, ethnically-based clubs and, perhaps worst of all in the modern age, the absence of anything resembling a lucrative television contract to both fund the game and keep it at the forefront of the public consciousness.
        2. When administrators were given the opportunity to choose a venue for a World Cup qualifier, they could be reliably counted on to pick the most hospitable venue for our visiting opponents. For example, in 1985, when the Socceroos were forced to play-off against Souness and Dalglish’s Scotland for a World Cup place, our learned administrators chose to play the home leg in Melbourne (the southern-most and coldest of all the major mainland cities whose climate most resembles that of Britain), rather than a northern city such as Brisbane where temperatures in excess of 30 degrees Celsius would have been guaranteed to greet the Scotsmen arriving in Australia from a Glasgow December.
        3. The absence of experienced, international-class managers for the national team left us tactically exposed at play-off time. For example, the 1985 play-off against Scotland pitted Alex Ferguson against Frank Arok. The latter was a solid manager whose previous management experiences were in the Australian domestic league and at the small Yugoslavian clubs FK Novi Sad and FK Vojvodina. The former had already led Aberdeen to the Scottish league title and the European Cup Winner’s Cup (defeating Bayern Munich en route to the final where they comprehensively outplayed Real Madrid to win 2-1).
        4. The absence of a cohesive national coaching structure unified from youth to senior level by a strategic vision, meant that our players were denied the technical skills and tactical awareness which our European and South American opponents took for granted. Young Australian footballers were confronted by independent, competing associations not only between states, but in some instances, within states, each with different football philosophies and political priorities. Little wonder then, that there was no unified national coaching framework teaching touch, movement, passing and vision from a young age. Those outstanding players we did produce succeeded in spite of, not because of, our domestic coaching system, as they headed overseas from their early teenage years in order to develop the aforementioned necessary skills and knowledge. The likes of Bresciano, Grella and Vieri went to Italy, Kewell headed to England, and Viduka went to Croatia. This talent drain often resulted in a promising Australian player choosing to represent the European country which they had departed to in order to further their footballing education. The most well-known example of this is Christian Vieri, who left European journalists at the 1998 World Cup utterly befuddled when he named legendary Australian cricket captain Allan Border as his boyhood sporting hero. Indeed, the young Vieri was so cricket-focused that his Australian football club youth coach had to “devis[e] a [football] version of cricket to animate Christian’s youthful interest in the round-ball game.”[1]
        5. The factors set out above in (1) and (4) and below meant that, unsurprisingly, many promising young footballers chose to pursue other sports professionally. For example, whilst in England, the Neville brothers, both talented junior cricketers, opted for football, in Australia, the Waugh twins, who both starred for their state as junior footballers, opted for cricket. No tougher a critic than the late, great former Australian football captain Johnny Warren wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald in 1983: “I have not seen a better goal this year than the one scored by East Hills High School’s Stephen Waugh in the Commonwealth Bank Cup at Mt Druitt Town Soccer centre last Wednesday evening. It was a goal of which the legendary Franz Beckenbauer would have been proud.”

        By the time the Socceroos failed yet again to qualify for the World Cup in 2002, falling in a sudden death play-off to Uruguay, the fifth-placed South American team, Australia’s World Cup qualification drought was approaching its third decade. An entire generation of Australians, myself included, had grown up without having seen an Australian team play at a World Cup.

        Australian football fans had become so mired in a deep and everlasting pessimism that, when it was revealed in 2002 in Johnny Warren’s autobiography that the qualification drought may have been caused by the curse of an African witch doctor, nary an eyebrow was raised. The story goes that when the Socceroos travelled to Mozambique in 1970 to play a World Cup qualifier against the nation then known as Rhodesia, they employed the services of a local witch doctor to curse their opponents. The Socceroos duly went on to record a 3-1 win. Unfortunately, the Australian players could not stump up the £1000 which the witch doctor demanded for his rather effective services and he, somewhat understandably, cursed the team from the former convict colony with his powerful magics.

