On Sunday the 8th of July the Socceroos will complete the final stage of the 2004 Football Revolution by competing for the first time in the premier football competition this side of the Urals (I would’ve said the Bosphorus but Turkey and indeed Kazakhstan are part of Europe as far as football is concerned), the AFC Asian Cup. Prior to this the Socceroos had squared off against the likes of American Samoa and Kiribati in the Oceania Nations Cup — the victories were many and comfortable but the quality of the opposition was less than impressive, the only serious challenge coming in the form of the All-Whites*.
The Asian Cup is a somewhat weightier competition, featuring World Cup regulars Iran and Japan — teams we have, shall we say a “history” with — alongside 2002 semifinalists South Korea and a bevvy of established and cashed-up teams from West Asia. This years comp also has a unique (as in never to be repeated, sayeth AFC supremos) format with four host nations: Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia.
While on paper Australia’s squad appears second to none, encompassing our full strike and midfield lineup and most of our European ‘A’ players, easy progress is far from assured even in the Group Stage. Thailand, Oman and Iraq aren’t barnstorming up the (admittedly crap) FIFA ranking tables, but none are to be underestimated and each will play to their considerable strengths and push the Socceroos to their limits. As last Sunday’s friendly with Singapore and Sydney FC’s experience in the Champion’s League demonstrated, even low/middle ranked Asian teams can be very dangerous. No doubt the combination of aggressive, counterattacking play and stifling climate has been playing on Graham Arnold and co.’s minds for quite some time; and their rigorous acclimatisation program and training schedule appeared to pay some dividends fitness-wise if nothing else.
However, defensive woes remain. Australa’s leftback drought has been exacerbated by the recent retirement of several defensive players among them left-sided specialist Stan Lazaridis and capable left fullback Tony Vidmar, and the decisions of central defensive lynchpin Craig Moore and leftback Scott Chipperfield to give this one a miss**. Their absence has left the Socceroos backline decidely unsettled, in Singapore neither Patrick Kisnorbo or Michael Beauchamp looked effective paired in the centre with The Man With The $2000 Soul Patch***, and Luke Wilkshire didn’t convince at leftback. This Sydney FC fan suspects that had Alvin Ceccoli stayed on for the ACL campaign he might well have been called up to fill just this gap — his departure to Avispa Fukuoka in the Japanese second division appears to have put him off Arnie’s radar, which is apparently Europe and Australia-focused to the exclusion of anywhere else.
Some pundits have stated that anything other than a finals appearance would be a disgrace, I’m a lot less sanguine — while this isn’t Germany 2006, the conditions are going to be no less trying. Arnie’s Socceroos may find themselves missing the searing oven of Kaiserslauten by the end of their South East Asian sojourn.