        By 2002, the problems with the governance of Australian football had become so severe that the federal government, even one led by a socially conservative, Wallabies-tracksuit-wearing, 1950s romantic of Anglo-Celtic extract, had no choice but to commission a comprehensive report which, unsurprisingly, recommended radical surgery to every level of the game’s administration. On 2 September 2002, the Federal Minister for Sport announced the terms of reference for a review into the governance and management structures of football in Australia to be conducted by an independent Review Committee. The Committee, chaired by David Crawford, delivered its final report, titled Report of the Independent Soccer Review Committee into the Structure, Governance and Management of Soccer in Australia (the “Crawford Report”), on 7 April 2003. The Executive Summary of the Crawford Report explained:

        The Committee was made aware that over the past two decades, soccer in Australia has found itself addressing a series of crises evidenced more recently by: a) severe financial problems (members equity of Soccer Australia was a negative $2.6 million at 30 June 2002); b) reduced staffing levels; c) political infighting; d) lack of strategic direction and planning; and e) mixed results on the field in the international arena.

        The Crawford Report exposed the byzantine structure of Australian football governance with organisations actively competing against one another in some states in the administration and staging of football. For example, New South Wales, the most populous state in Australia, was home to no less than three competing governing bodies — the Northern New South Wales Soccer Federation, the New South Wales Amateur Soccer Federation and the New South Wales Soccer Federation. The Committee consulted extensively with, and received submissions from, a broad cross-section of the Australian football community and published stakeholder comments in Appendix D of the Crawford Report. Pejorative permutations of the word “political” (examples include “politically driven”, “petty politics”, “political manoeuvrings”, “political agendas” and “Machiavellian politics”) appear no less than 25 times in Appendix D. The lengthy list of reforms recommended by the Committee ranged from the self-evident to the drastic:

        • creating a unified and streamlined voting mechanism which gives fair representation to all members of the Australian football community;
        • appointing a new, independent board;
        • appointing an appropriately qualified CEO;
        • separating the national league from the structure of the national administrative body so that the former operates as a separate entity; and
        • immediately replacing the incompetent incumbent board with an interim board composed of Frank Lowy, Ron Walker and John Singleton.

        Frank Lowy, apart from being a passionate Australian football fan of Jewish-Czechoslovakian-Hungarian descent, is the executive chairman and co-founder of the world-famous Westfield Group — the Australian corporate behemoth whose ubiquitous shopping centres dot the landscape in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US.

        In short, the changes worked. After little more than two years on the job, the new board, chaired by Mr Lowy himself had:

        • secured the on-field management services of Guus Hiddink to successfully pilot Australia to World Cup qualification for the first time in 32 years (cue the streamers — literally);[2]
        • secured the off-field management services of John O’Neill (the merchant banker responsible for Australian rugby’s astonishing off-field success) to turn around Australian football commercially and financially;
        • successfully launched a brand-new, fully-televised, professional national league; and
        • perhaps most crucially of all, secured Australia’s entry into the Asian Football Confederation with its precious 4.5 World Cup places and highly competitive two-stage qualification process.

        At a broader social level, the Lowy-led board has been able to finally demolish the largest hurdle to the game’s ascendance to its rightful place as Australia’s undisputed number one football code — the perception that the game was riven by ethnic fighting, which led to its marginalisation in the eyes of many in the broader Australian community. For example, in his autobiography, the legendary Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh, a superbly-talented junior footballer before choosing cricket as his professional career, recalled:[3]

        Talent-wise, soccer was probably the sport where I was most gifted, but in the end it gave way to my real passion [of cricket]. …

        In many parts of Australia in the 1970s and ‘80s soccer was known as “wog ball” or a game for “pansies”, but I only ever saw it as a fantastic team sport, even if many clubs and organisations were ethnic-based and -influenced. Travelling interstate with the NSW Under 15 side was a huge honour and a pretty fair achievement considering I was only 13, but with my youth came unfamiliar territory. I wasn’t used to not being the star, or to not knowing anyone else in the squad. Whether it was intentional or not, I was left alone, without any friends and feeling totally isolated from the other guys, who all seemed to know each other well. Being Anglo-Saxon was a major hindrance, because I couldn’t speak Greek or Italian or whatever language was the basis for their conversations. I kept to myself and played as well as I could, but there was something missing — my heart wasn’t totally in it. I didn’t feel an attachment to the team and no one made an effort to ease the apprehension and uneasiness I felt as an unfamiliar face. It wounded me. I didn’t want to ever again feel so isolated and unwanted in a team environment and I didn’t want to see it happen to anyone else, either.

        In Australian English, the colloquial term “wog” refers to a person of southern European extraction, typically Italian or Greek, and “pansy” refers an unmanly, physically weak and sportingly inept male. Following the Second World War, the Australian government relaxed its White Australia policy which had, up to that point, largely prevented non-Anglo-Celtic immigration through the disingenuous use of restrictions such as a dictation test, which allowed for the exclusion of non-Anglo-Celtic applicants by requiring them to pass a written test in any language (not necessarily English) nominated by an immigration officer. Consequently, Australia received a flood of immigrants from Italy and Greece and other parts of continental Europe who brought with them a love of football.

        Similarly, the late, great former Australian football captain Johnny Warren titled his autobiography Sheilas, Wogs and Pooftas in reference to the widely-held perception of those who chose football over the full contact football codes of rugby union, rugby league or AFL. “Sheila” is Australian slang for woman and “poofta” is an Australian profanity for a homosexual.

        The Lowy-led board has been able to substantially demolish this perception by sweeping away the old byzantine governance structure (which gave scope for ethnic rivalries), creating a new national league with no ethnically-based clubs, improving policing and crowd management at matches, providing the unifying effect of World Cup qualification and, above all, supplying professional and competent off-field governance and management — as one would expect from men such as Lowy and O’Neill.

        So there you have it. Perhaps the one unequivocally good deed done by a neo-conservative government responsible for systematically distorting public funding of secondary and tertiary education, politicising the public service, falsely accusing boat people of throwing their children overboard, cosying up to President George W Bush, signing Australia up to the Coalition of the Willing, refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol and frittering away budget surpluses (remember those?) on pork barrelling and electioneering — they single-handedly saved Australian football.

        Looking ahead, this article concludes on an optimistic note. On 6 June 2009, Australia (along with Japan, South Korea and the Netherlands) became one of the first teams to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, drawing 0-0 with Qatar in Doha to wrap up qualification without conceding a single goal and with two matches left to play. Australia eventually finished top of Asian Qualifying Group A, with 6 wins and 2 draws from our 8 matches and a full 5 points clear of second-placed Asian powerhouse Japan. The Socceroos’ manager Pim Verbeek demonstrated tremendous strategic and tactical nous and instilled the side with the kind of match-hardness and professionalism needed to successfully navigate a multi-year two-stage qualification process played out in conditions as varied as the desert heat of Tashkent to the February chill of Saitama City. Verbeek, quite rightly, adopted a pragmatic attitude to qualification, prioritising results over aesthetics. Accordingly, he primarily used a defensive 4-2-3-1 formation both home and away, deploying two defensive central midfielders in front of the back four and just the beanpole striker Josh Kennedy up front. This formation was not only well-suited to the nature of the qualification process but the resources Verbeek had at his disposal — whilst he was blessed with an abundance of wealth in midfield, the cupboard up front has been a bit bare since Viduka retired; and, unlike most of the teams they were facing, the Socceroos possessed the tactical discipline (acquired by playing at the highest level in Europe) necessary to effectively utilise the formation.

        Nonetheless, it is hoped that Verbeek, being the rational Dutchman that he is, will modify his tactics to the different demands of tournament play. Put simply, wins are required to progress in tournaments whereas away draws are more than adequate in qualification. The main victim of the defensive 4-2-3-1 formation used during qualification is the very man who could hold the key to our success in South Africa — former Celtic striker Scott McDonald. A classic fox-in-the-box goal poacher, McDonald thrives playing alongside a big target man such as Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink at Celtic. However, during qualification, when selected, he was nearly always required to play alone up front which meant that, despite scoring 65 goals in 126 appearances for Celtic (including crucial strikes against the likes of Manchester United and AC Milan in the Champions League), he has yet to score for the Socceroos. Hopefully, Verbeek will switch to a more offensive 4-4-2 formation in South Africa, with McDonald playing alongside Kennedy up front and a rejuvenated Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton on the wings.

        Fortunately, unlike 2006, our ever-faithful friend the FIFA lottery was kind enough not to place us in the Group of Death; rather, it merely placed us in the Group of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques containing Germany, Ghana and Serbia.



        [1] http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/06/07/1022982768397.html

        [2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZdbW7PSPGk&feature=related

        [3] Steve Waugh, Out of My Comfort Zone: The Autobiography (2005) 24–5.


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